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City buys time on emotional West Lynn demolition

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

There’s trouble in Old West Austin, where the expense and maintenance of one of the city’s older homes is once again threatening its existence.

The Slaughter-Dildy House at 611 West Lynn St. is a contributing structure in the West Line National Register Historic District, and it is slated for demolition. The home, which was built in 1899, has been vacant for a long time. It has also been before the Historic Landmark Commission on a number of occasions. In 2003, the commission voted unanimously against demolition and for historic zoning. Subsequently, the demolition permit was withdrawn. A 2006 case to designate the property a historic landmark was indefinitely postponed. And now, 10 years later, it’s up for demolition again.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the family would like to sell the land, and he believes that they can get more money if the home is no longer there.

“The house is basically an albatross around their necks,” said Sadowsky. “Staff is extremely sympathetic to this family and understands what a deal it is to have a house like this that is not really habitable, and not really sellable, either.”

Though sympathetic, Sadowsky explained that his office was recommending that the commission initiate historic zoning on the property, which will effectively postpone the case until its next meeting, on Feb. 22. In the meantime, Sadowsky said he would work with the family to explore alternatives to demolition.

The Historic Landmark Commission chose to do just that in a vote of 6-2, with Commissioners David Whitworth and Alex Papavasiliou voting in opposition and Commissioners Arif Panju and Michelle Trevino absent.

Laura Labay, whose family owns the home, said she has no problem with the prospect of more conversation about the property with the city, but she stood firm in her request for a demolition. Labay’s father purchased Nau’s Enfield Drug in 1971, and she currently runs the much-loved Clarksville landmark. She told the commission that financial stress and neighborhood strife over the house have taken a toll on the business and have caused her to question whether she wants to continue to live and work in the neighborhood.

“This has caused us significant debt to try to fix the house,” said Labay. “We have a very lengthy list of code violations and insurmountable fines that we cannot pay. We have an extraordinary property tax on this house right now that’s in excess of $30,000 a year, and no one can live there. The property has used up all of my parents’ retirement money, and I’d like to see them have some form of life before they both pass.

“We didn’t ask for this house. It was passed on to us from my grandmother,” Labay continued. “We don’t have anything left. I understand, we all love the house. I love the house. If I had any money, I would live in the house and I’d fix it up. We can’t do it. … I’ve actually had to move back home with my parents due to this.”

According to Labay, both the porch and roof of the house are currently in a state of collapse. In addition, the home has had problems – which she classified as “extreme” – with vagrants and raccoons.

“I personally was actually bitten by a raccoon there,” said Labay. “The property is dangerous in many parts, and there are some parts that are beautiful.”

Despite the current state of the home, the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association opposes the demolition. The chair of OWANA’s zoning committee, Rosemary Merriam, said that she, too, sympathized with the Labay family. But she also told the commission that she had “come to learn” that the Labays own two other properties in the neighborhood – Nau’s Enfield Drug and another house.

Further, Merriam said, she had “never seen any attempts on any major upkeep” of this house nor the other residence in the neighborhood that she claimed is owned by the family. Merriam has lived in the neighborhood since 1986.

In response to the observation that the family owns multiple properties in the neighborhood, Labay offered to share her tax and financial records to show that they had no money. She clarified that there were two different Labay families in the area who should not be connected.

Alexander Shoghi, who lives across the street from the house, also spoke against the demolition. He said that he was concerned that allowing the demolition would “set a dangerous precedent, where one can choose not to reinvest in one’s property and not maintain it to the point of it becoming uninhabitable, and then eventually be able to sell it at a higher profit.”

Labay disagreed with that assessment of the situation. She told the commission that no one in her family had “purposefully or intentionally created the demise of this property.”

The house was built by Roy Slaughter, one of Austin’s most prominent bankers at one time, Sadowsky explained. When he passed away in 1944, it was sold to physician Charles Dildy, whose family owns it today.

“It’s one of the few remaining houses of its vintage on West Lynn Street and in this neighborhood. … I don’t think there is really too much argument that the house has historical significance,” said Sadowsky. “What it really comes down to now is the condition of the house.”

But Labay did disagree with the historical association of the house. She said through her own research she had found, contrary to the city’s statements, that Roy Slaughter was not a blood relative of the Slaughters, a prominent local family after whom Slaughter Lane was named. She asked that his connection with the property be removed from the records. Though Labay affirmed Slaughter’s association with the Brown Brothers banking institution, she said that he bankrupted the company.

Those allegations didn’t carry much weight with Commissioner Terri Myers, who indicated that the house’s relationship to the Slaughter family still stood and observed that “infamous people are still significant.”

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