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Landmark commission weighs options in Tarrytown demolition case

Monday, August 23, 2021 by Kali Bramble

At last month’s meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, committee members confronted both the evolving definition of what constitutes “cultural significance” and the bounds of their responsibility to those personally affected by their decisions. Representative of this dilemma was the committee’s review of an application for the demolition of an 81-year-old home located at 3400 Hillview Road in Tarrytown. Situated in a neighborhood distinguished by high property values, the building is under review for its potential qualification as a historic landmark.

Despite what the commission acknowledged to be severe damage, all members supported the motion to postpone, stating that the significance of the property’s connection to historically significant figures needs to be further investigated.

Applicant and homeowner Molly Powers began her address to the committee acknowledging that this was a “very sad moment for (her) and her family” yet considering the state of the home, she “believed demolition to be the next step.” She explained that the building’s antiquated construction had led to the deterioration of basic structures, making the house increasingly uninhabitable. 

Compounding the effects of the outdated foundation is the lot’s underlying composition of Del Rio clay, which is prone to swelling and shrinking depending on fluctuations in water content. Citing the conclusions of engineering reports spanning the course of several decades, Powers said that the damage will worsen over time and that the renovations to resolve the issues would be prohibitively expensive, if even possible.

Making the case for preservation, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky emphasized the property’s connection with several prominent figures in Austin history. The home’s original inhabitants were Wayland C. Rivers and his wife LaRuth, who designed and built the house for their family in 1940. At the time, Rivers worked a high-ranking position at the Elgin Standard Brick company and played a role in the manufacturing of bricks for many residential and commercial construction projects throughout the rapidly expanding city. Rivers’ connection to this industry is reflected in the constitution of the house itself, which is built from textured brick rather than the wooden framing that is a more common feature of the Monterey Revival style.

The home boasts another influential tenant in the figure of W. J. Murray Jr., who rented the property with his wife Jo from 1953-1958, during which time he served as chair of the Texas Railroad Commission. Murray’s knowledge of petroleum engineering and background in the Houston oil business awarded him significant influence in the commission, and his appointment by future governor Beauford Jester at the age of 31 marked him its youngest ever member. His involvement in the private sector would eventually be scrutinized with accusations that it presented a conflict of interest with his work as a public servant. While he did collect a sizable income from his private business ventures, Murray was ultimately exonerated of wrongdoing via grand jury proceedings in 1962.

Another focus of Sadowsky’s argument for the building’s cultural significance is its exemplification of Monterey Revivalism, a style of American architecture that emerged in the 19th century from the blending of Spanish Colonial and New England Colonial styles as New Englanders emigrated to California and became influenced by the territory’s Spanish and Mexican design.

Ultimately, the committee’s decision will be influenced by these two major features that distinguish the aging Tarrytown home.

Powers noted that while “the exterior photos of the home may have led the staff to believe in its potential for rehabilitation,” a series of photographs she displayed showed extensive cracking in the home’s exterior masonry, ceilings, walls, and floors, as well as crooked cabinets and floors due to the unstable foundation.

Speaker Hope Lochridge, who said she had grown up in the house and “watched her parents struggle with these same issues for 60 years,” echoed Powers’ plea that demolition was unfortunate but necessary. Several neighbors also submitted comments voicing their support for the family’s decision.

The commission will reevaluate all aspects of the case when it reconvenes on Aug. 23.

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