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Landmark commission postpones decision on Congress mural

Wednesday, November 25, 2020 by Sean Saldaña

A building at 506 Congress Ave., just a few blocks from the Texas Capitol, could soon be the site of a new mural – but not before additional review.

A proposal to paint a mural with a soccer motif on the facade of the building was the topic of discussion at the Historic Landmark Commission’s meeting on Nov. 16. Though commissioners do not have the authority to deny the mural, they can make design suggestions because the building is in the Congress Avenue Historic District.

The building, which is the former home of Yaring’s, one of Austin’s early department stores, now houses thirteen23, a software design studio.

Sean O’Brien, acting on behalf of the applicant, said, “We’re asking for approval of bringing a vibrant, contemporary addition to our downtown district.”

The mural, which has the support of the Downtown Austin Alliance, would be completed by the Spanish artist Ruben Sánchez, who has developed a reputation for large, asymmetrical murals done in lively color schemes. Sánchez has created murals in Montreal, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dubai.

Commissioners expressed concerns that the proposed mural’s vibrant design and color combination could impact the character of the historic district.

While Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said he was “fully sympathetic with the concept of livening up Congress Avenue, this seems a little disrespectful of the context of the Congress Avenue Historic District.”

Additional concerns at the meeting centered around the proposed mural’s proximity to two of Congress Avenue’s other noteworthy historic buildings: the Robinson-Rosner Building and the Scarbrough Building.

The Robinson-Rosner Building, which is directly next door to the building where the mural would be, was first constructed in 1854, making it the oldest standing building on Congress Avenue. The Scarbrough Building, which was completed in 1909 and done in Chicago-style architecture, was the first skyscraper in Austin.

After other members of the commission expressed similar sentiments, Commissioner Terri Myers made a motion to refer the proposal to the Architectural Review Committee, an informal committee that would be able to provide feedback on the proposal. Myers advised additional review because she felt the mural would have a “strong impact on the rest of the district.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone their decision at least until December. They also later advised that O’Brien consult with staffers at the Art in Public Places program for further input.

After O’Brien voiced concerns about the postponement interfering with his project timeline, Myers explained that the primary reason she supported delaying the decision was that she didn’t feel as if she had enough time to review the proposal.

There does remain some hope for an expedited decision. Commissioners clarified that if discussions with the Architectural Review Committee went smoothly and an agreement was reached before the next meeting, an administrative approval could be granted.

Some other things that could help the project’s chances of approval are that the Historic Landmark Commission has no specific guidelines or standards for the artwork, and in the future, the mural could be removed without damaging the building’s structure.

“I think it’s a laudable idea, but for a very sensitive area, there are many parameters to keep in mind, not just whether one artist with one exuberant mural is contributing as appropriately,” Commissioner Ben Heimsath said. “So the more learned conversations we have, I think, the better the end result will be.”

Rendering of proposed mural courtesy of the city of Austin.

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