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Historic designation case pits owner against commission

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Murray-Hatfield House on 32nd Street plays a tune that has become familiar to the Historic Landmark Commission. It pits an owner who considers the costs of restoration and repair to be too high against neighborhood activists who want to save the house by imposing local historic designation on it.

In this case, the current owners are actually preservationists themselves. They bought the house to avoid seeing it turned into a stealth dorm. But when Steve and Jill Wilkinson took a good look at the house, the couple decided the cost of renovation exceeded the benefits.

In his testimony before the commission, Steve Wilkinson clearly was torn by the decision, especially given Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky’s enthusiastic support of a landmark designation on the house. The house was associated with an early Austin physician, Dr. RV Murray. And Thomas Hatfield, a key figure in the creation of the Austin Community College System, had lived in the house, but only for seven years.

But Hatfield lived in several other homes; in fact he willingly left his Aldridge Place home to move to West Austin. Two other homes he owned in the neighborhood – including a more stellar one built in 1914 – currently are functioning as group homes, Wilkinson said. One was featured in the book, The Violet Crown.

“I don’t think of [the Murray-Hatfield home] as a landmark house,” said Wilkinson, who has preserved a number of homes in the Aldridge Place neighborhood. “If we thought this truly were a landmark home, I think we would make every effort to preserve it.”

Sadowsky, however, disagreed. He noted that most of the current home is the original 1922 material and design, minus the front porch. While Sadowsky acknowledged the contributions of the Wilkinsons to preserve the neighborhood, he also admitted he could not avoid recommending historic designation of a house that had both its original material and a clear tie to an important figure in Austin’s history.

Wilkinson had an impressive array of neighbors who were willing to support his demolition permit. In fact, a neighborhood meeting dominated by Aldridge Place residents voted in favor of demolishing the house. In essence, for the Wilkinsons, it was a lesson of “no good deed goes unpunished.” They had purchased the house to save themselves and the neighborhood from unruly tenants, and now they were forced to preserve it.

Neighbor Kimberly Renner, a contractor with 15 years of experience and three houses under renovation in the Aldridge Place neighborhood, said she took the question of the demolition seriously. Most neighbors in Aldridge Place did. Yet she could see no good reason to restore the Murray-Hatfield House, given its condition.

“I’ve rebuilt plenty of foundations. Poor conditions and drainage issues do not scare me,” Renner said. “The drainage and moisture issues at this house, however, make it almost impossible to restore. You’d have to lift it out of the ground and put in 15-foot piers.”

Renner listed a number of other issues with the house: a brick façade porch with no foundation underneath it; a roof that is failing and would be unlikely to carry even the shingles; and the worry that most of the windows and doors would be unable to survive the torque if the house was raised to restore its integrity.

Architect Robert Taylor, the lead speaker in favor of historic landmark designation, said he had not examined the house closely, but it appeared to have more integrity than what Renner described. Since Sadowsky had failed to put the engineering report in the commission’s back-up material, it was impossible to know just who was right.

Commissioner Patti Hansen said it really did come down to the contractor (Renner) versus the architect (Taylor). Since Sadowsky did not have the expertise to review the site, Hansen recommended support for a staff recommendation for historic zoning. Terri Myers seconded the motion. Chair Lisa Limbacher recused herself from the vote, given her home was so close to the property.

Myers said it was important to take a long view. “As Joe said, when it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Myers said. “To see this building up for a demolition permit surprises me. It dismays me that a neighborhood would propose that an actual historic building be demolished.”

Commissioner Daniel Leary, a long-time supporter of historic preservation, agreed. The Wilkinsons had proposed using the lot of the Murray-Hatfield house as a side yard to their property next door. That answer did not please commissioners.

“There’s simply no guarantee what would come in its place,” said Leary of the demolition. “I really am surprised that one would come forward with such a request. In my opinion, it’s just not an appropriate decision. It’s our job to support the historic fabric in the City of Austin when it can be saved. And when it comes to this site, I believe it can be saved.”

The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to recommend historic landmark designation. The recommendation now will be forwarded to the Planning Commission and Council for consideration.

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