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HLC plans special meeting to vote on Pharr House

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Historic Landmark Commission has scheduled a special meeting next week to take up the case of a dilapidated house on Highland Avenue that once belonged to Burnett “Blondie” Pharr, the composer of the University of Texas fight song.

There is disagreement over just how long the home has been neglected. New owner Trevor Dallas, who lives in the neighborhood, said the Pharr house has been unoccupied for about 20 years. The Pharr family and neighbors dispute that fact. Neighbors read a letter from widow Marion Pharr in which she wrote that she was heartbroken that the house was not going to be restored.

“The thought of razing it makes me ill,” Marion Pharr wrote. “It would be unthinkable in my eyes.”

Commissioners were more than a little sympathetic. Blondie Pharr was the band director at the University of Texas for almost 20 years. He wrote the UT fight School. He created the Austin Metropolitan Band through the city parks program. On top of that, he was a principal and tennis coach in Smithville after he finished his career in Austin.

Still, when the time came last night, the vote on historic zoning on the 1923 bungalow could not be taken. Two commissioners were absent, making it impossible to get the supermajority to overrule an owner-opposed historic zoning case. That would mean winning six out of seven votes on the HLC.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky had warned the commissioners last month that the cost of restoring the house would be large.

“It has major structural problems. A large portion of it would have to be rebuilt,” Sadowsky said. “However, I still think it has enough historical significance to go and initiate the case. I do think the commission needs to understand the house has serious, serious problems, and restoration of this house may be difficult, if not impossible.”

Dallas argued that the cost of restoration would be somewhere around $280,000, a large price tag to pay for restoring about a 1,000 square feet worth of house and an unfinished basement. Much of the original fabric of the house’s roof, doors and siding would have to be replaced, although Chair Laurie Limbacher noted that restoration could be achieved by closely matching the original materials.

Neighbors from the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association called on HLC to consider voting in a local historic district. Sadowsky, who had been conferring with city legal on the issue, said that was not allowed under the current code.

The only other option to delay the vote was a special called meeting. HLC has 60 days to act on a demolition application. The permit was pulled on May 5. That means the commission needs to act before July 3. After some discussion, commissioners agreed to meet next Monday night at 6pm over at One Texas Center.

Because the public hearing had been closed, the only action item on the agenda next week will be to take a vote, up or down, on the historic landmark designation. If the answer is yes, the house and its owner will begin the process of historic zoning.

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