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Council approves historic designation for West Austin house

Friday, March 9, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Yesterday, over the vocal objections of Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, a split City Council approved historic landmark status for the McCrummen-Wroe house, a two-story Adamesque-style Colonial Revival located on Windsor Road in West Austin.

Council voted 5-2 in favor of granting the house landmark status, with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Kathie Tovo voting no.

On Feb. 21, Baker expressed serious doubts that the structure was truly deserving of a tax break. Baker said she didn’t think that “any of us in here tonight should be supplementing the taxes on a $2 million residence that is not endangered.” At her behest, ZAP sent the Council a “no recommendation” on the case.

With the Council vote yesterday, the property’s owners are now eligible for the maximum available annual tax abatement of $2,500. However, they must prove that they need the tax break in order to get it. The house is currently appraised at $1.8 million.

According to City Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, the McCrummen-Wroe House is a very rare example of Adamesque Colonial Revival, which is a much more ornate style than simple Colonial Revival.

“It’s very much an east coast style that very rarely made it west to Texas,” Sadowsky said in his defense of the landmark application.

In addition to the home’s architectural value, Sadowsky also held up its historical significance. The house was built in 1935 for Dr. Thomas D. and Elizabeth Wroe McCrummen, and Dr. McCrummen was not merely a doctor, but the city’s first pediatric specialist. In this regard, Sadowsky told the Council, he “represented a much larger trend” in the city.

The McCrummen-Wroe House, for all its significance, has been the subject of some dispute. The Historic Landmark Commission gave the landmark application its unanimous recommendation on Jan. 23, but the Zoning and Platting Commission gave no recommendation at its Feb 21 meeting, stating only the concern that the house is not endangered and tax exemptions for houses of its valuation “will have a detrimental effect on city finances.”

At that meeting, Chair Baker argued that there are “over 1,200 structures” in the property’s Old West Austin National Register District “that would qualify just as easily as this one does for historic zoning.”

Asked whether this second claim was true by Council Member Chris Riley, and whether the city would be “lowering the bar for historic zoning by approving” the application, Sadowsky said that being one of thousands of contributing structures in a historic district and being eligible for landmark status “are two entirely different things.” Contributing structures, he said, have to be merely architecturally compatible, not significant. Nor do they have to be historically significant, despite being part of a historic district.

“There are 1,300 contributing structures in (the Old West Austin) district, but not nearly that number would qualify as a landmark because they don’t have the required significance that we would need to even bring a case forward,” said Sadowsky. “This (home) is a very good example of an architectural style. It also tells a great story of the development of Austin from a small city into a larger city where professionals starting having specialties.”

That argument wasn’t enough for two Council members, though. Cole said she could not support the recommendation primarily because of the comments from the Zoning and Platting Commission. Tovo, agreed, saying the house just did not merit the kind of exemptions and reverence a historic home receives.

“Most often I agree with your assessments, Mr. Sadowsky,” Tovo said, “but we need to hold the structures that come into our landmark program to a very high standard, and in my mind, while it is a beautiful house with an interesting history, it just doesn’t rise to that level.”

There are currently approximately 550 historic landmarks in Austin. That translates to about $4 million in tax exemptions every year.

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