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Board of Adjustment OKs changes to historic Mather-Kirkland House

Monday, August 19, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to reconstruct an open-air viewing tower on the historic Mather-Kirkland House will finally be moving ahead, thanks to a variance from the Board of Adjustment.


The plans were originally approved in 2003, as part of a historic reconstruction of the house at 400 Academy Drive in South Austin.


Owner Hugh Lowe explained to the board that the plans themselves hadn’t changed at all. The new variance request was necessary because he had incorrectly read the plans when requesting the original variance, so the approved plans could not be finalized.


“I just screwed it up,” said Lowe, who explained that the architectural drawings themselves were accurate, but he just measured to the wrong place.


The variance, which adjusts the maximum height allowed from 46 feet 4 inches to 55 feet 4 inches, will permit the reconstruction of the tower, or belvedere, on top of the house, which was built in 1889. The belvedere blew down in 1935. (A belvedere is a structure on a building that is built to take advantage of scenic views. On the Mather-Kirkland House, it resembles an open-aired bell tower.)


The Board of Adjustment unanimously approved the variance in a vote of 6-0 with Board Member Melissa Hawthorne recused and Members Michael Von Ohlen and Bryan King absent. Alternates Will Schnier and Stuart Hampton were present.


In their findings, they noted that the variance is unlikely to set a precedent as the building is unique in the area.


The Mather-Kirkland house was built in 1889 with excess granite from the construction of the Capitol. Through the 1920s, the house served as the Austin Military Academy, and is still referred to as “the Academy” by some Austinites.


The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Texas Historic Landmark and a City of Austin Historic Landmark. It has been featured in both Southern Living magazine and HGTV’s Restore America.


When the Lowes purchased the house in 1982, it was deteriorated. They have been restoring it, floor by floor, ever since. In a statement to the Board of Adjustment, they write that after completion of the belvedere, they intend to replace the roof’s wood shingles with slate shingles that “are intended to last for much more than a hundred years.”


Board Member Fred McGhee took the opportunity to, as he put it, “get on (his) high horse about historic preservation.”  He questioned Lowe about whether the restoration was being done in accordance with Secretary of the Interior preservation standards, and demanding proof that the project was in compliance with standards of historic preservation.


“I believe it exceeded any instructions they would have,” said Lowe. “We improved on the original structure vastly. Everything is treated lumber, and everything is stainless steel fasteners.”


McGhee then asked for additional information about the mistake, saying it struck him as odd that architectural drawings would be off by such a wide margin.


Lowe then went into detail about the steps he went through to get his first measurements. He explained that none of the steps were correct.


“I personally did the measurement. You got anything else that you want me to measure?” asked Lowe.

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