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Beneath the stucco, one of Austin’s historic treasures

Friday, July 31, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

For every historic house with an owner who insists to the Historic Landmark Commission that the building is simply too far gone to be saved – most recently, the Travis HousePreservation Officers Steve Sadowsky and Susan Villarreal long for a  case where the owner willingly agrees to restore a house to its original beauty.

Such is the case of the Byrne-Reed House at 1412 Rio Grande, where Humanities Texas has taken upon itself a major capital campaign to peel back the stucco shell encasing the house to find the original bricks underneath. Inside and outside, the house is unique, a 1907 home designed by prominent local architect Charles Page and owned by two of the most prominent cotton buyers of the early Austin era, Edmund Byrne and David Reed. Reed served terms on the Austin school board and was on the first Council under the city manager form of government.

In all the years since Reed died in an untimely plane crash in 1948, the house has been divided into office space. That conversion gives the Byrne-Reed house the advantage of never being neglected by an elderly owner or boarded up long enough to be hampered by the mold and mildew that have taken down other homes.

“This is a tremendous project,” Sadowsky told the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night. “One of the benefits of being a preservationist is seeing a project like this. And it makes me really feel good that people are willing to go to the effort and not inconsiderable expense to bring back a house of this quality.”

It’s clear how enraptured Sadowsky was with the house by the way he described its architecture. While it’s difficult to tell it now, the original Byrne-Reed House was a two-and-a-half story stuccoed frame and brick house with a combination of design elements that covered the spectrum from American Foursquare and Romanesque to Italianate and Mission Revival. All of that is hidden beneath a stucco shell that has given the building a type of boxy, and unremarkable, shape.

Early pictures, which grace the Humanities Texas website, show a far more stunning architectural showcase than what is on the ground right now. In the 1970s, the owner encased the building in a tomb of stucco, covering up many of the original features that made the house so distinctive.

In fact, the shell has hampered the house so much that it was not mentioned in the Comprehensive Cultural Resources Survey, despite its central city location and clear value as a potential historic landmark.

Humanities Texas, which bought the house in 2006, is taking a step that is rarely sought for any restoration in Austin. The group, led by Michael Gillette, is seeking historic designation so the Historic Landmark Commission can walk through the preservation project with them, step by step. But even before that time comes, consultants need to pierce the stucco shell in any number of areas to make sure the original material lies beneath.

It is selective demolition and a risk, Sadowsky said. But it is a tremendous show of respect for the applicant to come in and put itself under the city’s thumb in order to create the best preservation project possible, he said. More often than not, the city has had to seek out the buildings in national register districts and put them through the historic landmark process in order to protect Austin’s history.

“There’s no requirement for the applicant to be here, but by starting the historic zoning case now, before the case rises to the level of a certificate of appropriateness, gives us greater input over the way this house is restored,” Sadowsky said. “This is really the way – the best-case scenario – for historic preservation.”

At the end of 2007, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Humanities Texas a $1 million challenge grant for the Byrne-Reed House’s restoration. To receive that money, Humanities Texas must raise $3 million, a task championed by the late Lowell Lebermann and chaired by Joe Krier, who served for 20 years at the helm of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Already, the home is the subject of a historic preservation studio at the University of Texas, as well as educational efforts of Humanities Texas.

Long-time commissioner Daniel Leary noted that many of the Byrne-Reed home’s original porches and terraces still exist. They’re simply encased in stucco. He expressed confidence that the house could be restored.

What lies ahead? Selective demolition of the stucco shell will occur in August, which will be followed by an application for a certificate of appropriateness.

“That’s our best guess,” Sadowsky admitted.

The restoration will not include the property’s carriage house, but only due to limited funding. The commission decided to table a vote on historic restoration until September, when it will be more apparent what is possible on the site.

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