Gracy Title, a Stewart Company
Serving Austin for over 135 years
As the first and oldest title company in Central Texas, Gracy Title has flourished for over 135 years as a pioneer in the Texas title industry. Since its beginning in Austin in the late 1800s, it has been carefully tended as a family heirloom by the four families that passed it down through the generations and now by the partnership that stewards it into the future. The company stood fast through countless technological advances, economic depressions, changes in ownership and times of prosperity and growth. With a culture of integrity and courteous service, Gracy Title has earned the lasting respect of the community and industry.
The Beginning: 19th Century
The Gracy story began when the City of Austin was still young. It was a time before automobiles or high-rises towered over the State Capitol. It was a time when a four-room house could be built for $500 just off Congress Avenue. You could walk the Congress thoroughfare on a boarded sidewalk or ride in a horse-drawn carriage to get across town. In 1873, Austin’s 10,000 some-odd citizens were sowing the seeds of something great—building homes, building families, building commerce. It was an exciting time, ripe for an enterprising young man like James Valentine Bergen. His imperative to “go West” and prosper, like so many others in the best pages of our country’s history, paved the way for one of the oldest and most respected pillars of our business community to take root.
James V. Bergen and Company
A surveyor by trade, James V. Bergen left the family homestead in Jamaica, New York at 22, hoping to cure a respiratory ailment. After a stint in the Army Engineering Corps, a short employment at the Pennsylvania oil fields, and some time spent in Long Island and Missouri with his new family, he finally arrived in Austin in 1873, near the end of the Era of Reconstruction. Soon after settling in, he joined George B. Zimpelman, a former Travis County sheriff, in establishing the town’s first abstract and title firm, James. V. Bergen and Company. The office opened in the old courthouse building situated on Courthouse Square between W. 3rd and W. 4th Streets.
This new firm was the first of its kind in Austin, a quickly expanding community with plenty of room to grow. It was up to Bergen and his partner to find and keep records of plots of land in Austin and its surrounding areas, so that prospective buyers could be sure the land had a clear title and that all previous taxes and payments had been taken care of for a proper transfer of ownership. The firm’s services quickly proved invaluable to the growing community. Very soon, James V. Bergen and Company acquired a reputation of thoroughness and dependability. As an item in the Daily Democratic Statesman illustrated, “In regard to titles in this County, J.V. Bergen and Company have full and complete abstracts of all lots, outlots, and subdivisions in Austin City. Their books, plats, and abstracts are approved by leading lawyers in this city.”
Shands, Zimpelman and Bergen
Later in 1874, Colonel Edward. W. Shands joined Bergen and Zimpelman, expanding the business to a general real estate and abstract firm under the name of Shands, Zimpelman and Bergen. Charles W. Daniel, a real estate agent, and Junius H. Daniel, an insurance agent, also came on board, and the business moved to the Cook building at 119 Pecan Street (the northwest corner of Congress and 6th, very near where the Driskill Hotel now stands).
Meanwhile, back in New York, David Bergen Gracy, a tall, thin man of 20, planned to go live with his cousin James V. Bergen in Austin. He arrived in town on December 18, 1880, and by January of 1881, he was working as a clerk and supervisor in his cousin’s abstract company. By 1888, Gracy and his family were doing quite well and purchased what would long be the Gracy family homestead, a lot on Congress and Trinity, for $1,600. In 1886, Zimpelman retired and left James V. Bergen, D. B. Gracy, and the Daniel brothers to run the firm.
Bergen, Daniel, and Gracy Abstract Company
Business prospered through the end of the 19th Century. In 1894, a directory listing the industrial advantages of Austin said of the company, “Those entrusted with the examination of records and the preparation of abstracts should be in possession of complete facilities and should be men of untarnished reputation and of the highest character. Thus we are led to speak of this outstanding firm whose business is a consolidation of all the abstract or title concerns in the city making it today the only institution here that furnishes reliable abstract of title in the county.” The office moved to more spacious quarters at 103 E. Pecan (now East 6th Street) to accommodate the growing volume of work. The firm incorporated in 1895 as Bergen, Daniel, and Gracy Abstract Company and in 1897, acquired the abstract plants of M. S. Dunn and Texas Abstract Company.
