Photo by Hardy-Heck-Moore, Inc. via the city of Austin
Tuesday, February 9, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Ellen Wyse house denied historic designation, after owners protest

A debate at the Jan. 26 meeting of the Planning Commission centered around the merits of historic preservation versus the potentially regressive effects of a historic landmark designation on cash-strapped property owners. The owners and developer of the Ellen Wyse house favored demolition, while the Historic Preservation Office enumerated the reasons for the house’s historical significance.

Kalan Contreras, a senior planner with the Historic Preservation Office, presented to the commission. The house is located at 2816 San Pedro St., a few blocks away from the Drag and 29th Street, on the north side of West Campus.

Historic designation would be based on two criteria, she explained: the house’s historical significance and its architecture, which consists of a side gabled roof, three gabled dormers and a portico.

The house, which was constructed in 1924, belonged to the writer, journalist and business owner Ellen Wyse. She was society editor of the Statesman and founder of Gossip Advertising Firm, which was a household name in the 1920s.

Successful women entrepreneurs were rare in the early 20th century, Contreras noted, and Wyse used her prominence to advocate for women in the business and advertising worlds.

“She presented to the Texas Press Women’s Association statewide, sharing her strategies to success in the male-dominated advertising field,” Contreras said. “Wyse was also the founding member of the Quill Club, a consortium of female writers in Texas.”

Wyse also played a key role in selecting Austin’s flag design: two right triangles, blue over red, bisected by a white line, with a lone white star in the blue triangle.

Cater Joseph, a local developer, called in to the commission meeting in favor of demolishing the house. He said the house had been used as a fraternity house until 2005, and had been in a state of disuse and dilapidation since. The housing market in the area is mostly for student renters, and “there’s not a market for a buyer to purchase the house, spend $650,000-plus on proper restorations for a historic landmark, and (be) occupant ready.”

“I’ve been a construction contractor for 15 years. I made a significant effort to come up with a viable plan that included restoring the existing structure,” Joseph said.

The numerous repairs that are required would eliminate the historic quality of the home, he explained.

“Doors, rotten framing, stucco foundation, roof gutters, mechanical, electrical, plumbing systems, flatwork, etc. Once such measures are taken to make the building structurally safe and sound, there would be little to no historic fabric remaining, and the building would be ineligible for historic zoning,” Joseph said.

Joseph also mentioned the replacement development would align with Austin’s affordable housing program. One of the units would be priced based on 50 percent of the median family income, and another at 60 percent MFI.

“There’s no question that the affordability is desperately needed in the overpriced West Campus market,” he said.

Several of the property’s owners also called in to the meeting, advocating against the designation.

“We didn’t ask for historical designation. Our neighbors didn’t ask for it. We’re at risk of having no sale and a historical designation we didn’t want, and it doesn’t make any sense to us,” said April Bindock, explaining that her family, not the city, would have to shoulder the financial burden of the updates.

“We are not happy or proud of the condition of this property. But we are also not in a position to repair it. At this point we are supportive of whatever works best in the space, but I don’t believe that is a historically zoned, drafty, rotting eyesore. Who does that serve?”

Commissioner Rob Schneider called on staff to respond to the objections of the owners and developer.

Staffers pointed out the existence of tax exemptions for historic landmark properties capped at $8,500 per year, which could ease the financial burden of renovations.

Commissioner Todd Shaw wanted to know the exact renovations that would impact the historical designation. Staffers answered that anything that would affect the exterior of the building would need an “application for certification of appropriateness.”

Commissioner James Shieh, who has previous experience with renovating historic landmark homes, indicated it may be possible to make the restorations for a reasonable value.

“The thing that makes it worthwhile is doing an addition to get the extra square footage. You’re investing in the front, too, to keep the historical facade – you’ve gotta have a way to leverage to get the money back,” Shieh said.

The developer reiterated concerns that recouping the costs of development would be near impossible, given that it would be restored as a single-family home in a student neighborhood.

Eventually Shieh motioned to deny the historic zoning, on the basis of insufficient value added to the community, and Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson seconded.

“When we give historic zoning it’s one of those things that should really be benefiting the community. And if we give the house tax breaks, that means other people will have to pay more. I know the area, I went to UT – I don’t think it’s going to be appreciated enough. As far as the cost, do I think it’s savable? Sure I do. Do I think it needs to be historic? No,” Shieh said.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger spoke against the motion, citing Ellen Wyse’s accomplishments.

“Regardless of whether it looks nice on the street, will it cost some money? Yes, it will. However, every effort should be made to keep her legacy going. If it means moving the house to another property because it’s more profitable to build student housing that should be contemplated before demolition,” Seeger said.

Commissioner Claire Hempel spoke against the designation.

“There are other ways to preserve her legacy than to have single individuals pay a lot of money to preserve a structure that then would only be private to an individual,” she said.

Commissioner Schneider said, “I think what is compelling me to have concerns about historic designation is the fact that this house has not been taken care of over the years and the clear resistance from the owners, the difficulty and expense it would take for them,” before abstaining from voting.

In motions such as these, a supermajority (in this case, nine) is required to pass historic designation against the owners’ preference, while only a simple majority is required to deny historic designation.

The motion passed with seven commissioners voting to deny historic designation, with two voting for the designation and three abstaining.

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