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Split vote adds another chapter to city’s historic landmark debate

Monday, February 14, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

As city staff continues to prepare recommendations for a revised historic landmark ordinance, a split vote on a historic-designation application at Thursday’s Council meeting highlighted just how divisive the debate can be.


The property in question, the Fitzgerald-Power-Lynn House, is just the kind of home to inspire disagreement among Council members. Built in 1928, it satisfies the 50-year age requirement for historic designation, but the question of its architectural and historical significance wasn’t quite so easily resolved.


According to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, the house is architecturally important not for exemplifying a particular structural style but because it incorporates a multitude of influences and historical styles. The home, he said, has elements of Tudor revival, French Eclectic, Romantic, and English country cottage. Some call such a blend Medieval Revival. In Los Angeles, apparently, they call it Storybook.


“It is one of the very few examples of Medieval Revival in the city,” Sadowsky said.


Council Member Randi Shade expressed confusion over calling a building composed of a “catch-all of different styles” architecturally significant


“It’s kind of not-quite-this, not-quite-that; that’s what makes it unique?” she asked.


Other Council members, however, agreed with Sadowsky’s assessment. Council Member Laura Morrison said the home is “significant because it’s singular in style.” Council Member Bill Spelman, meanwhile, applauded the home for being a stylistic “anchor” for its neighborhood.


“The house is drop-dead gorgeous and I think it would be a mistake for it to disappear,” Spelman said. “And one of the reasons we have (historic landmark designation) is to put a label on monuments, but part of the reason we have this is to put a label on anchors for neighborhoods, to ensure that the kind of housing which gives a neighborhood a look and feel and a character and ensures a quality of life for the people who live around it stays put.”


The question of the property’s historical significance also divided Council.


According to Sadowsky, the home has “a number of very prominent and significant folks associated with it.” They include Dr. James Fitzgerald, former dean of the UT business school and founder of the Bureau of Business Research; Harry Power, who taught petroleum engineering at UT in the 1930s and was one of the country’s first petroleum engineers; and Etelka Lynn, who was a leader in women’s education, sociology, and physical education. Sadowsky called her a “pioneer in a new field.”


Lynn’s achievements, in particular, impressed Morrison. “I’m especially taken by Miss Lynn’s biography,” she said. “I think that … her promoting physical education for women, that’s really reflective of a societal shift. And to have a pioneer marked and remembered in our history in that regard is very important.”


But Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he would not be voting to approve the application because despite several prominent Austinites having lived in the home, no historic ones had. “It’s a beautiful house but it’s not a monument-type house,” he said. “If we zone this house historic, we’d be zoning every house in Austin that’s over 50, 75 years old historic.”


After Spelman moved to approve the applicant’s request, Council voted 3-3, with Spelman, Morrison, and Chris Riley voting in favor and Leffingwell, Shade, and Sheryl Cole voting against. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez was absent. The tie vote meant that the applicant’s request was denied.


After the vote, Shade told In Fact Daily that she hopes the new historic landmark ordinance will draw clearer lines so that subjectivity will play less of a role in determining historical significance.


“When you’re talking about something like the significance of historic association, there’s a lot of room for perspective,” Shade said. “I’m not suggesting that the bar is so high that it has to be a household name, but I think that we can’t possibly designate every 50-plus-year-old-home historic based on an outstanding University of Texas professor or outstanding local merchant having lived there. UT has a process for recognizing those that reach a certain level of significance: They name rooms and buildings after people.”


Shade said that without a firm definition of “significant historic association,” it is possible to imagine a scenario where Austin could see its entire tax base eroded.


“Every citizen in Austin is chipping in to support every house we take off the tax rolls this way, so I think it requires some judiciousness on our part,” she said.

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