The Next Generation: 20th Century
The beginning of a new century continued a prosperous time for the company James V. Bergen built, but also marked a changing of the guard. His grown son, Frank, entered the company as a clerk while the ailing Bergen moved to El Paso, where he died in 1915.
Gracy Title Guaranty Company
David Bergen (D.B.) Gracy partially retired as President of the company in 1918, turning over management to his sons David C. Gracy and John A. Gracy, both law graduates of the University of Texas at Austin. They entered the company as attorneys and as Vice Presidents. The real estate portion of the business was sold to Herman Pressler, and the corporate name was changed to Gracy Title Guaranty Company in 1920 when the company began guaranteeing property titles. The business prospered throughout the 1920s as Austin’s population expanded to 35,000. The Gossip, an old Austin newspaper, published this slogan for the Gracys in 1925: “No title ever guaranteed by Gracy has ever been contested.”
In August of 1927 while visiting family in Long Island, D. B. Gracy passed away suddenly of heart failure. Mayor A. P. Wooldridge published a long write-up in the Austin Statesman, stating that Gracy, who had served as city treasurer, city commissioner, and assisted in the organization of several prominent deposit and loan and mortgage companies in Austin, was “one of the most upright, industrious and careful men I have ever known. In his death Austin has sustained a distinct loss.”
Gracy-Travis County Abstract Company
In 1929, John A. Gracy left the company to go into banking. In 1930, the firm was consolidated with Travis County Abstract and Title Company, and the name changed again to Gracy-Travis County Abstract Company. David C. Gracy was elected President, and the company moved to a brand new building which they shared with Enfield Realty Company at 205 W. 7th Street, setting up one of the most complete abstract plants in Texas.
Austin had boomed from 35,000 to 53,000 citizens in only a decade; however, just when it seemed that the city’s rapid growth would continue exponentially, the Great Depression took its toll. The company had to take over Enfield Realty’s interest in the building in order to keep their facilities, but the building was saved.
The Rattikin Family and Gracy Title
In 1946, David C. Gracy suffered his second heart attack and reluctantly resigned from the business to practice land title and probate law. There was not a Gracy family member available to take the responsibility of ownership and management, so a decision was made to sell the company to Mr. William Jackson (Jack) Rattikin of Rattikin Title in Fort Worth, R.B. Cousins, Jr, and Bernard Merkenthin. Cousins was elected President. In June of that year David C. Gracy died and the Austin Statesman published the following in his obituary: “The Travis County Clerk’s office closed for the services out of respect to Gracy, who for many years headed the Gracy-Travis County Abstract Company, one of the city’s oldest business institutions.”
Gracy Title Company
On December 1, 1947, the board of directors officially changed the name of the firm to Gracy Title Company in honor of its founding family.
Rattikin hired Harry Brandt to run the company in October of 1947. By December, he was named a director and Vice President, at which time William Jackson (Jack) Rattikin was elected President. In 1952, Gracy Title signed a 50-year lease on the Gracy Building at 205 W. 7th Street, owned by Alice Duggan Gracy. The building was completely remodeled by 1954, the same year Gracy Title added a complimentary motorized pick-up and delivery service for paperwork to residents of Austin.
During the forties, before title insurance caught on in popularity, Gracy Title still offered mostly abstracts. The company had lost money steadily since being sold, but began offering complete abstract and title service through the Kansas City Title Insurance Company throughout Texas. The 16-person Gracy Title staff included two attorneys to examine the titles, and the firm began to offer closing assistance at no additional expense to the buyer or seller.
The office was, as always, equipped with a continually updated master map of Austin and its subdivisions, and furnished to the city and county information on all deeds filed for record in Travis County. Gracy Title’s records were so complete, in fact, that the City and historical societies often visited the office to search records lost to the Courthouse in a fire. Records were frequently loaned to help Travis County establish certain properties as historical sites.
