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Castleman-Bull house resolution OK’d with changes

Wednesday, September 21, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council approved a resolution from Council Member Kathie Tovo last week directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to study questions about restoring the interior of the historic Castleman-Bull House, which has sat vacant since the Austin Convention Center acquired and moved it to its current location at 201 Red River St. The building has sat across from the convention center’s service yard entrance since 2000.

The vote was 7-2-2. Council members Natasha Harper-Madison and Pio Renteria voted against it. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly abstained and Council Member Chito Vela was off the dais, so Mayor Steve Adler counted him as abstaining also.

In response to a question from the Austin Monitor, Harper-Madison said via email on Tuesday, “My preference would have been, before allocating money to this project, to have our staff conduct a thorough cost analysis as well as a robust community engagement process to determine how to properly interpret the complicated, and frankly, problematic history behind this building.”

According to the resolution, the house is “one of the oldest and most substantial 19th-century houses in Austin, a fine example of the High Victorian Italianate style.” Tovo recognized that the house was originally built by Civil War veteran R.M. Castleman, who, after recovering from injuries suffered during the war, became a well-known merchant. St. David’s Episcopal Church bought the building in 1963, and it was the home of the Caritas Foundation for more than 30 years before St. David’s donated it to the city for preservation.

Tovo had been working on the resolution for some time and pushed to get a commitment that city staff would come back by Nov. 1. (changed to Dec. 1 during the adoption process) with recommendations on the cost of preservation and how the house might be used in the future. City Manager Spencer Cronk told Council it might be difficult to do all the work envisioned by the resolution by that date.

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the resolution involves staff conducting a public engagement process. Adler proposed an amendment to the resolution that included the possibility of relocating the historic structure. That did not sit well with Tovo or Council Member Leslie Pool.

Tovo argued strenuously against considering moving the house based on its possible fragility, the cost of engineering such a move, and the loss of historic context in removing it from downtown.

Pool wondered if the structure was “sufficiently sturdy” enough to be moved again.

“I don’t know,” Adler replied. “If it’s not it will be an easy question for them to answer. If it is it might be something they want to look at.” The vote on the question of including relocation as something to be considered was 6-5 in favor, including Harper-Madison on the winning side.

Tovo’s resolution states that the city manager will initiate “a community input process to consider the appropriateness of changing the name of the structure and to review alternative recommendations.” It also set aside $8 million from convention center funds for interior renovations without committing to spending them. The matter will come back to Council, but if it comes back in January rather than December, Tovo’s successor in the District 9 seat will be considering their options since Tovo is stepping down at the end of this year.

Harper-Madison called upon a member of the audience to discuss whether the Black embassy might be housed in the building. Charles Byrd, who uses the name Nook Turner, noted that his group was part of the coalition requesting “a report to show damages and losses that Blacks have suffered due to the 1928 master plan along with apologizing for systemic racism, slavery, and putting us in a situation where Blacks can get an equitable piece of the pie in the city.”

Whether or not a Black organization may use the house is one question, but he complained that the city has not reported back to his group on efforts to quantify the damage done to Black Austinites or any other further steps the city might take.

Photo by Google Maps.

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