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Commission considers a house by other name

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Much like Tara and Wuthering Heights, historic homes in Austin have names of their own. But a recent bid for immortality on Judges Hill at the Historic Landmark Commission revealed the naming process might stand to have a few established parameters.

At the Sept. 25 meeting of the commission, Mo Olian requested to have his name added to the name of his house at 1600 Rio Grande St., changing its official moniker from the “Ruggles-Smith House” to the “Ruggles-Smith-Olian House.”

The renaming of the house would set a precedent in the city, as it would be the first time a home was named after its current owner. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that there was no real established procedure for naming (or renaming) a historic home in the commission’s bylaws.

“To be perfectly honest, when we have new cases that come forward, I’m the one who names them,” he said. “I have just always followed the convention that we’ve had: the first owner and then the most significant person or persons associated with it.”

Olian clarified that he hoped to have his name added to the name of his home, but “wasn’t willing to go that far” to fit in with the previous tradition.

“If I need to be deceased to have it renamed, maybe we’ll postpone it,” he said.

Olian has owned the home since 1974 and city staff describes him as a “steady steward” of the property who was once student body president at the University of Texas. Olian applied for historic zoning in 1989, and the agenda backup for his bid to rename the house notes, “He has owned the house for fully one-third of the history of the house, and has demonstrated significance in Austin’s history.”

Chair Mary Jo Galindo told Olian that she appreciated his stewardship of the building. “It’s iconic, I know it well,” she said.

Commissioner Terri Myers, however, had some reservations about moving forward with a renaming on the spot. She noted that the city does not consider homes for historic zoning until they are 50 years old, and wondered aloud about whether a similar criteria should apply to naming historic buildings.

“I just don’t feel comfortable renaming the house when the owner for whom it’s being named didn’t own it during the period of significance, which ended in 1968,” said Myers, who instead made a motion to refer the issue to the commission’s operations committee for further deliberations.

Sadowsky said that, usually, the people honored were associated with the home 50 or more years ago, though he admitted he wasn’t sure if there was a reason for that tradition. This renaming, he said, was an opportunity to address the unwritten policy.

Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the case, which will be heard again on Oct. 23, with a recommendation from the committee.

Photo via LinkedIn.

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