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Ramshackle 117-year-old house slated for historic zoning against owner’s wishes

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Despite what city staff called the “heartbreaking” condition of a historically contributing structure and an owner’s opposition to historic zoning, the Historic Landmark Commission determined Monday that a 117-year-old home was worth saving.

In an effort to preserve one of the few examples of early-20th-century architecture from the German settlement in East Austin, the commission voted unanimously at its March 25 meeting to initiate the historic zoning process for the house at 1603 Willow St.

Although Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted that the house was “very important to the context of the neighborhood,” he begrudgingly said, “I must very, very reluctantly recommend to you that we release the (demolition) permit.”

Built in 1902, the Holly neighborhood home has been listed as a contributing building to the area’s National Register historic district since 1980, so unsurprisingly this is not the first rodeo for this house on its meandering journey toward preservation. For years, the city’s preservation office has advocated that the property be zoned historic. Back in 2015 and 2016, the previous owner, Jeff Blatt, made a good-faith agreement with the city that he would work to partially restore the home before the city initiated historic zoning. However, “that, of course, didn’t happen,” said Sadowsky, who noted that his office had had “unpleasant dealings” with Blatt. As a result of the halted historic zoning and restoration proceedings, the East Austin home languished in disrepair only to be purchased last November by Geoff Reilert, a first-time homebuyer.

Reilert informed the commission that upon purchasing the property he consulted several builders, including a Victorian restoration expert, and “everybody said a restore would be considerably more expensive than a rebuild.” He told the Austin Monitor that multiple parties he consulted put the restoration price tag between $500,000 and $700,000 while a rebuild of the property would be between $300,000 and $400,000. This “crazy cost” to restore the property to a livable structure was out of his budget.

Photos of the home show missing windows, holes in the floor and a dilapidated roof. In a similar selection of adjectives to what staff used to describe the property, Commissioner Kevin Koch noted that the photos indicated a “horrific” interior with conditions that “are shocking.” Still, the commissioner asserted that he believed the home was salvageable. Commissioner Witt Featherston agreed with his assessment.

The rest of the commissioners, city staff, neighbors and Reilert all agreed that the property was notable and would be worth preserving. However, with the condition as it is, everyone but the commissioners agreed that the structure was in disrepair and dangerous.

Nevertheless, with so few examples of properties from this era, the commissioners felt that they should not give up on this historical resource without a fight for its life. “I’m guarded about initiating (historic zoning) without the full embrace of the owner’s support, but in this case, I think it’s warranted,” noted Commissioner Ben Heimsath.

The decision to pursue historic zoning left Reilert gobsmacked. “Everyone I received consultation from told me there’s no way it could be reasonably zoned as historic in its current condition,” he told the Monitor. “If it’s zoned historic, I don’t know what my next move is.”

Commissioners Emily Reed, Alex Papavasiliou and Beth Valenzuela were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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