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West Austin demo leaves preservationists cold

Friday, February 6, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

It may not be the worst-case scenario, but residents of Old West Austin still showed up to protest the demolition of a 100-year-old house that will soon be replaced by an ultra-modern residence.

The 1917 house, which is located at 1208 West Eighth St., is a contributing structure in the Old West Austin Historic District. The district is a national historic district, which is not something the city’s Historic Landmark Commission administers.

Commissioners voted unanimously to release the demolition permit, given their restrictions. Commissioner Terri Myers was absent.

“I think the neighborhood may be being a little harsh on this,” said Commissioner Dan Leary. “It could be quite a bit more intrusive. … You could have gotten something much worse.”

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky reminded the commission that they had put the house on a 180-day demolition delay. However, he said, “This house has been proven to be in such bad shape that preserving it will not be cost-effective or feasible.”

Sadowsky explained that, though homeowner Kris Owens had looked into building a house with architectural features similar to those of the doomed residence, “(he) eventually settled on the fact that the scale and massing of the house was considerably more important.”

While the scale and massing may be similar, the design has upset neighbors.

Rosemary Merriam, who is co-chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association zoning committee, spoke against the demolition and the proposed house. She said the neighborhood association hoped for a partial demolition that would retain the front of the house instead.

“It’s deeply disturbing to us that the Historic Preservation Office continues to support contributing structures being demoed,” said Merriam.

Merriam said that, for the most part, walking down that section of West Eighth Street was like walking through the past, and although the new house might fit the lot physically, it would “destroy the fabric of that neighborhood.”

Sadowsky explained his recommendation, which was to release the demolition permit.

“While staff laments the loss of any contributing house in a historic district, this one suffered years of neglect,” said Sadowsky. “The proposed house, I think, is appropriate for the scale and the siting of this house. And while it is very modern, it seems to fit into the context of the neighborhood.”

Damien Rodriguez, who is one of the home’s designers, pointed out that there are already five contributing structures in the neighborhood that are modern. He said those houses helped inform plans for the new house.

“Although the building is modern, it’s not outside of the context of the neighborhood and the historic district itself,” said Rodriguez. “The building may look extremely, shockingly modern, (but) the reality is it’s going to feel like the same size, scale, proportion and building. It will just have a different roofline, basically.”

Jean Stevens is a neighbor as well as a member of the Planning Commission. She countered that the five modern houses in the district were not contributing.

Rodriguez said the designers were obligated to follow the guidelines of the district and had, but because everyone was going to have a different definition of “character,” there would be disagreements about whether the house fit the character of the neighborhood.

“Allowing new homes to be built that maybe don’t always conform to the majority of what you see can actually help to strengthen the district 100 years from now,” said Rodriguez.

“I would argue that once you see that building vegetated and as part of that neighborhood, it will lend a lot more to the character of that street than the apartments that are across from it,” he continued.

Rodriguez also told the commission that the only pieces of the house that were salvageable were interior surface pieces. He said that, though the neighborhood would like to see the front of the residence preserved, that part was “especially problematic, while offering very little in terms of aesthetic.”

Neighbors who spoke against the new house disagreed and said that up until Owens’ purchase of the house last spring, it was inhabited. Next-door neighbor Leslie Wolff said there were people who had wanted to live in the house, but it sold for $800 per square foot.

Wolff said that Owens left the house unlocked and unattended. “Ultimately, to the extent that this house is considered derelict, it is the fault of the present owner, who deliberately let this house run down,” she said.

Chair Laurie Limbacher urged the neighborhood to consider a local historic district, which is something the commission does control. Limbacher said she was pleased that Owens took some of the historic district characteristics into consideration, but noted that the plan was a “fundamental design change” that she asked the applicant to consider carefully.

1208 West Eighth St., before and after. Images found on austintexas.gov

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