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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Commission unsure whether to designate laborer’s homemade house
Friday, July 13, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
The Historic Landmark Commission has delayed testing their new vernacular designation criteria, and is now taking time to consider whether to proceed with the first test of the new category, or save that test for another house and time.
Vernacular architecture is generally common architecture that is not designed by a professional architect. Instead, it is usually built by carpenters or other craftsmen and reflects local traditions and needs. City code was expanded in August of last year to include it as a new criterion for historical designations.
Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that the house at 2012 South Third Street, built by a Mexican immigrant, is “the very definition of a vernacular structure.”
“This is the first time that we’ve really had a case that qualifies because of its vernacular architecture,” said Sadowsky, who admitted a recent addition to the house was “not good.”
“This could end up being an albatross, as so many of our cases are,” said Sadowsky.
Sadowsky later explained to In Fact Daily that he was concerned with the repercussions of preserving the house against the owners’ wishes.
“We don’t want to preserve something if it means the house is going to end up being vacant. We run that risk every time we take the position that something should be preserved, but the owner does not want to preserve it. The building ends up being empty, and they deteriorate rather quickly when they are empty,” said Sadowsky.
In light of that, the HLC opted to take a few weeks to contemplate what would be a good enough example of vernacular architecture to merit a landmark designation recommendation despite owner opposition.
Alfred Moreno built the house in 1946 with his own two hands, according to family lore. Moreno lived in the house until his death, as did his wife, who died six weeks after her husband.
Moreno moved to Texas from Mexico at the age of 12, working first as a sharecropper then stone worker, brick mason, and carpenter. The house is finished with a stone veneer that showcases his skill.
Sadowsky said that staff felt that the house met both the criteria for vernacular architecture and landmark designation for historical significance.
“Mr. Moreno exemplifies the Mexican worker who came across, settled in Texas, worked in typical Mexican trades, in agriculture, and construction, built his house, and raised his family,” said Sadowsky. “It’s an amazing story, about this house and this family.”
Architect Burton Baldridge, owner of Burton Baldridge Architects, explained that he was unaware of the history of the house. He also expressed concern about an addition to back of the house.
“I don’t even know quite how to describe it,” said Baldridge. “It’s sort of a cracker box bathroom addition that was put on… There’s no insulation, you can see daylight through the walls, and it’s on a concrete slab with a toilet sitting in the middle of the floor.”
Sadowsky referred to the 1967 concrete block addition as a “caveat.”
“I made the joke, perhaps wrongly, that there are portions of this house that look, to some extent, like a scene from Silence of the Lambs,” said Baldridge. “I understand that this is an old house. But this house speaks much more to decay and neglect than it does to its architectural features.”
The commission heeded staff’s advice, postponing their case in a vote of 5-0, with commissioners John Rosato and Dan Leary absent. The postponement will give staff time to research the property further, and give commissioners the opportunity to make a site visit before their next meeting, when the case will be heard again.