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HLC says Pemberton Heights home no longer deserves historic status

Thursday, December 19, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Remodeling the exterior of a historic home requires care, attention to detail – and a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission to sign off on the proposed design. Failing to involve the commission can have financial consequences on one’s taxes.

Despite not having the prior approval of the commission, John Ball proceeded to replace the windows of his Tudor Revival home at 1410 Northwood Road. This historic home is believed to be the first house in this area of the Pemberton Heights subdivision, which was developed by Clyde Parrish Sr.

“It’s a zoning violation,” Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said at the Dec. 16 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission.

In order to emphasize the seriousness of failing to consult with the city before making modifications to a historic home, the commission voted unanimously to deny a retroactive Certificate of Appropriateness for the window replacement. Commissioners Alex Papavasiliou, Witt Featherston and Kevin Koch were absent.

The replacement windows are wooden and have no screens, and are painted a similar shade of green as the original screened windows. Although Ball said he maintained the same size, shape and materials for the replacements, Commissioner Ben Heimsath explained that the screens were integral to the street presence of the structure. Without them, Heimsath said, the facade is marred.

Ball defended his decision, saying that while he worked to create a historic facade, “The home looks significantly better than when purchased.” He explained that the replacement was not simply an aesthetic choice, but was necessary due to the poor condition of the original windows. The screens, he said, were a “constant problem” and were always falling out of the window frames.

“While we do appreciate your interest … you cannot unilaterally say this does or does not meet the criteria,” Heimsath said.

John Volz, a restoration architect and neighbor who was instrumental in the initial historic zoning of the property, told commissioners that he and other neighbors had spent a year restoring the house and that when he sold it in 2011, the windows were in “excellent” condition. He voiced his opposition to granting a Certificate of Appropriateness for the current replacement. “We as the citizens of Austin should not be subsidizing this approach to preservation,” he said.

Ball said he was willing to work with the commission to identify a possible solution and was dedicated to preserving the historic nature of his home. “I would be open to any suggestions as long as it does not involve any removal of the windows,” he said. According to him, the original window replacement was an unforeseen $70,000 expense and he was not financially equipped to replace them again. “I don’t want to keep adding to the cost.”

Heimsath countered that the city also invests in the house through the tax abatement program in order to alleviate some of the costs associated with upkeep.

Rather than send a homeowner to meet with the Certificate of Appropriateness committee and design an amicable solution, the commission chose the more severe approach of denying tax abatement for the property. Commissioners agreed that this approach would send a “definitive signal” that Ball needs to work with the commission to find a design resolution to mimic the original historic facade that was erased with the modern window replacement.

Sadowsky told the commission that during the inspection period for historic properties in early 2020, staff will recommend denial of a tax exemption unless there are changes to the home. The city granted the property $4,091 in tax exemptions for the most recent year, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District. The maximum amount of tax exemption for a property is $8,500.

Ball is entitled to file a new application for a Certificate of Appropriateness and come before the commission to find a remedy to re-screen the windows that will reinstate the home’s tax exemption status.

“What has happened is not appropriate,” said Commissioner Terri Myers. “We cannot approve a Certificate of Appropriateness for that project, we need them to come back.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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