Late 20th Century: Bill Thurman
In 1968, William Jackson (Jack) Rattikin passed away. Controlling interest in Gracy Title passed to his daughter and son, Ann Rattikin Thurman and Jack Rattikin, Jr.
Jack Jr. finished his military service and became President of Rattikin Title in Fort Worth, while Ann’s husband Bill, who had worked for Rattikin Title since 1955, moved to Austin to join Gracy Title as Vice President and part owner and to direct the company’s marketing and business development.
On the very day that Bill Thurman arrived in Austin in May of 1971, the company broke ground for construction of a new office building at 7th and Lavaca—a stone’s throw across the street from the Gracy building, which was annexed by the University of Texas via eminent domain. (photo on cover)
In the 1970s, business increased for Gracy Title. Moving to the new building revived the operation. Bill began calling on customers and closing deals. In a bold move, he introduced the escrow fee to Austin, charging $2.50 each to buyers and sellers as a money-handling fee for title transactions. The escrow fee proved immensely successful and is now standard practice for title companies. In another bold move, company President Harry Brandt made title insurance a larger part of Gracy’s transactions. Title insurance provided a better guarantee than abstracts, which were backed by little more than an attorney’s opinion.
In 1973 when Harry Brandt retired, Bill Thurman became President of Gracy Title. He was an active manager who continued to close transactions even after taking the helm. Another big year for Gracy was 1974. Bill, having been named president of both TLTA and ALTA, was named Title Man of the Year by the Texas Land Title Association. He hired Larry Molinare and Gracy opened its first branch office, a first for any title company in Austin. Larry later became Executive Vice President and Manager in 1978. (Larry, who was elected President of the Texas Land Title Association in 1991-1992 and named Title Man of the year by that same association in 1995, would play a significant role in Gracy’s future).
Ups and Downs of the 1980s
The first half of the 1980s was a time of rapid growth and success for Gracy Title and the title industry in Austin. In 1981, Gracy earned an unprecedented $1 million profit. When word spread through the industry, the number of title companies in Austin grew from nine to 18 nearly overnight (As of 2011, there are roughly 30.)
In 1985, Gracy Title helped form a new joint title plant which computerized the title indexing process, speeding up title examination significantly. To keep up with the volume of work, the company had to increase the size of the team quickly, even as home sales were beginning to slow. The majority of new business came from a large increase in refinances which were less profitable than new or resale closings. Because of a booming real estate market in previous years, home prices were already artificially high when, toward the end of 1985, the tax law changed, oil prices dropped, savings and loans began to fail… and the bubble burst.
Gracy Title came dangerously close to going under during the real estate bust of 1986. Company leaders had to make some very hard choices, which included letting go of nearly 50 employees to bring the staff down to 27. Two branches were closed. President Bill Thurman borrowed against his life insurance to make payroll and borrowed money against the building to keep the main office and its two remaining branches open.
Into the 21st Century
After a 26-year tenure with the company, Bill Thurman retired from Gracy Title in 1997. He convinced his son, Toby Thurman, and his right hand manager and Executive Vice President, Larry Molinare, to purchase his controlling interest. Stewart Title helped underwrite the sale. Larry ran the company for several years with Stewart as a minority partner. Toby retired in 1999 and Larry Molinare purchased his interest. In 2003, Stewart made an offer to purchase majority ownership of Gracy Title with Larry remaining as President. In 2006, Donna Simmons was promoted to President and Larry became Chairman of the Board.
Stewart Title’s History in Austin
In 1946, Stewart established a company-owned office in Austin at 904 Lavaca Street as a branch of Stewart Title Texas. Things were difficult in those first years, as title insurance was slow to replace the abstract and attorney’s opinion as a method of evidencing title in Austin.
