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First Tobin House battle waged at landmark commission

Tuesday, March 7, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single home facing demolition with a website of its own means a fight is on the way. That was certainly the case at the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission.

Commissioners voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning for the house at 405 W. 14th St., over the objections of the owner but in line with the recommendations of city staff and the neighborhood.

The home, which was built in 1910, was identified in the city’s 1984 comprehensive survey as a “Priority 1” house, recognized for its architectural significance. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky also recommended historic zoning based on the history of the house. That history is tied to the home’s first occupants: the Tobin family. Though Dr. J.J. Tobin never lived in the home himself, his wife, Ida Tobin, was its first occupant following her husband’s death. Ida Tobin was known for her entertaining, and the family ran a drugstore and Congress Avenue’s Tobin’s Book Store, among other things.

In addition, Sadowsky said a case could be made for preservation based on “community value.” He told the commission that many people had contacted his office about the house, offering more history – an outpouring of support.

Former City Council Member and current neighbor Chris Riley spoke “in strong support” of the city’s recommendation to initiate historic zoning on the home and said he was surprised to hear its historic pedigree questioned. He invited commissioners to read more about the home’s history on a website he helped set up: tobinhouse.org.

“The house is very important to Austin – to the neighborhood, and to the whole community,” said Riley. “I agree with staff (that) it clearly qualifies for historic zoning.”

Glen Coleman with South Llano Strategies acknowledged upfront that it was a difficult case. “It’s a prominent house, and it’s appropriate and fitting that we should be here in front of this commission this evening discussing its value,” said Coleman.

“I hate these cases where you have to stand up and disparage an honorable family,” said Coleman, who acknowledged that Ida Tobin was a prominent member of the community.

“But how prominent?” he asked. “It’s obvious the Tobins were fantastic people, and I’m glad to learn they entertained lavishly, and I’m glad to learn that they were prominent and upstanding members of the community. … I think every one of you probably has a grandmother that fits that description.

“Every house in Central Austin could meet a similar standard,” he continued. “I could point to half the houses in Hyde Park or Crestview and say the same.”

Cynthia O’Keeffe spoke against the demolition. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Ida Tobin. She told the commission that the home was “the center of the cultural scene” in Austin in the early 1900s.

“It’s still a beautiful place that reminds us of what Austin was like when elegant family homes lined the streets around the capitol,” she said. “This lovely house and the beautiful historic neighborhood that it is in, in the shadow of the capitol, should be protected from becoming lost.”

Austin Stowell also spoke against the demolition on behalf of Original Austin Neighborhood Association President Ted Siff. He said the neighborhood association had been working with Coleman and offered to find an alternative that was more economically feasible, including upzoning the property to downtown mixed use and eliminating parking requirements. That, he said, would allow developers to build vertically and maintain the historic appearance of the building while developing the rear of the property.

“We would prefer to see them utilize what I think is a rarity in Austin – which is flexibility by a neighborhood association to support additional density and development in exchange for historic preservation,” said Stowell.

Coleman said they were considering the neighborhood’s offer “very seriously” and would probably pursue that further. Concerns he had about the home’s facade, balcony, porch and concrete steps were dismissed by Commissioner Terri Myers, who also made the motion to initiate historic zoning.

“I believe that this house looks pretty much the way that it did when it was built in 1910,” said Myers. “This building reads exactly as it should.”

This story has been corrected. The neighborhood association involved with this case is the Original Austin Neighborhood Association not, as originally reported, the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association.

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