Just what is a violet crown?

The color of the hills and sky to the west at sunset has long been described as Austin’s “violet crown.” As it turns out, the phrase “violet crown” has historic ties to the Brentwood and Crestview neighborhoods of Central Austin, too. Its origins go back centuries earlier to Athens, Greece.

In the late 1940s, Dr. Joseph Samuel Koenig and Charles McCullough, developers of Violet Crown Heights, from Payne to Ruth in Brentwood, promoted the subdivision as having “a beautiful view of the Violet Crown Hills.” The area had been farms and prairie, and new residents were only beginning to plant trees on the open land. (The photo, left, was taken on Dartmouth in Crestview, looking west, on the first day of school in 1956. In January 2015, Scott Hopkins called to say the photo is of him and Janet Herron, and his parents built the house at 1516 Dartmouth.)

By 1952, the nearby Violet Crown Shopping Center had been built at Brentwood and Lamar, and it included three businesses—a barber shop, beauty salon, and drug store—with “violet crown” as part of their names. The barber shop later was called Cockrell’s Barber Shop, owned by Tom Cockrell. He retired in 2016 after 60 years as a barber, and Stiles Switch BBQ expanded into the space. Since 2003, Brentwood and Crestview have become the home of the Violet Crown Festival, Violet Crown Community Works, Violet Crown Community Theater, and our Voices of the Violet Crown project. More recently, a number of other Austin-area “violet crown” businesses, organizations, and even a nature trail have been established.

William Cowper Brann (1855-1898), right, possibly was the first writer to use the phrase “violet crown” to describe Austin. Brann was an Illinois native and longtime Texas journalist. He first published his paper, The Iconoclast, in Austin in 1891, when William Sydney Porter, 1862-1910, still worked as a drug clerk, admired Brann’s work, and only dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Later he would be known as O. Henry. Brann’s article “The Garden of the Gods” appeared in Volume I of The Iconoclast and included this description:

. . . Austin’s violet crown bathed in the radiance of the morning or arched with twilight’s dome of fretted gold.

According to the Austin History Center, the phrase also appears in an article published in the Austin Daily Statesman on Wednesday, August 8, 1894.

May 5, 1890, was a memorable day in Austin . . . on that day the citizens of the City of the Violet Crown voted to build a granite dam across the Colorado River.

Later in 1894, O. Henry also used it in the second chapter of his short story “Tictocq: The Great French Detective.”

The drawing-rooms of one of the most magnificent residences in Austin are a blaze of lights . . . The occasion is the entree into society of one of the fairest buds in the City of the Violet Crown . . . Austin society is acknowledged to be the wittiest, the most select and the highest bred to be found southwest of Kansas City.

Both Brann and O. Henry likely were inspired by other, much earlier, authors. The Greek poet Theognis, born 550 B.C., described the purple hue of the evening sky over Hymettus, a mountain near Athens, Greece, as a violet crown. Some have suggested that it was a reference to Ion, a king who was crowned in Athens; the word “ion” in Greek means violet. Over the years, other writers—from Aristophanes (400 B.C.) to Plutarch (100 A.D.) to Disraeli (1844) to Oscar Wilde (1878)—described Athens as the City of the Violet Crown.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Austin would share the designation. More than 100 years later the popularity of “violet crown” continues.

And, people living here continue to see the violet crown at sunset, including Brentwood neighbor David, who wrote this in December 2011:

I have lived in Austin most of 50 years and have always heard about the “Violet Crown.” Just as the sun went down yesterday, I was standing outside, and the sky went purple. I live on Koenig near Woodrow. I probably looked like an idiot staring up at the sky, but it was worth it. You could have knocked me over with one finger. I always thought it was a legend, or folklore, or whatever. It was incredibly beautiful, real, and I saw it. I would say lavender is the closest color to what I saw. I was so bowled over I forgot to take a picture. I ran inside for a camera a few minutes later, but it was gone. It was only visible for 2 or 3 minutes. Amazing.

Read more about the curious connection between “violet crown” and another Brentwood/Crestview icon—Domino the Pighere.

Copyright 2016 Susan Burneson. All rights reserved.

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