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Historic Landmark Commission seeks to block demolition of frat house

Monday, July 9, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission, dismayed that the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta planned to tear down an iconic campus neighborhood house, has voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning to block the razing. 


The Leroy Brown house, at 2707 Hemphill Park, sits just north of the Phi Gamma Delta’s “Buen Retiro” chapter house, which has been a Registered Texas Landmark since 1972.


The fraternity purchased the smaller house in 1998, but now requests a demolition permit so that they can build a new structure that can better serve their needs.


Attorney John Donisi, representing the fraternity, said that they did not believe the building meets city criteria for historic zoning, and efforts to make the structure work in support of the main house have not been fruitful. Donisi is a member of the Winstead firm and is a former president of the Heritage Society of Austin.


“This is not a new endeavor, this has been 15 years in the works. Despite the 15-year effort, the configuration of the structure severely constrains its use, and redevelopment options to further the useful life of Buen Retiro necessitate its demolition or removal,” Donisi said.


The brick Dutch colonial revival house was built in 1915 for UT Physics Professor S. Leroy and Josephine Brown, who lived there until their deaths. Brown is perhaps best known for establishing the original KUT radio station, which in 1915 began broadcasting weather and crop reports from the physics lab on the UT campus and, during World War I, the university operated Brown’s equipment to broadcast reports using the call letters KUT, according to the Texas Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online. Brown also designed a high-speed mechanical calculator that “served as a precedent for digital computers,” according to city staff.


The architecture of the Leroy Brown house is distinctive — especially the shaped parapet on the front of the building. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the building has been a landmark in the university-area for generations.


Commissioner Terri Myers agreed, saying, “I think that there has to be some way for them to grow without devouring the little Leroy Brown house that really and truly is a physical landmark to me, and has been for the 22 years that I’ve lived here. I’ve always thought that it was a really unique and really special little building. And I don’t think it should be sacrificed for the fraternity. I think the fraternity can be more creative.”


Donisi told the commission that the planned replacement structure would have 20 bedrooms, including a housemother suite; three study lounges, a 2,000-square-foot event room, 7,000 square feet of outdoor deck, and two levels of underground parking.


Current Housemother Sue Raymond told the commission that the new building was necessary.


“In a perfect world, I wish we could keep it all … but there isn’t the space or the way to do it,” said Raymond. “As the University grows, so does the house and the number of people…The historic landmark is taking a huge amount of stress from the numbers, at this point, of young men coming through the house.”


Phi Gamma Delta’s Michael Cotton explained that the fraternity has “grown a lot recently,” and while the wear and tear from pledge classes in the past – which once were about 30 people – was tolerable, the current pledge classes of about 50 people put too much of a strain on the main house.


The Historic Landmark Commission voted 5-0 to initiate historic zoning, which puts demolition plans on hold for the time being. Commissioners John Rosato and Dan Leary were absent.


Commissioner Mary Jo Galindo said that while the architecture itself was significant at a local level, the history of its owner was “a state, if not national, level of significance.”

“We don’t often have both of those things going on. I would really like to press for historic zoning on this,” Galindo said.

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