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Tuesday, January 29, 2019 by Jack Craver

Commission divided on whether home of architecture icon should be a landmark

The Planning Commission declined to recommend historic zoning for a 70-year-old home in Old West Austin due to recent changes the property owner made to the house. The case demonstrated the tenuous standards that shape the city’s efforts to preserve historic buildings.

The city’s Historic Preservation Office has recommended granting historic zoning to the house at 1605 Gaston Ave., the former home of Philip D. Creer, who was dean of the UT School of Architecture and the first chair of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission. Creer bought the house in 1957, when he first moved to Austin for the deanship, and lived in it until his death in 1993.

Historic zoning is intended to be a deal between the city and owners of homes the city deems architecturally and historically significant. The property owner receives a significant tax abatement in return for maintaining the home’s historic character in accordance with a number of strict guidelines on design and building materials. To add new features that detract from a house’s original character amounts to a breach of that deal.

In this case, the historical significance of the home’s former owner is so great, argued Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, that the city is willing to overlook the fact that the home’s previous owner added a portico in 2008 and the current owners, Nicole and William Kessler, constructed an addition in the back and made changes to the roof and siding in 2016.

The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously recommended granting historic zoning in October and the Planning Commission followed up with its own endorsement in November. In December, however, after discovering that the owner of the property had made changes to the home, the Planning Commission took the unusual step of rescinding its recommendation and hearing the case again.

At the Jan. 22 hearing, almost all of the commissioners agreed that the city should not be in the habit of offering historic landmark status to buildings that have recently undergone significant architectural changes.

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson noted that the Kesslers had been told by staff that replacing the first floor’s stone veneer with fiber-cement siding would likely disqualify the home from becoming a landmark. That took place in 2016, when the Historic Landmark Commission was reviewing whether the home qualified to be a “contributing structure” to the Old West Austin National Historic District, which is distinct from the current historic zoning process.

The Kesslers made the changes anyway, said Thompson, who argued that approving the historic zoning would send the message to other property owners that the city does not take its own standards seriously.

Other commissioners countered that the Historic Preservation Office had recently revised its opinion about whether the stone veneer was in fact part of the original house. Since it may not have been part of the original design, its removal did not necessarily damage the house’s historic character.

Chair James Shieh was still bothered by the roof being changed from a gable roof to a hip roof, although both Sadowsky and Nicole Kessler argued that the new roof did not change the appearance of the home from the street, which is the most important consideration.

“Are we going to open up floodgates to people making changes and then coming in and requesting historic (zoning)?” said Shieh.

However, Shieh, an architect by trade, also believed the former home of such an important architectural figure “needs to be recognized.”

Commissioner Karen McGraw offered a recommendation for historic zoning, saying that the property’s main qualification was its association with Creer, whose “extraordinary significance outweighs the modifications to the building.” She stressed that the recommendation “should not be seen as a precedent” that loosens architectural standards on future cases.

Thompson was unconvinced: “We can say it’s not going to create a precedent … (but) if people out there realize you can do this and we’ll support it, it sets precedent.”

A motion to recommend historic zoning fell just short of the necessary seven votes, with commissioners Fayez Kazi, Todd Shaw, Tracy Witte and Yvette Flores joining Shieh and McGraw in support and Thompson and commissioners Greg Anderson, Conor Kenny, Robert Schneider and James Schissler in opposition. Commissioners Patricia Seeger and Angela De Hoyos Hart were absent.

A subsequent motion to deny historic zoning also failed to garner a majority, and the commission decided to pass the case on to Council without a recommendation either way.

Shieh said that the case illustrates the challenge of setting standards for historic and architectural significance. He noted that his own house was once home to significant community figures, but were they so significant that their residences should be permanently preserved? He added, “(A)t what point are we going to say that this is extraordinary and this isn’t?”

Photo of house in 2008 (top) and current house courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

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