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Jenny Lind Porter home wins stay of demolition

Thursday, July 28, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The house once owned by Texas poet laureate Jenny Lind Porter will be around for another two months, but after that its fate is anyone’s guess.

On Monday, the Historic Landmark Commission once again considered the request for a demolition permit for the home, which is located at 1715 Summit View Place. And, once again, the panel opted to postpone the case – this time to its September meeting. Commissioners voted 6-3 to postpone the case, with commissioners David Whitworth, Alex Papavasiliou and Arif Panju voting in opposition and commissioners Beth Valenzuela and Emily Reed absent.

Neighbors had requested a 180-day postponement – the maximum allowed – in order to further research the home and work toward alternatives to demolition. Though the commission instead voted to postpone the case 60 days, Panju appeared mystified by the postponement, noting that the commission had already postponed the case at its previous meeting on similar grounds.

“It’s as if we never had that meeting. I’m not sure what’s going on – it’s like Groundhog Day,” said Panju. “I do believe they wanted to preserve this house. And I do believe that all these professionals have gone and looked at this and came to their informed and professional opinions that this simply cannot happen. I’m not sure what we are hoping to get.”

Commissioner Madeline Clites pointed out that it would also give the neighborhood time to work with the owners on any plans for any new construction, as the commission would have no say on what was ultimately built.

In addition, Lisa Maxwell, a board member with the Old Enfield Homeowners Association, said the extra time would also give the neighborhood an opportunity to enlist the opinions of third parties about the viability of preservation – which the HOA offered to pay for. It would allow time for the group’s “recently hired professional historical researcher” to look into the history of the home as well.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that despite the home’s connection to Porter – who lived there from 1979 until November 2015 – his office was not recommending historic zoning. Part of the reasoning, he said, was that the home was not occupied by Porter during its historic period, which was prior to 1956.

Sadowsky also took the current state of the home into account and told the commission it had been neglected for years.

“There’s water, mold, stucco is separating from the frame, termites, rodents and wildlife. … Basically, almost everything on the house would have to come off – it would have to be completely rebuilt anyway,” he said.

“Some houses just get to the point where it’s no longer financially feasible to restore them,” said Sadowsky. “The house right now is uninsurable because of its condition. That’s really kind of forcing the point of demolition.”

Jennifer Marsh, who is the sister of the owner and project designer, has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. She reiterated that their original intention was to restore the home, but she maintained that was not a realistic option.

She explained that at the time of purchase, Porter was suffering from dementia and that it took “many dumpsters and many months” to get her out of the house. Marsh pointed out that, in its current state, much of the home’s “historic fabric” was missing.

“It was never a house that someone loved. It’s never seen the love, unfortunately,” she said.

Marsh said that they planned to reuse what historic material was salvageable – like the ironwork. She said they also plan to retain an entryway at the street.

Several experts testified on Marsh’s behalf to the current impossibility of restoration.

Structural engineer Jerry Garcia, who evaluated the home for Marsh, admitted that the home looks good from the street, “but as you approach the home, the faults quickly reveal themselves.”

“Most of the time we were shaking our heads, saying there was not much to be done,” said Garcia. “It is a charming house, but unfortunately you might just need to cut bait on this one.”

Maxwell said that the neighborhood could have been working with the homeowners long before the last hearing and that the current rush on demolition was not their fault, as they had not been contacted prior to the last meeting. Maxwell said that the neighborhood had been successful in the past with reaching compromise solutions and hoped that would be the case this time as well.

“(Marsh) has reached out to the neighborhood in some ways, but not with the intent to find solutions. Her only intent is to prove the home can’t be saved,” said Maxwell. “We look forward to exploring alternatives but can only do so if granted this delay. … We realize this is a very difficult situation for everybody, but it’s the finality of it that’s got us so concerned.”

Owner Jonathan Sands spoke briefly to the commission and acknowledged that the case is not just about the physical home.

“We understand a lot of the emotion around the house is around Jenny Lind Porter, and we want to do whatever we can to sort of preserve her history,” said Sands. “We want to make sure that she’s recognized.”

To that end, he said they are contemplating creating a lending library on the corner of the lot that would includ her work and are also exploring the possibility of a historic plaque.

Poet’s Old West Austin mansion faces demolition

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