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St. John Encampment Commons


Named for the annual gatherings held by the St. John Baptist Association, an African American community who owned the land beginning in the late 19th century, the signature park at the new Austin Community College Highland Campus transformed a former mall parking lot into a crucial open space to support a new generation of Austinites.

The land on which the Highland Campus now sits was used by the St. John Baptist Association to build the St. John Orphan Home and Industrial Institute, the first African American orphanage in the state. The school taught industrial and domestic training as well as the arts and humanities, and the surrounding land was used for agriculture and hosted annual community encampments for the region. After the school fell into disrepair, 81 acres of the site became Austin’s first suburban shopping mall, with much of the land paved to create a sea of parking. When that in turn became defunct, it found a new life once again centered on education and community. From an ecologically dead space dedicated entirely to vehicular use, the park now hosts pollinators, diverse planting, and a wide range of human uses.

Several artful elements are critical to telling the story of the site. The graceful form of the event pavilion, designed by Agenda Architecture, recalls the tented structures of the historic St. John encampments. Offering vital escape from the intense Texas sun, it acts as both a comfortable gathering spot and a unique performance space. The installation of light poles in ACC’s striking purple color celebrates the site’s current purpose and ties this open space to Fontaine Plaza on the other side of campus. And inscribed within the pathways encircling the event lawn is a poem inspired by the site’s history, reinvention, and hope for the future.

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