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Landmark Commission OKs historic zoning for Commodore Perry estate

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously recommended historic zoning for the 1928 Commodore Perry estate at last month’s meeting, despite neighborhood fears that the designation is part of a larger, more nefarious scheme. The matter must now move on to the Planning Commission and the City Council.


Though the entire property is on the National Register for Historic Places, the owners were only seeking Historic Landmark zoning for the Perry Mansion, and the associated gardens.


The property at 710 East 41st Street has a rich history, and members of the Hancock Neighborhood are concerned that future plans mean some of that history may be lost. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that limiting the designation to the main building made sense, because they were the “premiere buildings” on the property.


Representing the property owner, attorney Steve Metcalfe went one step further. He ran through the other buildings on the property, which are mostly associated with St. Mary’s Academy, and detailed why each outbuilding was inappropriate for preservation.


Metcalfe said that the chapel on the property did have “at least some style,” but ultimately detracted from the Perry Estate, as did the other structures which include a greenhouse, bowling alley and pool.


“All these other structures, they don’t add to the Perry Estate,” said Metcalfe of Metcalfe, Wolff, Stuart and Williams LLP.


Neighbors fear the demolition of the other buildings is imminent.


Neighbor Karen Reifel asked the commission to reject the application, saying it was “little more than an attempt to obtain commercial upzoning.”


“Please do not allow this developer to use historic preservation as a means to an unnecessary and unwanted commercial end,” said Reifel. “The developer has conveniently rewritten the historical record to suit his vision of turning the property into a commercial resort with an event center for 350, a restaurant with at least 200 and a hotel with up to 55 rooms. The so-called residential component of this development reads much more like a corporate-owned timeshare short-term rental playground than a single-family development compatible with our established neighborhood.


“This application does not preserve history. Instead, it develops historical fiction,” said Reifel.


Reifel went on to express concern that the historical narrative that focuses solely on the mansion would erase the more textured reality of the property as a location of both religious and secular schools. She noted that the national historic record includes the schools for a reason, despite the “current owner’s desire to preserve an exceptionally privileged history.


Though any future demolitions on the property would have to pass through the Historic Landmark Commission, neighbors urged the commission to demand a comprehensive plan before taking up any of the issues individually.


In March, the Hancock Neighborhood Association rejected the proposed plans for the estate in a vote of 97-20. A separate, but related, case that would rezone the property was postponed until Oct. 8 at the Planning Commission on Tuesday night.


Lin Team from Preservation Austin praised the restoration of the mansion, and spoke in support of the historic zoning. She said that the group had long-been concerned about the property that, for a while, had fallen into disrepair. She told the commission that Preservation Austin would weigh in on the rest of the plan, including demolitions, separately.


Neighbor Mark Burch said developers have said they will demolish two contributing buildings on the property “primarily to construct parking lots.” 


“This property deserves a thorough and comprehensive plan – one that encompasses its full and contradictory history – Roaring Twenties country club consumerism juxtaposed with a vision of life based on service to God and community,” said Burch. “That juxtaposition is a critical feature of this property.”


The Historic Landmark Commission voted 5-0 to approve the zoning change. Commissioners Dan Leary and Terri Myers, who wrote the application for historic zoning, were recused.


The historic zoning will apply to the main house, which is a 1928 example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture designed by Dallas architect Henry Bowers Thomson. It was once the home of Commodore Edgar Perry, who helped develop Austin during the early 20th century.


It will not apply to the outbuildings on the property, or any of St. Mary’s Academy, which occupied the property from about 1949 until closing under a different name in 1972. According to the National Register of Historic Places application, St. Mary’s was the first parochial school in the Austin area, and relocated to the Perry estate during its heyday.

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