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Landmark Commission sees history in artistic South Austin home

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Historic Landmark Commission – lacking its chair and any owner-contested cases – made quick work of this week’s agenda, including the recommendation to initiate historic landmark cases on one house and approve historic zoning on two other homes with the support of the owners.


The commission deferred owner-opposed cases on last night’s agenda to a special-called meeting on Oct. 6 because it lacked a super-majority in attendance. One of the cases was the one-time Texas School for the Blind, Deaf and Orphans in East Austin. Historical Anthropologist Fred McGhee, who also happens to be the president of the Austin Black Democrats, said he was not opposed to the demolition of the building but wanted its historical importance properly documented.


The commission, chaired by John Rosato Monday night, initiated historic zoning on the house referred to as Casa Neverlandia, on West Milton Street. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said Casa Neverlandia would be only the second house preserved as a historic landmark, if approved, because of its artistic value.


Kay Pils, who detailed the house’s history with partner James Talbot, said it was important to preserve the structures of the old freedman’s town off South Congress before they were all replaced with glass and concrete structures that failed to reflect the long history of the neighborhood.


Much of the original structure of Casa Neverlandia – a 1917 board-on-board bungalow –now is difficult to see. Talbot added art details after he moved into the house in pre-gentrification 1979, as only the second white person on a block owned mostly by black and Hispanic families. Talbot, a trained architect, used the house as a showplace for mixed-media art and decorative stonework, which he duplicated in businesses around the city.


The commission agreed to initiate historic zoning on the case. The two houses that were recommended for historic zoning were completely different from each other.


One 1938-circa house, on Harris Avenue in Pemberton Heights, was notable because it was designed by the architects that built many of the houses in University Park, the wealthy upscale town surrounded by Dallas.  The house represents the only residential structure in Austin associated with Olin Scurlock.


While originally built by a young widow, the house on Harris Avenue also was associated with the son of the man who operated the leading dry goods store on Congress Avenue, McKean Eilers Co.


The Harris Avenue house was a traditional ranch-style home. The other house approved for landmark designation was on the other end of the spectrum. The unconventional Woody House on Bouldin Avenue is a stucco and brick structure associated with Connie Moore for more than a decade. Moore ran the Herb Bar and promoted sustainable living. She now lives in Hawaii.


Sadowsky said the bungalow, dubbed the Woody House, exemplified many of the finer aspects of the arts and crafts movement of the 1930s. It has, for example, the irregular “weeping mortar” approach to its chimney, a rarely seen architectural touch in Austin, Sadowsky said.


Judge Stephen Yelonofsky and wife Jill McRae now live in the Woody House. The “Woody” in Woody House refers to the house’s long-time owner John Woody, who served as the city’s fire chief during the city’s exponential growth and modernized the fire department and its services, Sadowsky said.


The commission unanimously recommended landmark status on both homes.

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