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Landmark Commission postpones home demolition for planned historic park

Monday, July 1, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, the Historic Landmark Commission put a hold on the demolition of a block of houses in East Austin that stand in the way of a proposed Daughters of the Republic of Texas project.


City staff is recommending relocation over demolition for the four houses, and with a unanimous vote to postpone the case, the Historic Landmark Commission is hoping that is what will happen at 810, 812, 814, and 816 San Marcos Street.


The commission voted 4-0 to postpone the case until their July 22 meeting. Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioners Dan Leary and John Rosato were absent.


Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the history of the houses track development patterns of the area.


“Despite the fact that they are not architecturally pretty, they really do represent a really important aspect of Austin’s history, in the way that the city developed, and the way that different racial and ethnic groups settled in the city,” said Sadowsky. “Staff does not believe that this house qualifies as a landmark, but would definitely like to see more consideration towards its preservation than the current application for demolition.


Perhaps ironically, the demolition of the four houses will allow the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to build what the Historic Landmark Commission feared would be a “Disney-fied” version of Austin’s history, as part of an extension of the French Legation.


Current designs for the Republic Village at the French Legation are reminiscent of Fredericksburg’s Sunday Houses. Dick Rathgeber, with the DRC, explained that the idea behind the project is to attract visitors and schoolchildren interested in seeing how Texans in the 1850s lived, similar to Colonial Williamsburg. He said they weren’t sure of the availability of actual houses from the time period so instead were going to “build new to look old.”


“I actually kind of like this project,” said Commissioner Leslie Wolfenden Guidry. “The thing that makes me uncomfortable is that you’re recreating history. You’re making a Disney World.”


Commissioner Terri Meyers explained that the Sunday Houses, though nearby, were not an accurate depiction of Austin at that time.


“This isn’t something that would be seen in Austin in 1850 in any way, shape or form,” said Meyers. “I would think that there would be more authenticity if you had actual historic buildings there. But, of course, they aren’t from that time period. If you wanted to portray houses from that time period they would be log houses.”


“It creates confusion,” added Wolfenden Guidry.


Rathgeber said he would be open to changing the design of the Republic Village, saying plans were not set in stone. He said he would be open to input from the commission, as well as relocating the houses, as is staff’s recommendation.


“They represent the development and progression of development on the east side,” said Sadowsky. “Staff believes these houses represent too much to go to a landfill, and really should be reconsidered and reused, if not on this site, than another.”


“I think it’s worth exploring to see if we can actually do the right thing by these houses and yet not get in the way of the Daughters’ project, which I think will be a wonderful educational tool for schoolchildren across the state,” said Sadowsky.

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