“The oldest house in town,” the French Legation is one of Austin’s most treasured and utilized historic community assets. From hosting Petanque matches and live music during SXSW, to serving as an attraction for visitors from across the globe (in February 2018, the French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud!) – the Legation is unlike many historic sites in that it is an active part of the community and what makes Austin, Austin. It’s a space that both out-of-town visitors and locals value, not just because of its historic significance but because it serves as a place for people to gather and appreciate what’s happening in contemporary Austin.
The French Legation was built in 1841 as a private home for French chargé d’affaires (diplomat) to the Republic of Texas, Alphonse Dubois, after the French monarch officially recognized the Republic of Texas as a sovereign nation. The house briefly served as the official legation in Texas. By December 1841, the capital moved from Austin back to Houston. Dr. Joseph W. Robertson bought the property in 1848, and he, his wife, and their 11 children and nine enslaved workers lived at the site. The Robertsons’ daughter, Lillie, lived in the home her entire life, and in her later years opened the building to the public, offering tours of what she called the “Old French Embassy.” Following her death, the state of Texas acquired the house, and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) were appointed as the property’s custodian. Under management of the DRT, the house was opened to the public beginning in 1956.
In September of 2017, the Texas Legislature transferred jurisdiction and management of the French Legation, its grounds, and its contents to the Texas Historical Commission (THC), making it one of the Commission’s thirty-two State Historic Sites. When transferred, the house and grounds were in a significant state of disrepair, and the property has remained closed to the public while critical improvements are underway. The THC's Historic Sites Division is responsible for overseeing the construction, including structural stabilization and weatherization of the French Legation house and constructing a new visitors center, kitchen and cafe.
Funding for these improvements has been raised by the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission. The site is expected to be open later this year.
The THC’s vision for the French Legation is as a very active historic site that is as accessible and welcoming to its Austin neighbors as it is to visitors to the city. The site’s history as a diplomatic legation of the Republic of Texas will be expressed in its role as a place that connects people and builds community through educational and leisure programs, performing arts, and as a venue for events like SXSW and the Austin Film Festival that draw visitors from across the globe.
You can donate to the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission to support the preservation and reopening of the French Legation. Visit the Texas Historical Commission's website for more information about the historic site.