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Roessner-designed home slated for demolition

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

There are many factors the city weighs when considering what is and isn’t a historic property. On Monday, the Historic Landmark Commission considered the cost of expensive, ongoing upkeep that only delays the inevitable.

Though no one cast doubt on the home’s architectural pedigree, Jagjit Yadav, who owns 3800 Balcones Drive and lives there with his family, was seeking permission to demolish the home. Although Yadav has owned the house for the past six years, he claims that its current condition and the specter of future repairs made it impractical to maintain.

The Historic Landmark Commission voted 6-2 to release the demolition permit, with Chair Mary Jo Galindo and Commissioner Terri Myers voting in opposition. Commissioners Michelle Trevino and Grace McKenzie were absent.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the home was designed by Roland Gommel Roessner, who was “one of Austin’s premier midcentury architects,” nationally renowned for his designs. However, Sadowsky said that staff had been unable to find anything that distinguished the home’s former longtime owners – Seldon and Jewell Baggett – as influential in the city or community.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that this house has historical significance, and I don’t think there is any doubt that this is a masterful interpretation of midcentury style,” said Sadowsky.

Sadowsky explained that Yadav had spent “thousands and thousands of dollars” trying to stabilize the house, which is sliding down the cliff into which it is built. “This is not a case where new owners have come in and bought a house intending to tear it down,” he said. “These owners have had the house for a number of years, and they have spent an awful lot of money trying to save it.”

Architect Matt Fajkus, who was speaking on behalf of the Yadav family, laid it out. “(The house) is simply not economically feasible to preserve or restore,” he said. “I will acknowledge there is some architectural merit to this house. However, the decision for demolition is ultimately not about the architectural significance, but the significant failure of this particular house. Regardless of the house design, the house was not engineered to last.”

Further, Fajkus said that the most architecturally significant and visible portions of the house were also the parts of the house with the most damage. The house, he explained, was in an “erosion hazard zone,” and the slab had settled so that the variation between one end and the other was 11.3 inches. The resulting slope has caused plumbing, electrical and structural problems.

Fajkus estimated that the cost to repair the house would be $100,000 to $200,000 more than demolishing the house and building a new one, and even those costly fixes would be patches – “the house would continue to fail over time,” he said.

Despite these problems, there were residents who fought to save the house.

Tere O’Connell, who spoke on behalf of Preservation Austin, stressed to commissioners that “every alternative should be explored to avoid demolition.”

O’Connell reminded commissioners that they had previously asked for a second opinion on the house from an independent structural engineer and that has not yet happened. She noted that there was a lot of variation on cost for foundation repairs and emphasized that a second opinion might have been valuable in that regard. “But that was not provided in your backup today,” O’Connell said.

Fajkus said that they had contacted Smith Structural Engineers, who “effectively said that they completely agreed with (the original assessment) but didn’t have the time to fully write out a full statement.” Fajkus also noted that that would cost his client several thousand dollars.

David Hime, who lives across the street from the home, spoke in favor of its preservation to retain “the character of one of the most beautiful streets in Austin.”

Julian Read has lived next door to the house for the past 50 years. Read explained that his own house was designed by Roessner as well, and the two were a set not meant to be broken.

“I do not take pleasure in rising to oppose a new neighbor, but as past president of Preservation Austin and a trustee currently on the Texas Historical Commission, I cannot remain silent on the loss of another one of these very rare jewels of architecture,” said Read.

Though the demolition permit was approved, there was some discussion of the structure that would take its place. Sadowsky assured commissioners that the architect had worked with the city to design something in the spirit of midcentury modern design, which he called a “consolation prize.”

“The spirit of this house will remain,” said Sadowsky. “I really, truly hate to see these types of cases, because these are the houses that really define Austin’s architectural legacy. We are a center of midcentury modern architecture. … The loss of even one is a detriment.”

The case also sparked a larger discussion about preserving that legacy. O’Connell suggested that the work of Roessner be proactively surveyed with an eye toward preserving his homes, to “see what else can be recognized in the absence of this house.”

Broadening that plan, Sadowsky agreed and suggested it was time to research the city’s midcentury architecture in general, saying that some current resources were there, but incomplete.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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