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Could a new historic district save this home?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

There’s another push to create a local historic district in Travis Heights. The fate of 501 E. Mary St. became entwined with the proposed district at the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, where the home’s demolition was put on hold for the time being.

The case had previously been postponed by the commission with the understanding that the neighborhood was in the process of creating a local historic district for the 500 block of E. Mary Street. Without the protection offered by a district, commissioners would have to judge whether the 1929 house could stand on its own as a historic landmark. With a number of changes to the home, and no significant historic associations, city staff could not recommend that course of action.

However, those speaking against the proposed demolition told commissioners that they had submitted an application for the new district earlier that day. If approved, it would be the first historic district in South Austin. It would also lower the standards to save the home from demolition, as it could be considered in the context of the neighborhood, not just as an individual building.

James Bilodeau shared the application with the commission, saying that 89 percent of the 19 homes in the proposed district are considered contributing structures. He noted that the previous owner, Marie Reid Williams, had supported the Bluebonnet Hills Historic District with a wish to have her home preserved. The house was determined to be a contributing structure in that district.

Jennifer Frithiof spoke on behalf of her mother and aunt who inherited the home in March, when their mother, Marie Reid Williams, passed away. She explained her grandparents had owned and lived in the home for 70 years.

“My grandmother always said this house was as old as her. And, like her, it was old and worn out. After having this house inspected, we’ve come to realize she was indeed correct,” she said. “The results of the inspection yielded the house has many problems and is considered a teardown.”

Frithiof said the foundation, plumbing and electrical system were in need of repair and the house was not currently up to code or livable. She said the total cost of repairs exceeded the value of the house, and neither her mother nor her aunt was in the financial position to make the repairs. They plan to sell the home, and the new owners would like to build a new house on the lot.

“Although this house does hold a lot of family memories for all of us, we realize its time has passed,” she said.

Gabe Joseph of Joseph Builders spoke on behalf of the likely new owners, Tim and Emma Sutton. He said that they had met with neighbors and saw “zero common ground.” He encouraged commissioners not to delay the demolition another month.

“I just want to remind you guys that another postponement would be a waste of everyone’s time, energy and resources,” he said. “There’s zero chance zero of getting a historic district declared before the demolition (application) is released.”

Bilodeau said that at the meeting with developers the neighborhood had offered a free architect to help come up with plans that would incorporate the existing structure, and that they had come prepared with information with advice about financing renovations of historic homes. He said he hoped to continue those discussions, however, he observed, “Joseph (Builders) is running an incredible business but they are an integrated broker/developer/architect that builds one kind of house. I don’t think they have the experience working to achieve compatibility or collaboration with the neighborhood.

“No one here is directly adjacent to the property, so it’s not about our backyards. Our goal remains unchanged. We’d like to have a good-faith discussion on ways that we can meet their design requirements and achieve a degree of compatibility,” said Bilodeau, stressing the neighborhood’s strong history of compromise with developers.

Joseph said he appreciated what the neighborhood was trying to do. “Honestly, I hope they get their historic district. But it’s not there now. The demo permit is,” he said. “We can’t make decisions on what might happen when and if these things are approved.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the case until their Nov. 27 meeting. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that he would aim to have a recommendation on the local historic district at this month’s meeting, but could make no guarantee. In order for a local historic to be created, City Council must vote to approve it.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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