In June of 1958, Jack Kelly was transferred from his position as State Agency Manager in the Houston home office to run the Austin office of Stewart Title Company, as well as to manage the Austin District for Stewart Title Guaranty Company. As title insurance caught on and began to rapidly replace abstracts and title opinions, the newly remodeled Austin office became one of the leading profit centers of the Stewart organization. In 1965, Stewart ceased making abstracts and focused entirely on title insurance.
The Austin operation continued to prosper and expand, and a new building was constructed at 812 San Antonio Street. Stewart moved in March of 1976 and originally occupied the first floor only. During the 1970s, Stewart continued to build strong builder relationships. Nash Phillips Copus was one of Austin’s largest builder developers and began closing exclusively with Stewart Austin.
In 1977, Tony Alonzi transferred from Houston and assumed the position of Manager of the Austin office as well as Austin District Manager, as Mr. Kelly was scheduled to retire in 1980. Two more successful branches opened during the next five years in the North Austin and Lake Travis areas.
Stewart Title in Austin became a separate corporation, Stewart Title Austin Inc, in 1984. Soon thereafter, Tony Alonzi was promoted to Region E Manager and appointed David Tandy to manage the Austin office. David managed the Austin office during Austin’s boom years and then into the leaner years from1985 to1989, when he left to assume the role as President of Landata Systems, in Houston, a Stewart-owned company. Tony Alonzi managed the company for the next year, and the downtown Austin location was moved to 100 Congress Avenue.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Mark Fehrman was transferred from Dallas to become President of Stewart Title Austin. Mark had six years of experience with Stewart Title in many facets of operations. In 1992, Mark left to manage the title plant in Dallas and Nicki Tyler, a former local real estate banker for 19 years, became President of Stewart Title Austin. In 2002, Nicki was promoted to CEO while Jim Garrison became President and served in that role until 2007. Nicki retired in 2008. With over 25 years of closing experience and service with Stewart Title Austin, Gaye Pierce was promoted to President in 2007. Previously, Gaye was the Branch Manager of the Stewart Title Austin Lake Travis branch, the most profitable branch of the company.
The Stewart-Gracy Merger
The Stewart-Gracy relationship evolved throughout the latter part of the 1990s and 2000s, until 2003 when Stewart offered to purchase Gracy Title from Larry Molinare.
In 2008, the decision was made to merge Gracy Title and Stewart Title Austin. David Tandy joined as CEO of the newly merged company to be called Gracy Title, a Stewart company. Former President Larry Molinare stayed on as Chairman of the Board. Wanda Frederick, who had started with Gracy as a receptionist in 1980 and worked her way up, was appointed President. Gaye Pierce, who began as an escrow assistant for Stewart Title in 1976, became Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer.
The staff of the new Gracy Title is proud of its historic leadership in the title insurance and real estate industries.
Besides the executive officers, many other employees have been with Stewart or Gracy for multiple decades. One of Gracy Title’s first branch managers, Karan Knippa, started with the company in 1973, first working for Harry Brandt, and still manages one of the Gracy’s branches. Other current employees with a long tenure include Cherry Knepley, 36 years; Terri Tessier, 31 years; Pam Freydenfeldt, 30 years; Phyllis Blackwell, 30 years; Cheryl Petersen 28 years; Vicky Wilhelm, 28 years; Bonnie Alexander, 28 years; Hilda Moncivais, 28 years, Desi Ross, 27 years; Phyllis Burdine, 26 years; Dale Johnson, 25 years and Janis Shields, 25 years.
The Gracy Title Legacy
Over the years, Gracy Title has played an integral part in Central Texas’ economic growth. Gracy Title developed over the centuries into a progressive and technologically advanced corporation. Continually focused on exemplary customer service, community involvement and the personal satisfaction of creating teamwork with all parties to the transaction, Gracy Title has set many business and value standards for the title industry in Texas since 1873. The company and its leaders played a prominent role in the evolution of Austin into the city it is today. Gracy Title continues with promise into the 21st century with even greater resources, continued growth, and its signature pioneer spirit.