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Congress Avenue facade flip passes first hurdle

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It’s not what usually comes to mind when one thinks of flipping houses. But last week, Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission gave its tentative blessing to an undertaking that will see Congress Avenue’s Grandberry and Mitchell-Robinson Buildings flipped — brick by brick.

Architect Tom Hatch of Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects came up with the restoration plan several years ago and is now seeking a Certificate of Appropriateness from the city. The certificate will allow the buildings’ owner, Donald Wallace, to deconstruct, then reconstruct the front walls of the buildings at 907, 909 and 911 Congress Ave.

The structures are part of the Congress Avenue Historic District. In the 1950s, their brick facades were covered in concrete “slipcovers.” That concrete has since been removed, revealing scarred brick beneath.

Now Hatch proposes to deconstruct the front of the buildings, flip the bricks to unscarred sides and rebuild it with the reversed bricks.

Hatch offered to return to the commission at its next meeting in a month to go through the details of the project. He explained that the idea was to move forward with the deconstruction phase of the project, then come forward with plans for the main structure that will be behind the facade while the deconstructed bricks are in storage.

“That process will occur in less than two years. And if it doesn’t, in two years the wall will be returned in place, intact,” said Hatch. “So we get insurance that these three facades will be restored and always will be there.”

Chair Laurie Limbacher made it clear that the commission would need more detailed plans that mapped how the facades would be reconstructed, and she was assured that information was forthcoming.

Hatch said he would explain the project in more detail at the commission meeting, but indicated that it hinged on the space behind the facade for the major part of the construction project, as well as the owner being able to build what he wants in that area.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that he was “very, very excited” about the project.

“This is the heart of the 900 block on Congress Avenue, and across the street we have the Lamour block, which is perfectly preserved. Now we will have both sides of the 900 block with historic appearances,” said Sadowsky.

The Historic Landmark Commission approved the concept of the plan, but will consider the detailed plans at its next meeting. The Historic Preservation Office also supports the plan, though that support is contingent on the process following the specification manual that was drafted the first time the plan was proposed.

The staff backup also notes that the buildings have been waiting a long time to be restored and, indeed, the included 76-page restoration plan is dated June 2010.

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