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HLC debates ‘original character’ in Smoot-Terrace Park

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

In the city of Austin, a home is considered historic if it meets several criteria, among them being at least 50 years old. Thanks to the timeline associated with its remodeling choices, the home at 607 Oakland Ave. qualified twice over.

The home is part of the Smoot-Terrace Park Historic District located off West Sixth Street, and its period of significance is from 1877-1945. Originally wood-sided, previous owners installed a brick veneer to the home’s exterior in the mid-20th century, according to Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Cara Bertron.

“This is a unique situation that the house existed in two different forms during the period of significance,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said at the Jan. 27 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission.

Though the building has had two different sets of cladding during the qualifying period of significance, the residence was introduced as a contributing structure to the historic district based in part on its brick exterior.

“The facade that’s there is the facade that’s contributing. The rules say that it has to be maintained,” said Linda Cangelosi, a nearby resident in the historic district.

Commissioners debated whether restoring the structure to its earliest exterior appearance disqualifies it from remaining a contributing structure. In some cases, Commissioner Terri Myers explained, changes have historic significance that can be part of what makes a structure contributing.

Bertron told commissioners that allowing the owner to take the house back to its original pre-brick design will not preclude it from being a contributing structure to the local historic district.

Exchanging the exterior cladding on the home is not simply an aesthetic choice. Kefetew Selassie, the owner of the home, told commissioners, “We truly want to be in a home where we’re experiencing the architecture of that time,” though he said the brick construction is failing.

In a letter to the commission, architect James Nolan said that removing the brick veneer will create a more stable future for the structure. “Repairs would be a Pyrrhic victory, at best, and the overall nature of the home would be better served by reviving the existing siding,” he noted in the letter. Underneath the brick, Nolan said the wood siding is in very good condition.

Beyond returning the home’s exterior to a wooden facade, Selassie also requested permission to add a window opening on the front wall, raise the house two feet, extend an uncovered patio, shift a window opening on the south wall, and construct an attached carport.

He said raising the home will allow him to create a livable basement and improve drainage so that the basement ceases to flood. To allay the fears of neighbors, he said the process will be completed only when the original windows are removed and safely restored.

Staff supported the plans for these additional changes to the home, except for the introduction of a new window to the front wall. The commission similarly supported the requests with the exception of the addition of the window. With a unanimous vote, the commission approved a certificate of appropriateness for the presented plans. Commissioners Ben Heimsath and Emily Hibbs were absent from the discussion.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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