Landmark Commission initiates Red River house over owner’s objection
Wednesday, July 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Against the wishes of the homeowner, plans to designate a familiar Red River Street house a historic landmark are moving forward.
However, the owner wants to demolish the familiar red and white house at 3805 Red River Street, Historic Landmark Commissioners this week voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning. That zoning change would prevent the house from demolition.
Karen Browning spoke on behalf of her 95-year-old mother, Gwen Shive who purchased the house about 50 years ago. At the time, her family collaborated with several other families to purchase the house in order to save it from development and ensure that the corners of 38th and Red River Streets remained residential.
Now, said Browning, the life of the house is over.
“After exploring multiple options and getting a number of professional opinions, we’ve come to accept that the only reasonable path forward is to remove the present structure,” said Browning. “We’re not out to destroy Austin.”
Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky has dubbed the house The Red River International House, and says that it is the premiere example of residential International Style architecture in the city.
“Anybody who has lived in Austin for any period of time knows this house. This is truly a landmark,” said Sadowsky.
Sadowsky is not alone in his feelings about the Red River house, whose preservation has been the subject of a recent, popular Facebook campaign. Supporters of its preservation filled the Historic Landmark Commission meeting Monday night, advocating historic landmark status for the house.
“I have had an emotional attachment to this house for over 50 years,” said Linda Guerrero. “When you are stuck in traffic on Red River, you are like, ‘I’m almost at the Cosmic House and then life will be wonderful again.’ I suggest that many of us have a fantasy about this house. I’ve had many fantasies about this house, and I would like to thank the family for keeping this in our community for all these years.”
Preservation Austin’s Lin Team also spoke in favor of the change in zoning. She explained that her group had hoped to work out a solution behind the scenes, but those negotiations fell apart after the owners rebuffed a willing, preservation-oriented buyer.
Browning explained that her family had no desire to sell the house.
“We do not wish to sell the property at this time, or at any time in the foreseeable future,” said Browning. “Why is it important to save this house? Is every single structure worth saving? Let’s preserve it digitally. Let’s build another one in exactly the same style. You can recreate this house, probably, for less than what it is going to cost to remediate this house.”
Browning said that she planned to build another residence, further away from the busy street, and had no intention of building condominiums or anything commercial.
“We will continue to fight any efforts at commercial zoning in this neighborhood. Our intention, at this point, remains unchanged: to preserve the residential nature of the neighborhood,” said Browning.
Though the owner had a structural engineering report that recommended the house be demolished, commissioners had previously postponed the case so that a second inspection could be conducted.
S. Patrick Sparks performed that second inspection, offering his services free-of-charge. He found that the house was safe and the foundation repairable. In a letter to Sadowsky, Sparks wrote that the interior floor slab could be replaced without disturbing load-bearing exterior walls.
“There is no structural reason that the house should be demolished,” wrote Sparks.
That, argued, Browning, was a bit beyond the point. She said that repairs and upgrades to install things like air conditioning would come with a cost that would make the house financially nonviable.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to initiate historic zoning with Commissioners Dan Leary and John Rosato absent. Next up for the house and its owners is the Planning Commission, then City Council.
“We do commend the owners for their foresight in wanting to preserve the character of the neighborhood when they purchased the property 50 years ago. But we would suggest preservation of the house is just as important today as preservation of the neighborhood was then,” said Carolyn Wright, who is a board member of Mid Tex Mod, which is a local group devoted to preservation of modern architecture.
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