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Commission deems dilapidated Travis House historic

Monday, May 4, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

The Travis House, a 1946-era multi-family house on Guadalupe Street, was preserved for the time being by a unanimous ruling from the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday. The three-story brick building has been abandoned for several years and has been a magnet for drug use, homeless itinerants and sporadic arson attempts. Despite these issues, the HLC members said they had to vote on the merits of the building, not the current inglorious status.


City staff had recommended that the building be preserved despite the application filed on behalf of the owners seeking a demolition permit for the structure. Gary Hamilton with Juno Development in Dallas was among several who spoke in favor of the demolition. His firm would be conducting the actual demo work. Hamilton told commissioners that a partial demo would add a substantial cost to the owners and opined that the property was, “not worthy of the designation being proposed.”


Hamilton said Juno acts as the owner’s representative and said that the owners “have no desire to renovate this building. We certainly don’t have the desire to expend the funds to protect this building from outside elements that for whatever reason attempt to get inside.” He told the commissioners “we were contacted by the (Travis County District Attorney’s Office) expressing their concerns over this building… and asked us to do something about the building. As a result of that we are attempting to obtain a demolition permit.” Hamilton said his company has been involved in several historic renovation projects, but that this building didn’t make economic or historic sense to restore.


“It would be a mischaracterization to say that the DA’s office is in favor of any particular action,” said Assistant DA David Laibovitz. “What the DA’s office is in favor of is weeding crime from the Travis House,” he said. “There’s been lots of drug activity, there’s people living like squatters… there’s all kinds of illegal activity going on there.”


Laibovitz handles nuisance abatement cases city-wide. Whether or not the building is designated historic or is demolished, he said, “I’m not involved in that, I just have an interest in seeing that the crime goes away.”


Architect Eric Van Hyfte gave the commission a detailed presentation of the architectural elements of the building, essentially pointing out that although it did contain some components of neo-Colonialism, it also had several other “random” elements of different styles that he said diminished the historic value of the architecture.


James Ruiz, an attorney also representing the owners said that the Downtown Austin Alliance supported the demolition permit. Other citizens complained about the crime. Susan Mentor, the property manager for the last few years said, she is “in fear for my tenants – and have had a call that someone was jumped from the Dog and Duck and they thought the assailants were from the Travis House.”


However two concerned citizens seemed to present a compelling case for preservation in the commissioners’ eyes. Ora Houston spoke in defense of the Travis House’s previous life as the YWCA, “There is some historical significance aside from the architecture. Historically, the Y was the only place African-American students of UT could stay at. Sometimes it’s not for style; it’s for what happened inside.” Mike Wachs seconded Houston and said the problems of the Travis House aren’t the fault of its style. “It’s because it’s been vacant a while.”


Vice Chair John Rosato reminded the applicant that the commission is charged with evaluating the significance of the building not the effects of its abandonment.


Commissioner Terri Myers said the building is, “almost a prototype of what came later,” adding that she thinks, “it could be a great adaptive use project.” Commissioners voted unanimously to deny the demolition permit.

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