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Seeking more info, HLC stalls demolition for now

Friday, January 8, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

For the first time under the 10-1 City Council system, all of the members of the Historic Landmark Commission were appointed and present at the commission’s final meeting of 2015. And, with everyone accounted for, it looks like some of the ideological questions the new commission has been struggling with since summer persist.

Some of those questions came up during the discussion of a proposed demolition of a residence at 1906 David St. In the end, commissioners opted to postpone the case until their Jan. 25 meeting in order to allow for further research. They voted 7-3 to postpone the case with Commissioners Arif Panju, David Whitworth and Alex Papavasiliou voting in opposition.

Previous commissions have accomplished the same thing a bit more formally by initiating historic zoning, even if they did not ultimately recommend historic zoning in the end. But this time, reservations that there just wasn’t enough information for that step won out.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that his office believes the house could be a historic landmark due to its architectural significance and historical associations. He asked the developers to reconsider demolition and at least preserve the streetscape of the house, saying, “This really is an important house.”

The house, explained Sadowsky, is a “very good example” of a blend between international and midcentury modern architecture. E. Bagby Atwood built the house in 1948 and soon after became a professor of linguistics at UT-Austin. Sadowsky told the commission that during Atwood’s tenure there, he was “the leading dialectologist of the Southwest.” He worked to figure out regional speech patterns across the country and determine what they said about socialization.

“People were really starting to realize the importance of cultural identity in certain pockets, especially in the South,” said Sadowsky, who noted that the topic was even more important now as national speech becomes homogenized through mass media.

Ernesto Cragnolino, who owns the property, explained that he lives in a nearby historic landmark himself and was a “big lover of modern architecture” and preservation. He told the commission that he purchased the house at 1906 David St. with the encouragement of the neighborhood, who feared that it would become a “super duplex.”

Cragnolino said that he had explored the possibility of retaining the home, but the location of the house made it “pretty much impossible” to add anything to the property. His agent, Hector Avila, said that the demolition permit was the last step necessary before the lot could be subdivided.

Panju objected to the idea of initiating historic zoning on the home, saying that the homeowners “were operating in good faith” and had support from the neighborhood.

This line of reasoning didn’t sit well with Commissioner Emily Reed, however. “I think we have to separate the fact that the owners appreciate modern architecture and are operating in … good faith from the criteria we are asked to examine for these landmarks,” said Reed. “I feel that it at least has the potential to meet the criteria we have for landmark designation.”

In response, Panju cast doubt on Atwood’s historical significance and suggested that the criteria for historical associations should be higher than simply being accomplished in one’s career. “I think at some point there has to be a limit. I’m all for if there’s a real tangible or real and substantial connection to Austin’s history for the historical association,” said Panju. “But a professor who loved his craft and worked on it, … I’m trying to see how that historical association resonates back. What does this give back to the people of Austin?”

Commissioner Terri Myers pointed out that the vote to initiate historic zoning gives city staff the time to further research that history before moving forward with a change in zoning. Panju disagreed with this concept, saying that a historical association should “speak to (the commission) right out of the gate.”

Whitworth said that he did have some concerns with defaulting to employment when discussing historical association. At the same time, he recognized the significance in this case.

“This area does have a really rich past. This one really kind of stood out to me because I do appreciate this vintage. A lot of people in this area were professors – a lot who were the best in their field, people who rose to the top,” said Whitworth. However, he struggled with the overall significance and ultimately pushed to allow the demolition to go forward.

This story has been corrected. While all of the current members of the commission were present, Council Member Delia Garza has yet to appoint anyone to the Historic Landmark Commission.

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