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Poet’s Old West Austin mansion faces demolition

Thursday, June 30, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The future of Jenny Lind Porter’s Old Enfield home hangs in the balance after a Historic Landmark Commission postponement Monday.

The house, which is located at 1715 Summit View Place, is a contributing structure to the Old West Austin Historic District but has fallen into disrepair. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said he was “startled” by the current condition of the house.

“You look at a house like this and you think, ‘That’s got to be in good shape. It’s a mansion,’” said Sadowsky. “But that simply is not true.”

He explained that the structural report on the house shows that there has been water damage for decades — “to the point where rehabilitation is no longer feasible.” Because of that, Sadowsky said, his office was recommending that the proposed demolition go forward.

Commissioners voted 7-1 to postpone the case in order to consider second opinions and have more conversation about the future of the house. Commissioner Arif Panju voted in opposition and commissioners Michelle Trevino and Tiffany Osburn were absent.

Not only is the home a contributing structure in the district; Porter, who was the 1964 poet laureate of Texas, once owned the home. Porter bought the home in 1979 and lived there until November 2015. Sadowsky maintains that her time in the house did not take place during her most historic period and so was largely irrelevant.

“If we are truly looking at this as a historic landmark, we need to concentrate on the historic period and not things that happened more recently,” said Sadowsky.

Jim Christianson, who was on the Historic Landmark Commission for 22 years, said this had not been an issue in the past.

Sadowsky added that Porter had initially filed for demolition in August 2015, though that application was later withdrawn.

James Powell spoke against the demolition as a lifelong resident of Austin. He said that he would have to see Porter’s signature on the demolition permit to believe she had really sought that option and explained that she had been a very good friend of his for 55 years and would be “horrified” by the prospect of demolition.

“If that did happen, I would simply point out that she was born in 1927 and in 2015, she suddenly became incapacitated,” said Powell. “If she did do that, she didn’t do it in a moment of clarity.”

Jennifer Marsh, who is the project manager and the sister of owner Jonathan Sands, explained that she lives in the neighborhood and had every intention of restoring the home.

“This really isn’t a demolition by neglect case, because people have been working to fix this foundation for a long time,” said Marsh. “We’re emotional about this because we’re so sad. I live in the neighborhood, but there’s no way to save this house.”

Through tears, Marsh explained that they could save elements of the home — like the woodwork, floors, tiles and fixtures — but the house itself “was too far gone.” Part of that problem, she said, was the shifting soil beneath the house and a submerged “pond,” but others noted that the Houston black clay soil on the property was present throughout the neighborhood.

Sands offered to “do whatever he can” to preserve the history of the home and Porter’s legacy. He explained that the neighborhood was excited about their current plans to build a single-family home in the vernacular of the neighborhood, though that was far from clear during the public comment.

Marianne Dormand, who is the vice chair of Old Enfield Homeowners Association, asked for time to talk to the homeowner, as her organization had only recently heard about the plan.

”We just don’t want to take this home out of our historic district. We don’t have that many, and they are coming down all the time,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin

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