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Not enough historic value in getting plastered, says commission

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a last-minute push to preserve its unique exterior, the fate of a Central Austin home was sealed by the Historic Landmark Commission at its last meeting.

The home at 3108 Grandview St. was originally brick before being covered with plaster. It was inhabited by “prominent plasterer” Ben Leifeste, who worked his trade of “palm plastering” out of the house, from 1923 until 1970.

“It seems to me that this house would have basically been a showroom about the work he could do,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. “Palm plastering is a lost art.”

The technique, he explained, is much as it sounds. It involves shaping plaster on a wall with a bare hand, instead of a tool, which gives a textured appearance. “It’s an art form,” said Sadowsky.

Commissioners voted 6-4 in favor of historic zoning, with Commissioners David Whitworth, Arif Panju, Michelle Trevino and Alex Papavasiliou voting in opposition. However, because there was a valid petition from the homeowner opposing historic designation, eight votes were required to initiate the process, and the commission ultimately voted unanimously to allow the demolition, with a documentation package, instead.

Panju explained that he disagreed with what seemed to be a doubling-down on the significance of the plaster. “You can’t say it’s architecturally significant because of the plaster and has community value because of the plaster. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “At some points there’s got to be limits of sanity here. … Those in favor of historic designation are grasping at ambiguous criteria.”

Bart Sherman, who is one of the homeowners and is seeking the demolition permit, said he had found no historical associations for the home prior to purchase or in inspecting its condition. “The bottom line is: The house is in very bad shape,” said Sherman, who explained that he would like to build a new home in character with the neighborhood “but couldn’t work with what was there.”

Eric deYoung, who is with Armbrust & Brown, spoke on behalf of the owners. He explained that, after talking to the neighborhood, he felt that the owners were “collateral damage” in a larger debate about stealth dorms in the neighborhood.

In addition, deYoung said his research showed that the historic association was “on really shaky ground,” as he could find no proof about who did the plastering on the home or when it was done. He also questioned the fact that staff’s recommendation had changed over the past month, though Sadowsky explained it was a result of giving the case more consideration.

Several neighbors showed up to speak in favor of the home’s preservation and explained that they did not think its current condition was all that bad.

Across-the-street neighbor Chestney Floyd opposed the demolition because he agreed the home was “interesting and important.”

“We share an interest in the built environment as a historic record, and we think this particular building is significant because there are so few examples of this particular trade in Austin,” said Floyd, who could find only a handful of examples of palm plastering remaining on the exterior of homes in Austin.”This is a tradition … that could very readily be lost if these houses are demolished without a thoughtful approach,” he said.

Betsy Greenberg, who is a member of the Heritage Neighborhood Association, also supported the historic zoning. She said, “Each month you approve the demolition of so many houses. So many houses go into the landfill. I’m really hoping that you’ll vote to save this one. This would honor more of a regular guy, but one who has helped to build our city.”

On the other hand, Whitworth said that he just didn’t think the home met the qualifications for historic zoning, aside from its age. He also worried about the current condition of the home, citing “imminent roof collapse, mold, insect infiltration and code problems.”

“I just think it would be an immense amount of money to get this thing up to code and out of the woods,” said Whitworth. “Everybody’s story is interesting, but there are tradesmen all over town that work on their homes.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin

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