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Neighbors nix Ney landscaping plan

Thursday, February 18, 2010 by Laurel Chesky

History, like art, often resides in the eye of the beholder. The question of whose idea of history should guide the restoration of a treasured Austin yard has fueled a growing controversy at the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD).


On Tuesday night, citizens packed the PARD boardroom at 200 South Lamar Blvd. to standing-room-only capacity to discuss the city’s plan to replant the grounds of the Elizabet Ney Museum. A plan, approved by the Texas Historic Commission (THC) and the Austin City Council, calls for repairing the stone home that now houses the museum and restoring the landscape of the surrounding 2.4-acre, city-owned plot in Hyde Park. Ney, an internationally known sculptor, lived in the home and worked in an adjacent studio from 1892 until her death in 1907. The site on East 44th Street, which Ney dubbed “Formosa,” is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Proposed changes to the property’s landscaping sprouted concern among some Hyde Park neighbors and local historic preservation advocates when work began on the property last summer. A $464,479 city capital improvement project – partially funded by a U.S. Department of Interior Save America’s Treasures Grant – calls for returning the museum grounds to a prairie-like state, evoking the site’s original landscape. In keeping with National Register guidelines, project consultants said, the site’s “period of historical significance” spans the time when Ney lived there. The project includes removing many non-native plants, including crape myrtle trees, in favor of native species.


Ney’s preference for a rural, native landscape is well documented. Historic photographs of the site during her residence there depict a yard of tall prairie grasses and wildflowers dotted with native trees and clusters of yucca and agave. A vegetable patch composed the only garden.


However, a latter slice of the site’s history should also be preserved, some Austinites contend. After Ney’s death, a handful of prominent residents – many of them historical figures in their own right – toiled to preserve and improve the site’s landscape. Their efforts, some residents believe, should not be uprooted.


“This (project) would result in the loss of a very unique and commemorative landscape,” said Jenni Minner, a University of Texas student in historic preservation, who gave a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting. “We have a recognizable layer of history from the 1930s that retains its historical integrity.” To dismiss the issue of the site’s post-Ney history, she said, “I believe would be unethical.”


In 1911, the newly formed Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA) took over the estate and turned it into a museum. In the 1930s, the association, in collaboration with Texas garden clubs, retooled the grounds to be more inviting to visitors, planting decorative flower gardens, ornamental plants, and exotic trees, such as the crape myrtles that stand on the site today.


Famed Texas suffragist Jane McCallum, noted landscape architect Jacobus Gubbels, and Clara Driscoll, credited with saving the Alamo from hotel developers, rank among the historical luminaries who helped breathe new life into Ney’s former residence.


“All of these historical figures … would disappear with this landscaping,” said John Paul Moore, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association tree preservation chair.


However, their efforts resulted in a “densification” of the landscaping that conflicts with the “Ney aesthetic,” said Peter Viteretto, a senior associate with Heritage Landscapes, the landscape architecture firm that the city hired to renovate the museum grounds. The native, prairie-like landscaping was “an integral part of her philosophy,” he said.


Nonetheless, in response to public outcry, PARD staff has momentarily scrapped the plan to return the Ney grounds to Texas prairie. Farhad Madani, PARD assistant director, told Tuesday’s meeting goers that staff is recommending that the remaining project funds be reallocated to a non-controversial project – repairing the museum’s roof. City Council, THC, and the Department of the Interior must approve the proposal.


Meanwhile, Madani said, a master plan guiding the Ney renovation and approved by the THC still stands. However, he said, it will likely be revisited through a public city process.


“We’ll have more discussions on the master plan,” Madani said. “We will run it through the boards and commissions. This museum is a citywide issue, not just a Hype Park issue. We need to get the public involved and run it through the process.”


At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, residents sighed with collective relief when Patricia O’Donnell, principal of Heritage Landscapes and a recognized expert in historical landscape preservation, acknowledged that the issue of Formosa’s post-Ney history should be addressed. She joined the meeting via video conference from Paris, France,


“I think the local history that has been unearthed here … is really worthy of thinking about in a number of ways,” she said. The original question proposed to her firm, she said, was how to renovate the site to its “primary” period of historical significance – when Ney lived there. “The exclusion of these secondary values was never intended,” she said. “It shouldn’t be seen in anyone’s mind as the elimination or erasure of history.”

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