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Historical Society opposes adding space to Governor’s Mansion

Friday, November 20, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Heritage Society of Austin, one of the most proper and restrained groups in the Austin civic scene, has taken the rather unprecedented step of openly opposing a proposed addition to the Texas Governor’s Mansion.

That doesn’t mean the Heritage Society of Austin (HSA) that the group won’t take a stand. However, HSA is thoughtful of about its decisions, and that makes its rather measured vote this week to oppose the addition at the Governor’s Mansion more significant than the typical Austin agitation.

The mansion is current undergoing repairs from a 2008 fire that heavily damaged the 153-year-old Greek Revival structure. No arrests have been made in the case, which was ruled arson by fire investigators.  Prior to the fire, the mansion was being renovated.

“Because of the importance of the Governor’s Mansion, the Heritage Society is not in support of the expansion as is currently being proposed,” President Mandy Dealey said in a statement issued on Thursday. “How we as Texans treat the Mansion sets a standard and sends a signal across our state regarding the inherent value of historic landmarks and preservation of our history. The proposed addition would negatively impact the iconic and symbolic frontal view of the Mansion.”

To see a statement like this out of the Heritage Society indicates the dichotomy of Austin’s historical movement: to be supportive of preservation but also sensitive to the political forces that often occur around such decisions.

Dealey, a member of the Planning Commission and chair of the Waterfront Overlay Task Force, told In Fact Daily on Thursday night the vote was a tough one.

“A lot of our discussion was whether or not we wanted to take a position,” Dealey said. “We recognize the fact that this really lies in the hands of the sate and the state historical commission, but we thought we should respond, somehow, to the proposal.”

The news release Thursday also underlined one of the core concerns the HSA would have in such a case. Austin has only two national historic monuments – the Texas Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion – and a modern addition to either is a red alert.

While preservation and expansion happens – obviously the Capitol now has an extension that is almost two decades old – but the position of the preservationist community would be that the façade and integrity of the original building must be preserved. That’s not necessarily possible when it come to the Governor’s Mansion, given the size and shape of the building and the lack of a significant lot.

That would be the traditional preservationist view. The political reality, however, is that Dealey Herndon, who is in charge of the mansion expansion proposal, is a past president of the HSA, so it’s probably safe to assume that the current board would want to be as diplomatic as possible in its vote, even if it was vehemently opposed and even if members privately expressed concern that donations given to the recent capital campaign would go to expansion rather than restoration.

Contacted this afternoon, Herndon had yet to see the statement from the Heritage Society.

The city and the Heritage Society have no standing to challenge the Texas Historical Commission if it decides to propose an addition to the Governor’s Mansion. And, yet, the HSA chose to oppose the expansion with a vote of the board this week. HSA would not go on the record in this case unless it had some significant concerns.

“We know we don’t have a say in this,” Dealey said. “We don’t know if it will make any difference or not, but we felt that it was important for the historic preservation community in Austin to go on the record supporting full restoration.”

Prompted, Dealey did add that “full restoration” does mean “no additions.” And Dealey is quick to add that the Governor’s Mansion is an excellent candidate to be fully restored to its original splendor, adding she has seen significant preservation efforts on other sites that have yielded landmarked properties.

If the Governor’s Mansion addition had gone before the Historic Landmark Commission, like any other city case, however, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion the expansion would have been rejected. That’s consistent with HLC philosophy, current or past, whether the board has been conservative or moderate. And, it’s likely, the City Council would have voted to back that recommendation.

In the case of historic properties within the city, the general disposition of cases is that additions are acceptable if they can’t be seen from the street. In other words, an addition can work at the Pease Mansion, built on a much larger lot, but would be much harder to justify on the lot on which the Governor’s Mansion sits.

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