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Home of legendary UT coach remains in limbo

Friday, July 3, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After a trip through the Planning Commission last week, the fate of famed University of Texas track coach Clyde Littlefield’s former house remains uncertain.

Commissioners voted 4-3 to deny historic zoning for the West Campus home, with Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza and Jean Stevens voting in opposition. The vote was not enough for any kind of recommendation. Commissioners James Shieh and Brian Roark were absent for the vote.

The current homeowner, John Griggs, objects to designating his 1923 home a historic landmark. After applying for a demolition permit for the house, the Historic Landmark Commission initiated the historic zoning case. At the Planning Commission, Mike McHone spoke on Griggs’ behalf.

“I agree completely with the fact that this house has historical significance with Clyde Littlefield, no doubt about that. Whether or not the architectural features are something unique and rare and meet the criteria … I’ve got three of these things within two blocks of me. It’s not unique architecture by any stretch of the imagination,” said McHone.

McHone said that since 1963, the house has been a rental and “forgotten, run-down and left to just exist.” He pointed out that in the 11 years since the University Neighborhood Overlay was implemented, the context of the neighborhood has changed, and it would be better to use the land for a student housing project. In addition, McHone said that years of neglect mean it would cost more than $250,000 to rehabilitate the house.

“Coach Littlefield would say, ‘Let’s house more students. Let’s not preserve this house,’” said McHone.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky gave the history of the house at 903 Shoal Cliff Court and explained why his office was backing the Historic Landmark Commission’s recommendation for historic zoning. The house is the former home of both Littlefield, who founded the Texas Relays, and former UT Austin President Walter Splawn. In addition, said Sadowsky, it is an excellent example of a 1920s vernacular bungalow.

Sadowsky emphasized the connection to Littlefield, saying he was “very, very important to the history of the university and of Austin.”

During Littlefield’s tenure as head track coach from 1920 until 1961, the university won 25 Southwest Conference championships. He also served as head coach of UT’s football team from 1927 until 1933. Littlefield was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Longhorn Hall of Honor and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. He lived in the house from 1936 until 1963.

Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez moved to deny historic zoning. He said that he “really had a problem with the property owner being forced to accept this type of government action, and not being able to do whatever they want to do with their property.”

Ex-officio member Jeff Jack said that he understood individual property owners not wanting to have their home designated historic, but pointed out that it was a matter of “preserving our heritage.”

“We don’t do this willy-nilly,” said Jack. “The landmark commission looks at it, and staff looks at it. … If we don’t do it simply because the owner objects to it, then eventually we won’t have any. It’s that simple. We have to decide whether that ordinance that we created was really meaningful to preserve some of the historic values we have in our community.”

Commissioner James Nortey agreed with some of Jack’s points, and said he was “all for” preservation when it was supported by the owner, or the majority of a local historic district. However, he said, if the main benefit of preservation was for the public, the city should buy the house and preserve it that way.

“To do it over the objection of a property owner is just not fair,” said Nortey.

Hernandez pointed out that he would be much more likely to be swayed if there were people on hand to discuss the significance of the house, but holding the hearing at 2 a.m. meant that wasn’t the case.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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