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‘Battle of the historic restoration titans’ continues at Landmark Commission

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

There are plenty of heavy hitters on either side of the debate surrounding a proposed demolition of a contributing structure in the West Line National Register Historic District. What the debate lacks is a resolution, after the Historic Landmark Commission postponed it once again at its most recent meeting.

The owners of the 1915 bungalow at 812 Theresa Ave. would like to tear the house down, citing costly repairs and a claim that the house is not worthy of the individual historic designation that would save it. The demolition is supported by staff, which wrote in a report that “staff does not question that the house has the architectural and the historical significance to be considered as a historic landmark, but the years of deterioration and neglect have rendered this house beyond the reasonable expectation of rehabilitation and restoration.”

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that staff’s main concern was for the condition of the home. He said that cost estimates for repairs were conservatively “$250,000 plus.”

“This house has been neglected for years. Windows have been left open, mold, rot, deterioration,” he said. “We look at this house and think, ‘Wow, what a great house.’ It is a classic bungalow … but it has been left to the elements for a very long time.”

However, builder Tom Blackwell and architect Tom Hatch – both of whom are well-versed in local preservation – disagreed with this assessment.

Blackwell urged the owners to consider rehabbing the home. He said that he has reviewed the house and come to the conclusion that it would be much cheaper than new construction, “and you end up with a much nicer product.”

Hatch said he “agreed wholeheartedly” that the cost of rehabilitating the existing home would not exceed that of new construction. “And the quality of what you’re going to end up with is superior. The classic grand bungalow should be saved. I really believe that,” said Hatch. “Its bones are good. It has not been abused, it’s just been neglected. And that is repairable.”

In addition, the home has a fairly storied past. It was owned by a member of the Wattinger family from the 1920s until the 1930s. From 1970 until 1989, it was the home of state Rep. Elliott Naishtat. In a letter to the commission recounting his history living on Theresa Avenue, Naishtat explained that he had to move in 1989, after deciding to run for the Texas House of Representatives District 49 seat, which, at the time, did not encompass that location. “I loved living in that house,” he wrote, asking the commissioners to consider his history there when making their decision.

In what Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams LLP agent Michele Rogerson Lynch dubbed “the battle of the titans of historic restoration,” both sides of the debate brought out well-respected experts to talk about whether the home should be a historic landmark and about just how difficult restoration would be.

“If this was something I thought was historic, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Lynch.

It was the third time Lynch had spoken on behalf of the owner of the home, who filed the application for demolition in November 2015. She explained that they had looked at the possibility of relocating off-site and on-site, which could be done – at a cost of about $145,000 for off-site relocation and about $87,000 to relocate the home on the property, which would be added to the cost of remodeling.

“I think every project is different. And it’s how you acquire land – some people inherit it. Some people get a steal; some people don’t. And so you have to factor those things as well. This guy is not a developer; he’s not looking to turn a profit here,” said Lynch. “He’s looking to have a family home that he’s dreamed of, that might be different than what other people have dreamed of.”

Commissioner Terri Myers explained that she had surveyed the house about 10 years ago, as part of the West Line historic district nomination. She said that she thought the home met the criteria for individual landmarking based on architecture, historic associations and community value.

“I was taken with the house at the time – it was not in this condition. This has happened in the past five or six years,” said Myers. “We not only said this was contributing to the national register district, but it was individually eligible for listing.”

Myers made the motion to postpone the case until later in August (and conduct more research on the home in the interim) after commissioners were unable to decide in favor of historic zoning or demolition. A vote for demolition failed 3-6, with commissioners Arif Panju, David Whitworth and Alex Papavasiliou in favor and commissioners Beth Valenzuela and Emily Reed absent.

The Old West Austin Neighborhood Association has voted in support of initiating historic zoning.

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