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HLC backs historic zoning for Southerland House

Monday, August 4, 2008 by Austin Monitor

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Despite significant onsite demolition and objections from the owners, the Historic Landmark Commission recommended last week that the West Austin home of the founder of the state’s first registered architectural firm be zoned historic.

Louis Southerland’s home is not simply historic but uber-historic according to criteria that have been set out by Austin City Council. The home, built in 1948, was in the Southerland family for 58 years. Southerland was a principal in the state’s first registered architecture firm of Page Southerland Page (PSP). And many of Austin’s most high-profile buildings – from its major hospitals to McCallum High School to the Texas Supreme Court Building – were PSP projects.

This was the home of the man who designed the first housing project for Lyndon Baines Johnsons’s New Society, a project that still stands today.

There seems to be no dispute that the home itself, designed by Southerland, is significant in its own right. The home at 2802 Robb’s Run was an example of Southerland’s distinctive International style, which was carried through in many PSP projects.

The only homes or commercial buildings likely deemed more historic than Southerland’s former home – and the Historic Landmark Commission doesn’t put a premium on one type of historic building over another – would be those tied directly to historical events in Austin’s history.

Son Robb Southerland – Robb being the Robb of Robb’s Run – sold the home in 2006. It was with some emotion he told the Historic Landmark Commission he never would have sold the house knowing that significant demolition would occur.

But demolition has occurred. Attorney Richard Suttle, who is representing the current owners, blamed the problems on a combination of prior owner error and a demolition job gone bad when a contractor attempted to remove an indoor pool – designed by Southerland – and just kept on going. 

Suttle argued that current owners, Lauri and Kurt Hoff, were the victims of misfortune. At this point, the house is without many of its original elements. Brick has been removed. Windows and the roof have been replaced. An illegal demolition has gutted the first floor. A second-floor addition is being added in the back.

Suttle provided the Historic Landmark Commission with a slide show of the existing structure. Suttle, who lives in the neighborhood,  visited the Hoff’s house during the pool demolition out of curiosity. He said the pool was removed and then “the contractor got a little enthusiastic.”

“Should somebody be punished for the demolition of this house?” Suttle hypothetically asked, and then answered his own question. “Probably, but the illegal demolition was done a step before the Hoffs owned it.”

In this case, Suttle’s argument against zoning the home historic did not sway city staff. As was noted in the case documentation, the demolition contractor saved much of the original brickwork and window frames. The second-floor addition was approved, noted Historic Preservation Planner Susan Villarreal, because it was not visible from the front of the home. City staff has used that policy to allow reasonable expansion while preserving the home’s historic character, she said.

Owner Kurt Hoff told the Commission that the demolition company had pulled the permit and acted on its own when it demolished so much of the house’s back end.

“There was certainly not any urging or influence applied to them,” Hoff said. “We don’t support that. We think the rules should be followed.”

Hoff said he had no intention of subdividing the lot. Earlier buyers might have considered two lots on the one-acre parcel, but he intended only one modest single-family home on the wooded lot.

Blame or purpose, however, was not top in the minds of commissioners. Instead, the commissioners wanted to know whether there was enough of the original material left in the house to declare it historic. The answer from city staff was “yes.”

Robb Southerland said the neighborhood had been robbed of an important historic structure.

“I don’t know if anything can be done to restore it at this stage of the game, but I hope we all learned something from this,” Southerland said. “How does someone get a permit to demo a pool, and then continue on, unabated, until one of the neighbors calls the city and the city goes out there to find out what’s going on?”

Southerland called the whole situation a nightmare.

“If I knew what other people were going to do, I would have donated it to the city,” said Southerland of the house, which is on the tax rolls for $1.2 million.

Commissioners supported a recommendation of historic zoning to Council. Commissioner Timothy Cuppett, who made the motion, said the property was an integral part of the neighborhood and much of it could be restored, albeit at the owner’s cost. His colleagues agreed, and the commission voted unanimously to send a recommendation of historic zoning on to Council.

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