How preserving a black Austin music icon’s home helps a woman who was homeless for 9 years

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — He was the first black disc jockey in Texas, a prolific piano player and composer, a preacher — and now Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst’s family home in east Austin is one step closer to being preserved.

Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously Monday night to approve the landmark designation for the home. The Planning Commission then approved its historic zoning Tuesday night. It will now go to City Council next month for a final vote.

Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst broadcasting his radio show and playing piano in two photos at the Texas Music Museum. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Originally built on East Fourth Street, the home now sits on East 21st Street, the result of development in the historically black neighborhoods east of Interstate 35. The commercial real estate group Cielo planned new construction on and around the Fourth Street lot, but wanted to move the historic structure in order to save it.

City Council member Greg Casar knew of a woman, Mary Clark, who’d been homeless for years just a few blocks north. He worked with city agencies, and last year, the company picked up and moved the house up the road and donated it to Clark.

The house she and her husband bought in 1988 burned down in 2011. Clark then moved into a shed on the same East 21st Street lot, with no electricity or running water, where she lived for several years. Then that burned down, too.

“I was homeless for nine years, but I made it,” she said, sitting on the couch in her new living room. “I cried and got on my knees… that’s what I was saying, ‘Lord, thank you! Hallelujah!'”

Dr. Hepcat’s life

Born in Austin in 1913, Albert Lavada Durst spent his formative years in the house on East 4th Street after his parents moved the family there when the structure was built in 1926, according to Historic Landmark Commission records.

His career was born on the block, too: Durst first started playing piano at the Mount Olive Baptist Church across the street, “a focal point of the African-American community in this neighborhood,” the commission writes. “From this church beginning, a major star of the local music scene blossomed and thrived.”

Durst was instrumental in advancing black entertainment in a segregated Austin, bringing neighborhood talent to the Hillside Theater at Zilker Park, among other venues. “While African-Americans could not use Zilker Park or Barton Springs,” the commission notes, “Lavada Durst brought the talent of his community to the greater attention of white Austin at programs throughout the city.”

Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst at a KVET microphone in a photo at the Texas Music Museum. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

He gained widespread prominence on the radio as a baseball announcer and host of the show Rosewood Ramble in the last 1940s. The owners of KVET radio — future Texas Gov. John Connally and Jake Pickle — recruited Durst to become the first black DJ in the state, where he picked up the nickname “Dr. Hepcat” and further developed his trademark “jive talk” style. “He can be credited for introducing an entire generation of white Austin listeners to jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues,” the Texas State Historical Association writes.

“He just did so many things,” said Dr. Clay Shorkey, president of the Texas Music Museum and one of Durst’s good friends until the musician’s death in 1995.

“He was just always willing to help people, super friendly, never forgot who you were,” Shorkey said. “Just the kind of person you want to have as a friend.”

As great a musician as he was a friend, Durst recorded blues albums and wrote gospel songs, including the hit “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” a track recorded by the Austin gospel group Bells of Joy that would become the first gospel album to sell more than a million copies.

“I feel kind of bad that Austin hasn’t done more celebrating the tremendous contributions of so many people,” Shorkey said. “But maybe this is a start, huh? Hopefully we start with Lavada.”

Preserving the Durst family home

“There’s a lot of memories in that house,” Evada Jackson, Durst’s granddaughter and namesake, told KXAN. Growing up splitting her time between two family homes in the neighborhood, “I used to watch him and try to play like him, but it didn’t get that way.”

Jackson said her family has been trying to get the house historic landmark status for years. Monday night’s vote marks a milestone in the effort to preserve the home.

dr hepcat's house
The family home of Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst now sits on East 21st Street after it was moved from East 4th Street. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“He’s not only my grandfather, he’s my friend and he’s a legend,” Jackson said. He “still lives on. We talk about him almost every day here.”

The landmark designation, if it gains final approval, will ensure the house remains intact. Any future owners will need to get permission from the commission to make any changes to the structure, despite the fact that it’s not on the original property any longer.

“It would have been best to preserve it on site,” Steve Sadowsky, Austin’s historic preservation officer, said, adding this is still better than the alternative. “The situation was going to be… move it or lose it completely.”

Mary Clark sits on the couch in her new living room on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

The designation would also give Clark a break on her taxes to help with upkeep of the property. It was in bad shape when it arrived last year, she said, but the real estate company’s work to clean it up and restore it gave her a beautiful home to move back into in late 2019. “They done a beautiful job,” she said.

From the days of sleeping in a shed, of paying people to take baths in their homes, she’s thankful to have her own house once more, complete with a remodeled bathroom.

“It makes me feel like I’m somebody now,” she said. “I am Mary A. Clark. Thank you, Jesus!”

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