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Historic zoning moves forward for ‘godfather’ of A-frame religious architecture in Austin

Monday, July 29, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Midcentury A-frame churches may be a dime a dozen in Austin, but there is one in particular that caused the now-familiar style to proliferate.

The Prince of Peace Church at 1711 E. Oltorf St. is the reason “that form became popular in Austin,” Jason Haskins, a local architect and historian, told the Historic Landmark Commission at its July 22 meeting. Haskins has written extensively on sacred architecture and Eugene Wukasch, the architect who designed the church.

Today, the 1.9-acre site is owned by R. Moore Family Partners & Christopher Callan, who purchased the property late last year. Tim Gideon, who was representing the property owner, told the commission that the owners were of the opinion that the church does not qualify for historic zoning.

The commission, however, voted 8-1 to initiate the historic zoning process for the building, the first step in recommending to Council that the building be designated a historic landmark. Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou voted against the motion.

In part, city staffers based their recommendation to initiate historic zoning on the church’s role in the expansion of suburban churches and the postwar growth of Austin’s population.

Gideon pointed to the historic designation criteria requirements, which state that a historical association must include “long-standing significant associations with persons, groups, institutions, businesses, or events of historic importance,” and said that the church lacks such associations.

According to backup material submitted by the property owner, “There is no suggestion in the historical record that this building led inexorably to the development of southeast Austin or of the neighborhood around it.”

Several commissioners, as well as Haskins, disagreed with this interpretation. “It’s inherently associated with the phenomenal rise of suburban neighborhoods, which is the major planning and development force of the mid- to late-20th century,” said Commissioner Terri Myers.

According to Haskins, “The massive activity of new religious architecture after (World War II)  that saw the expansion of the suburbs … is more than enough of a historic movement.” Beyond that, he explained, Wukasch used the church to explore the modern design that became the standard for the next several decades.

However, the church’s innovative design is at risk of being wiped away if it does not become a historic landmark. Commissioner Ben Heimsath noted that he had seen some preliminary designs for the future of the site, and said, “I believe a Starbucks was desired in that location.”

Although Gideon called it a “discussion document” and said that there were no finalized plans for the land parcel, Heimsath encouraged the developers to consider an adaptive reuse approach for the property rather than starting from a clean slate.

Although commissioners Witt Featherston and Myers expressed their hesitation at preserving suburban buildings wholesale, the commission agreed that this property was worth looking into.

“If it’s not preserved in this generation, it will be gone,” said Heimsath.

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