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Botched demo agitates Preservation Office

Thursday, September 7, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

A pile of rubble on the east side could spark changes in how the city handles demolitions.

At the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky presented “unfortunate news” about the demolition of 1401 East Third Street. Instead of the careful demolition that he had anticipated, the lot had been scraped clean – save a pile of fenced-off rocks near the back alley.

“The applicant told all of us about the great care that was going to be taken in this rock so it could be reused and salvaged in a new house on the site. That obviously did not happen,” said Sadowsky. “This is an absolute travesty. This is an absolute disgrace. And we cannot allow this to ever happen again.”

The pile of rocks now on the lot was once Juan Castillo’s stonework. In the 1920s and 1930s, Juan and Carmen Castillo rented the house, ultimately buying it in the 1930s. The stonework on the house, according to preservation staff, was typical of Mexican-American stoneworkers in the city at the time. Though common in the neighborhood for many years, it is now a lost art unique to East Austin, where the homes define an architectural sub-type.

Months of negotiations between the owner, Jeff Blatt, and the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Contact Team left both sides frustrated. But after numerous reports from structural engineers confirmed Blatt’s assertion that the house could not be preserved, the Historic Landmark Commission voted to allow the demolition to move forward. However, it added a condition that preserved masonry would be reused in a tribute to Castillo and his lost art.

Sadowsky explained the plan was to save slabs of the wall that could be used intact, not the pile of debris that “eradicated and completely eliminated the artistry that went into putting rocks where they went on the house to create the pattern.”

“That’s going to be impossible at this point,” he added.

Blatt told the Austin Monitor that he still plans to use the rocks to build a monument sign honoring Castillo. He said that the house had deteriorated to the point that preserving the walls while they were being taken down wasn’t possible and apologized for the “loss in translation” with the commission and city staff.

In a follow-up email, he explained, “The stone is going to go on the new structure just as it was taken off. The stone was taken off stone by stone and was not recklessly removed. … Most importantly, there was never a discussion that the stone would be removed in section, as that was not possible no matter how carefully it was removed.

“It will be put back on the same way it was removed, stone by stone,” he added, and reiterated a commitment to “reuse 100% of the stone removed from the original building in a design consistent with what the original pattern looked like.”

Sadowsky disagrees. “Yeah, there’s rock there. But I don’t think you could ever piece together what the walls actually looked like from what’s left,” he told the Monitor. “There was artistry to that.”

And while that might be the end of the story for this particular house, the demolition gone awry might change the way the city deals with such plans in the future. At the meeting, Sadowsky and commissioners made a plan to discuss how to manage conditions attached to things like demolitions in the future. Sadowsky told the Monitor that, because the agreement was nothing more than an oral agreement, the city had no means to enforce it aside from relying on good faith.

“That was the danger of coming to an oral agreement,” he told the Monitor.

“There’s nothing in the code that governs what happened here, but it’s time that we added something to the code to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I think we need to look at civil and criminal penalties for actions like this as well. This should never have happened,” said Sadowsky. “This is a big blow to preservation on the east side. It’s a big blow to Hispanic culture on the east side. It’s something that as a city, and as a city commission, we should not tolerate.”


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