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Effort to designate West Austin house historic fails at Council

Wednesday, November 2, 2022 by Nina Hernandez

At its regular meeting last week, City Council did not pass an item that would have designated West Austin’s Delisle House a historic landmark.

Before the vote, Mayor Steve Adler explained that the measure would need a nine-vote supermajority to pass on all three readings. The final vote was 3-7-1, so the measure did not pass.

The fight over the property started earlier this summer, when the current owner applied for a demolition permit for the two-story Spanish eclectic dwelling at 2002 Scenic Drive. The structure was built in the 1920s by optician and architect Raymond Maurice Delisle and was owned for many years by the Slator family. The Historic Landmark Commission initiated the historic zoning process in June against the owner’s wishes. The Planning Commission considered the case in September but ultimately passed it to Council without a recommendation.

The owner is represented by attorney Michael Whellan, who told Council that the house was purchased last November in a deteriorated state. An engineer study indicated the house would require deconstruction and reconstruction to make it viable – a project that could cost “millions” of dollars. Whellan said the structure does not meet criteria under code to qualify as historic and that the criteria offered by the neighborhood and city staff do not stand up to scrutiny.

He also questioned the historical significance of the previous owners. “Neither Slator nor Delisle had any meaningful civic, philanthropic or historic impact, or left any meaningful legacy or sacrifice for the greater community,” Whellan said.

Whellan previously told the Planning Commission he believes Slator participated in segregation as owner of the Tavern pub at 12th and Lamar, though city staffers could not confirm the allegation. Slator’s daughter, Deborah Slator Gillan, gave testimony during Thursday’s meeting in which she called Whellan’s comments “slanderous allegations based on speculation” and vehemently denied her family had participated in segregation.

“I was in the Tavern many times during my father’s proprietorship,” she said. “Based on my firsthand knowledge and experience, I categorically deny any and all claims of racism, segregation or any other improprieties.”

During the debate on the dais, Alter urged her colleagues to pass the change. “This is a historic house that is architecturally incomparable and I believe that we should follow the recommendations of the Historic Landmark Commission and our staff,” she said.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said that while she agrees with historic landmark designation in principle, she would vote no due to the “heartburn” she would feel going against the applicant’s wishes. Council Member Chito Vela called it a “beautiful house in pretty bad shape” and would also vote no.

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