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Panel pushes for preservation, despite house deficiencies

Thursday, April 7, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite concerns that the physical structure lacks historic integrity, the Historic Landmark Commission has voted to move forward with historic zoning for the home of one of East Austin’s most prominent African-Americans.

Commissioners voted 6-4 to initiate historic zoning on the home at 1308 E. 12th St., which was originally constructed sometime prior to 1933. Commissioners Tiffany Osburn, David Whitworth, Arif Panju and Alex Papavasiliou voted in opposition, and Commissioner Emily Reed was absent. Historic zoning could prevent the proposed demolition of the home, but the zoning would have to be approved by City Council in order for that to happen.

The home was purchased by Alice T. King in 1953. King was the widow of one of the founders of what eventually became King-Tears Mortuary, which has been the largest funeral home in Austin to cater to the African-American community from the 1920s until the present day. The King family was extremely prominent in the city, and Alice King took over the business following her husband’s death. She ran it until she moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her second husband, Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who was the president emeritus of Howard University. Following his death, King returned to Austin, where her son served as the president of Huston-Tillotson University.

Nonetheless, questions remain about the integrity of the physical building. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that he had been inside the house and there was “nothing that indicates the age of the house” given that it has been remodeled. More importantly, he said that there have been “a lot of significant modifications” to the exterior of the house. However, Sadowsky balanced those changes against the history of the home, which he deemed “extremely important.”

“This is a very difficult case for staff – that’s why I have no recommendation,” said Sadowsky. “Because the house doesn’t maintain its historic appearance, it’s quite clear. The owner is not willing to restore it or rehab it – in fact, they want to tear it down. And staff would really not want to see that happen. Because this house … has incredible significance to the east side, to Austin’s African-American community.”

Gene Tankersley told the commission that he and his wife purchased the house about a year ago without knowing about its significance. He explained that he had remodeled 25 to 30 homes in Austin, but this was the first he planned to demolish.

“I understand the situation as far as what’s happening in East Austin, and I have a lot of sympathy for that,” said Tankersley. “But our issue with the house is that it’s been added onto so much and been modified so much. … If we were to take it back to the original structure, we would probably be confined to 600 or 700 square feet.”

Tankersley explained that the cost of that renovation combined with the purchase price of the house made that plan unjustifiable. Beyond that, he said that “everything was deficient” in the house and that rehabilitating it meant “everything would be all new anyway.”

He was amenable to creating “some kind of memorial,” however, saying, “It could be more significant than the house itself, since it’s in the condition it’s in.”

Stuart King, who identified himself as the grandson of Alice King, said that the house looks like it did in 1954. He also pointed out that the home has been continuously occupied up until the present day.

“The thing about East Austin is we’re losing our history,” said King. “There’s not much left on 12th. If you go down 12th, you’ll see that they are building and building and building. There are very few houses that are still there.”

“It’s a shame that we’re losing so much. They’re knocking down houses, it seems like, every week in East Austin,” said King. “The African-American community – we have almost lost East Austin.”

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