Wednesday, May 29, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Historic Landmark Commission postpones demolition of home, has questions about integrity

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but it does not always clearly tell the story of the integrity of a century-old structure. Such is the case for the Herrera family home at 1805 E. Third St.

At the May 20 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, commissioners voted 6-1 to postpone the hearing for this East Austin home in order to determine the condition of the original 1911 structure. The results will establish whether or not the commission recommends historic zoning for a property both they and staff agreed has had undeniably important occupants.

“What we know so far about the Herrera sisters is far and away more significant than other cases that we’ve had in a long, long time,” Commissioner Terri Myers said.

Mary Grace Herrera and Consuelo Herrera Mendez were the daughters of a couple who purchased the house in 1914. The sisters become the first two Mexican American teachers in the Austin Independent School District. Mendez Middle School was named after Consuelo. Additionally, Mary Grace went on to testify in 1973 as a featured witness in a trial where the federal government brought suit against Austin for failing to desegregate the city schools.

Although the property’s historical associations are clear-cut, the condition of the sisters’ childhood home is not so straightforward. Photos presented to the commission showed that the roof on a rear addition of the original board-and-batten house was caving in and debris was strewn everywhere.

Rex Bowers, who has owned the property for six months, told the commission that “code enforcement wants me to get rid of it. That’s why I started the demolition process.” That demolition process resulted in consideration from the Historic Landmark Commission as to whether the house was eligible for historic zoning.

Bowers presented the commission with a four-page list of code violations that needed to be repaired before the city’s code department would sign off on the house that it is inhabitable. The only problem, said Bowers, is “it’s not repairable.” According to testimony, there is structural damage to the piers and foundation of the original home.

Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron similarly noted that the original frames of the windows are so damaged they may not be salvageable.

Still, Commissioner Kevin Koch said that experience has shown him that these shabby old structures are more resilient than one would imagine. “These structures that are over 100 years old are still standing, true as can be, and they are a testament to the quality of construction,” he said.

While he acknowledged that the rear addition of the home was in poor shape, he suggested that the property owner consider remodeling the home in the back and adding an addition while maintaining the street-facing facade that bears the history of the neighborhood.

In order to pay the home a visit and more fully understand the extent of the structure’s condition, the commission postponed the case until its June 24 meeting. Alex Papavasiliou voted against the motion and commissioners Emily Reed, Witt Featherston, Ben Heimsath and Emily Hibbs were absent.

Photos courtesy of the city of Austin.

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