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Planning Commission OKs landmark status for former home of legendary businesswoman

Thursday, August 6, 2015 by Jack Craver

Celebrating female entrepreneurship, racial harmony and, of course, beautiful architecture, the Planning Commission voted to recommend historic zoning for an 85-year-old house at 113 West 33rd St. last week.

After hearing Steve Sadowsky, the Historic Preservation Officer for the city, argue that the house represented a significant place in Austin’s history because it had been the home of several notable Austin residents, the commission voted 9-1 to forward the recommendation to City Council that the current homeowners be granted city tax abatements aimed at helping them preserve the house in its current form. Commissioner Patricia Seeger, who expressed concerns about giving city tax exemptions to the wealthy, was the lone vote against the measure.

The house was originally owned by Alma Harrell, whose three-decade leadership of Capital Printing Co., beginning in the 1930s, was notable during a time when female business leaders were almost nonexistent.

Later, the house was owned by James Perkins, who had the rare position of being a white professor and department chair during the 1960s at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, a historically black institution.

The house was purchased in 2013 by Abby and Brandon Tucker and is currently appraised at $825,000.

Abby Tucker, accompanied by her husband, assured the commission that the couple took the duty of maintaining the home’s historic character very seriously.

“I am aware of this tax abatement; however, we are very committed to preserving the historic architecture and integrity of this house,” she said. “I think it’s really important because it helps not only ensure that we as the current owners, but also the future owners, will take that extra care into consideration into really preserving that historic integrity.”

Seeger appeared to be the panel’s only skeptic, questioning whether the city, county and school district should be providing up to a combined $8,500 in tax breaks for the city’s well-to-do.

“What we’re doing is we’re looking at giving an $8,500 tax abatement to someone that’s living in a very expensive home,” she said. “And the tax abatement money is going to have to be made up by other people in the area, some of which are having a difficult time paying their taxes.”

Designed in 1930 by prominent architect Edwin Kreisle at the behest of Edwin Harrell, the founder of Capital Printing Co., and his wife, Alma, the house features a number of characteristics that distinguish it from typical Colonial Revival homes, which are usually very symmetrical, said Sadowsky.

But the house’s true value comes from its association with its former occupants, he continued. Three years after founding his business and two years after moving into the house, Edwin Harrell died, leaving Alma Harrell in control of the printing company, which still exists, for the next three decades.

Harrell sold the house in 1952, and after it passed through two subsequent owners, the house was purchased by Perkins, a theology professor who eventually became chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Huston-Tillotson.

Seeger questioned whether the house’s former owners had truly given enough to the community to warrant such recognition from the city.

“While I can very much appreciate a woman running a business during that time, I didn’t hear anything about what (Harrell) gave back to her community,” she said. “Also on Dr. Perkins, that is remarkable that a Caucasian was the head of a department at a predominantly black college, but I didn’t see anything in there about his contributions.”

Sadowsky said he was not aware of Harrell’s or Perkins’ civic endeavors. But he emphasized that the tax subsidy from the city should not be seen as an easy way for homeowners to save money, but rather as one part of a process that demands work and cooperation from owners to maintain their house’s historic nature. Repairs to historic homes must follow a strict set of requirements that often impose high costs on the homeowners.

He added that while the abatement is granted based on the value of the property, the overall exemption from the city is capped at $2,500. Travis County and the Austin Independent School District have also put caps in place.

“The discussion about the tax abatement is something that I think blurs the line a little bit, when we should really be looking at the big picture of what are we actually accomplishing in doing historic preservation,” he said. “We shouldn’t be shortsighted about it.”

Seeger, who oversaw historic landmark cases during her nearly six years on the Zoning and Platting Commission, told the Austin Monitor afterward that she is willing to support abatements, including for wealthy homeowners, but that she was not convinced that the Harrell-Perkins house was historically significant enough.

Just before the vote, Chair Stephen Oliver suggested that the commission should appreciate that there were people committed to maintaining a historic property.

“It seems like we’ve had a string of historic cases before us where we’ve had unwilling owners, and what a difficult time that has made for the commission to deal with historic cases when the owner doesn’t want to,” he said. “So here we have one where the owner wants to, and I think we should smile upon that.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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