Texas Monthly: In New Austin, Accommodating the Broken Spoke Honkey-Tonk

January 13th, 2013

Matthew Mahon for The Texas Tribune

The Broken Spoke, built in 1964, sits unscathed during the construction of the 704 project.

Old Austin clashes with New Austin nearly every day, causing much worry among the city’s natives: Will these new condos and luxury hotels rub out everything that makes their weird city great? Will the shows for hipster musicians dry up? Is $ 10 guacamole really worth it?

The anguish is not new. A generation of Austinites has unsuccessfully battled against losing iconic institutions like the Armadillo World Headquarters, Liberty Lunch and Las Manitas — all razed to make way for New Austin. But one developer is trying to prove that the old and new can cohabit.

For the last eight months, the developer, Transwestern, has been overhauling a seven-acre plot in South Austin. The area is a mess: bulldozers and excavators sit among tall piles of dirt and rock; 20-foot-high concrete piers jut out of the ground; and a jagged eight-foot trench is framed by hundreds of feet of orange-and-white highway barriers lining the road’s shoulder.

At the center of this chaotic scene sits an old, squat red building, dwarfed by pipes and slabs, looking like the last proud holdout in a world gone mad. This is the Broken Spoke, and it is arguably the greatest honky-tonk of all time. The Spoke, which was built by James White in 1964, has hosted everyone from Bob Wills and Willie Nelson to an unknown George Strait. It attracts tourists from Japan and England and celebrities from Hollywood. They gawk and drink and dance at the most famous club in a city that bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World.

And now, Transwestern is trying to save it while surrounding it with its own version of New Austin, the 704. The $ 60 million complex (named after the area’s ZIP code, 78704) will have 385 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space in two five-story buildings flanking the Spoke. It will feature a fitness center, a yoga studio and a bocce court.

Ty Puckett, Transwestern’s executive vice president of development, used to go to the Spoke when he attended the University of Texas. “I’ve been here 40 years and I’ve seen too many great spots that made Austin Austin get torn down,” he said.

So he worked with the company to preserve it, giving Mr. White a 10-year lease (with renewal options), paying for valet parking to make up for the spaces lost to the construction, and even fixing up the old Texas Top Hands tour bus that has been outside the club since the 1970s.

Transwestern also designed the 704 to fit the Spoke’s aesthetic. “We’re integrating design features, like vintage signs, to keep it rustic, keep the down-home South Austin feel,” Mr. Puckett said. “Our goal is to make the Spoke feel like an integrated part of the project.”

Drivers on South Lamar Boulevard who look at the construction must think there is no way the Spoke can survive. Mr. White, 73, is not so sure.

“We’re like the Alamo,” he said. “There are a lot of tall buildings around it, too, but when you open the door and go inside, you don’t see them — you say, ‘I’m in the Alamo.’ When you open the door here, you think, ‘I’m in the best honky-tonk in Texas.’ ”

The Spoke has not changed much in 48 years. Patrons still eat chicken fried steak on gingham-covered tables and two-step on an ancient pine floor to performers like the Derailers and Dale Watson. The ceiling, which in places is so low that some men have to doff their cowboy hats, is patched together with warped tiles, particle board, plywood and corrugated metal.

The stage’s art is a Texas flag and a mural of a cowboy singing to a horse. The waitresses look like characters from Tammy Wynette songs.

“When you step on the floor, you’re part of something much bigger than just another night out two-stepping,” said Margaret Shaw, a regular. “I don’t know if he meant to, but Mr. White created something magical, almost spiritual. It’s like going to church.”

Mr. White is there most nights, dressed in jeans and a cowboy shirt and hat, stamping hands and talking to people. He thanks them for coming — the crowd is smaller these days, about 50 to 100 fewer patrons than the 300 to 400 who generally showed up on weekends, because there are so few places to park.

Mr. White is confident that if he can tough out the next seven months (the north apartments are set to take tenants in August), he will have a new clientele. But he has no intention of changing the place to fit the new development. The Spoke turns 50 next year, a few months after Mr. White turns 75, and when he is ready, he will hand it over to his daughters, and then their children. The Spoke, he said, is not going anywhere.

“When I built the Spoke in 1964, it was surrounded by fields,” he said. “I worked 16 hours a day, and I never thought I wouldn’t make it. I figured, give the people cold beer, good food at reasonable prices and a good time — and you’re going to make it.

“I feel the same today. I’m not leaving. I’m going to make it.”

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