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Historic Landmark Commission argues over definition of ‘significant’ for historic zoning

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Anyone would agree that the Pease Mansion in the Old Enfield Neighborhood is a historic landmark. But what about all the other surrounding properties that inevitably pale in comparison?

For the Tudor Revival-style house at 1602 Pease Road, city staff seemed to think a historic designation was not merited. Despite being built for the Covert auto family in 1927 and later being owned by Charles and Annette Duval of the regional Duval Dance Studios chain and being a “really fine example of a Tudor revival” (according to Commissioner Terri Myers), Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron said that “staff did not feel that it contributed to the history of the city.”

The commissioners disagreed, and at their Dec. 7  meeting, they postponed the request for a demolition permit by a month. “I would like to do some follow-up research on it … as foundation for possibly initiating historic zoning,” said Myers.

The house is currently a contributing property in the Old West Austin District, but owner Marshal Wheeler came to the commission to request a demolition permit in order to construct a new 4,800-square-foot home that “we think will increase the overall look and feel of the neighborhood.” However, he did not present the commission with any plans for the new house.

University of Texas architecture professor and across-the-street neighbor Sinclair Black spoke in opposition to granting the permit, explaining, “The problem is I never saw what was planned. As an architect …. You can’t throw an abstract (term) at me like ‘demolition permit’ without showing me what goes back.”

While no concrete plans were presented to the commission, Wheeler did explain that his intention was to completely renovate from the ground up. He said a remodel would not be financially viable.

“To get the house into any kind of good remodeled position so that it would have any value at all, we were going to have to take it down to the studs … it was going to cost us $900,000,” he said. The project with that price tag would only add about 500 square feet to the 1,860-square-foot home. Wheeler explained that he wants a home more on the scale of the neighborhood at 4,800 square feet. He said the surrounding homes are all between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet.

Wheeler noted that he has already invested $100,000 to repair the foundation, leaks and drainage issues on the property. Still, despite the upgrades, when he put the house on the market, he did not receive a single offer.

Black told the commission, “I considered making one, but wasn’t sure I could pay the price.”

Wheeler explained to the commission that if he added a $900,000 bill on top of what he has already invested, it would make the house financially untenable at $1,050 a square foot.

The culmination of hardships that Wheeler presented to the commission “proves” that the sensible solution is for him and his family to move back into the home after it has been reconstructed into a new residence.

While the commissioners did not disagree that the required remodel would place a hefty price tag on the property, they found that the real value of the house lay in its historic significance. To determine if the home warrants a full historic landmark designation, the commission postponed its decision on the demolition permit until January. The vote to postpone passed 7-1 with Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou voting against the motion and commissioners Mary Jo Galindo and Andrew Brown absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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