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Effort to historically zone Texas Supreme Court justice’s house narrowly fails at HLC

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

A debate over the definition of the word “significant” was the topic du jour at the March 25 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission.

The word’s interpretation came into question because, when it comes to determining whether a home is worthy of historical landmark designation, it must meet two of the five requirements with significance: archaeology, community value, landscape feature, architecture and historical association. Generally, the two that are most commonly considered are historical association and architecture.

While commissioners determined that the house in question, 3204 Bridle Path, could be repaired, they did not find it architecturally significant enough to encourage that course of action through historic zoning.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that his staff could not recommend the Tarrytown property for historic zoning because of its lack of architectural significance.

“I have to agree that there is one criteria that is solidly met, but I don’t see that there are others,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath. Since the owner of the property was in opposition to the designation, he noted that the commissioners should be cognizant of how they interpret the significance of architecture. “Maybe we should pick our battles carefully,” he said.

In opposition to Sadowsky’s argument, several commissioners and neighborhood advocates came to shed new light on the meaning of the term “significant.” Jim Christianson, who served for 22 years on the Historic Landmark Commission, noted that “there are a lot of houses that have been zoned historic that have not been designed by a famous architect.”

Commissioner Terri Myers reminded staff that “we have had those cases … where the architecture has been significant but not extraordinary.” Commissioner Kevin Koch agreed, saying that the code does not require the architecture to be extraordinary, just that a structure be over 50 years old, easily identifiable as part of a certain style and maintain a high degree of integrity.

Sadowsky noted that while this is true to the letter of the law, “I think when we’re talking about making a house a historical landmark it should meet more than the bare minimum,” he said.

Staff was in agreement, however, that the Tarrytown home has historical significance. From 1945 until recently, the house was occupied by Joe P. Greenhill, an assistant state attorney general and former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Judge Greenhill argued the losing side of Sweatt v. Painter, the landmark civil rights case that led to the overturning of the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public schools.

Ben Polidore, who currently owns the home, said just because the case itself was significant, those who argued for the defendants should not necessarily be commemorated. “Not everybody just automatically gets a landmark because of public service,” he said. Furthermore, historically zoning the property would prevent the demolition of a structure that is in poor shape. “You can actually see through the house to the outdoors through one of the cracks in the house,” Polidore noted.

The commission voted against a motion to zone the home historic. Commissioners Witt Featherston, Ben Heimsath and Kelly Little voted against the motion, and commissioners Emily Reed, Alex Papavasiliou and Beth Valenzuela were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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