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Historic Landmark Commission recommends saving Travis House

Thursday, July 30, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis House – a hotel-turned YWCA-turned halfway house-turned urban eyesore– is the kind of building in Downtown Austin that inspires a kind of love-hate relationship with those who know it.

Older Austin residents appreciate it for its history. Younger ones see nothing but blight and brick when they gaze at the abandoned structure on West 18th Street just south of the University of Texas campus.

And to the current owners, Travis House is a nuisance and a problem, a site that often has drawn the ire of city code inspectors. To demolish it now would be easier than facing the city in court. In fact, it was the threat of city code violations that drew the developer to file for a demolition permit, back in February, to finally, once and for all, rid the site of its vagrant problem. That, in turn, led to the Historic Landmark Commission’s filing of a historic zoning case back in April, which they approved at their last meeting.

There are people who are passionate about saving the building. The history of the Travis House, built in 1945, is not told often, so it’s hard for those newer to the city to remember the role this boarded-up squatters village once played as the city’s original YWCA. The YWCA was affiliated with the University of Texas, and was one of the few places young African-American women could board if they intended to pursue a degree at UT when the city was still segregated.

The three-story colonial brick building now symbolizes downtown blight more than the storied history of Austin in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But some residents are hoping to save the Travis House.

“It is so important to maintain a semblance of the history of what the YWCA has done in our community,” Ora Houston told the Historic Landmark Commission. “I went to the Y, both as a young kid and as an older adult. There was no other place in this community for me to do that. I would hope that we could find innovative and creative ways to salvage the front part of the building, at the least, so people long after we all live know some of what happened at the YWCA.”

The YMCA site may belong to someone else now, but Diana Gorham of the YWCA of Greater Austin said the building on the site would always symbolize the fight for equality between genders and among races in Austin.

Unfortunately, the original YWCA – the one that owned the Travis House site and opened its doors to young women of every race and creed – went bankrupt before it could merge with another chapter. The building slipped out of non-profit hands.

“I do want to let you know that we have always been about not only the empowerment of women but also racial justice,” Gorham said. “The desegregation of UT was one of our main purposes. And, even to this day, racial justice is critical to us and absolutely identifies us in this community.”

The nobility of its history, however, often is countered by current reality. Bill Brice of the Downtown Austin Alliance urged support for the demolition request. Provisions in state law already allow the state to pursue demolition of nuisance structures.

“In this case, what we have here is a blighted property, a nuisance property, one that I have worked on with police and fire and the district attorney for a long time,” Price said. “You have drug dealing and drug taking on this site on an almost daily basis. We probably spend thousands each year to clean the graffiti off the backside of this building – the side you can’t seen in these pictures – but I won’t put a crew on the roof over the back of the building anymore because it’s not safe.”

Interior views of the structure, provided by the owner, a Dallas-based consortium, showed lead and asbestos contamination; a flooded basement; a failure to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act; extensive graffiti in the building; and the need for mold remediation, along with the need to replace many of the original features of the building, such as doors, windows, roof and signage. The new owners predict a price tag for renovation between $6 and $7 million.

The Historic Landmark Commission, however, did not consider the price tag on renovation. As Chair Laurie Limbacher told the audience, the HLC has the duty to consider the historic merits of the building, and this building had many.

“We have the easy decision,” Limbacher noted. “We have a very narrow part of the question. ‘Does it or does it not meet the criteria for historic designation?’ The other issues that are raised are beyond what this commission considers.”

The motion approved by HLC was to preserve the original building and 1956 addition. That would offer the back third of the property for new development. That motion was approved on a unanimous vote The recommendation will be forwarded to Council. The property does have DMU zoning.

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