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Planning Commission debates historic significance of Pemberton home

Thursday, April 14, 2016 by Jack Craver

Now that it has won approval from two key city commissions, a bid to confer historic landmark status on a $1.4 million home in Pemberton Heights appears poised to succeed.

The Planning Commission recommended Tuesday that City Council approve $8,500 a year in tax abatements for the 85-year-old house at 1502 Hardouin Ave., five weeks after the Historic Landmark Commission also endorsed the deal. The abatement, which is based on the property value, is the maximum allowed.

The commission voted 10-2 to recommend landmark status, with Commissioners Patricia Seeger and Chito Vela dissenting and Commissioner James Shieh absent.

Just as she had before the Landmark Commission, Jane Hayman, a retired attorney and resident of the Pemberton Heights neighborhood, argued Tuesday that the house was not deserving of landmark status. However, unlike in the previous instance, Hayman did not invoke the racist business practices of its original owner, William F. Warren, the president of Brydson Lumber.

Instead, Hayman suggested that Warren, who ran the business from 1933 to 1965, was not a good businessman at all. The company’s major contributions to Austin building took place before he became president, she said, and it ceased to exist entirely after his retirement. A more impressive mogul would have left behind a greater legacy, she argued.

“I maintain that he drove that company into the ground,” Hayman said, provoking chuckles from some commissioners and city staffers.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky had a different interpretation of events, saying that Warren helped take the business “to a new level” when he became a partner at the firm in 1920.

The homeowners, Richard and Laura Key, applied for the historic designation and listed a number of notable buildings the company constructed in the 1920s, including the city jail, and pointed out that theirs was the 10th-oldest house in Pemberton Heights. They also pushed back against Hayman’s suggestion that the 44 other Colonial Revival homes in the area rendered their house “not architecturally distinctive or significant.”

“We feel like our house is different, and it is the first of a lot of these Colonial Revival ones,” said Laura Key. “Just because there was a house built afterwards doesn’t make our house ineligible for historic designation.”

Sadowsky also reminded the commission that Colonial Revival was the most popular style of home design for the first 70 years of the 20th century, arguing that it made sense that a disproportionate number of city landmarks would be in that style.

As she did in a historic zoning case last summer, Seeger expressed skepticism of the purported historic significance of the home and its former owners. In the past case, she also voiced concern about tax breaks for wealthy landowners.

Vela was also skeptical, prodding Sadowsky on the number of homes in the Pemberton area that had been designated as landmarks in recent years and pointing out that because of the surrounding area’s historic zoning, any proposed demolition would have to be approved by the Historic Landmark Commission.

“Yes, but the commission has to find that it’s a historic landmark,” responded Sadowsky, who guessed that there were between 40 and 50 homes in the area that had been designated as such.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, pushing back on her colleagues’ line of questioning, said that people treat historic neighborhoods such as Pemberton “almost like a park.” The old houses, she said, “provide a sense of place that does give back to the community.”

Commissioner Angela Pineyro de Hoyos echoed Zaragoza’s point, recalling that she intentionally sought out the Pemberton area for trick-or-treating as a kid because “the houses were so beautiful.” She also argued that the 44 similar homes in the neighborhood were not a reason to oppose landmark status. In fact, she added, she’d be happy to support landmark status for all of them.

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