Wednesday, May 21, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Owner says Red River house is junk while neighbors say it’s historic

Though the owners say their house is a worn-out money pit, many of their neighbors see it as one of Austin’s Mid-20th Century landmarks. Following staff recommendation, the Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously Monday to initiate historic zoning for the house at 3805 Red River Street.


“This is an obvious landmark. Everyone in Austin knows this house,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.  


Sadowsky explained that the 1947 house, which is located at the corner of 38 1/2 Street and Red River Street, is one of the best examples of International Style in the city. Despite the application for demolition, staff is recommending that the city initiate historic zoning.


Commissioner Dan Leary was recused and Commissioners Leslie Wolfenden-Guidry and Andrea Roberts were absent.


“In our recent presentation for Preservation Austin about Mid-Century Modern, this was the first slide,” said Sadowsky. “Architecturally, this house has an incredible amount of significance.”


“Liking a particular structure doesn’t mean it’s a historical structure,” said Jim Bennett, who was representing the homeowner.


Karen Browning, who is the daughter of the property owner, spoke in favor of the demolition as her 95-year-old mother couldn’t be at the meeting.


“I understand that a lot of people think that this is one of the funkiest houses in Austin, but it is no longer tenable as a residence,” said Browning. “Anyone who tried to fix this house would be insane.”


Browning explained that her parents had purchased the house with two other couples in the 1960s in order to protect the property. At that time, the city had sold part of the Hancock Golf Course to developers.


“There was fear in the neighborhood that the whole of Red River would become a commercial area. The neighbors didn’t want that to happen, so these neighbors got together and purchased this property to protect it,” said Browning. At this point, her mother is the sole owner.


Browning said that the house had always had problems due to its leaking, flat roof and cinder block and plaster construction. She said that the house had no insulation, could not support ducts for central air and heat, and had ongoing rodent problems due to cracks near the foundation. Recently, heavy rains led to the ceiling collapsing. Browning described a “mountain” where the cracked slab had heaved into the living room, inaccessible electrical systems and external gas lines.


Because of these circumstances, tenants called the city for code violations. The city found the property was not suitable for rental. Browning estimates that the cost of bringing the house up to code will be “upwards of $100,000.”


“I think our only option is demolition. That seems to be the most reasonable approach,” said Browning. “It’s our hope to keep this single-family and, hopefully in the future, a really nice house will be built on this property that can look over the remaining nine holes of Hancock Golf Course in perpetuity,”


“We know this neighborhood, we love this neighborhood, but I think this house has outlived its usefulness and needs to go,” said Browning. “It’s structurally unstable. It’s a hazard to public health. So it’s either going to be empty forever or torn down.”


The commission will take up the case again at its next meeting, while staff continues to research the history of the house.


“I think that it deserves a little more consideration before we release a demolition permit for it,” said Sadowsky.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Historic Landmark Commission: The city’s Historic Landmark Commission promotes historic preservation of buildings and structures. The commission also reviews applications and permits for historic zoning and historic grants.

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

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