What is historically significant?

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Former home of Philip Creer on Gaston Ave.

In today’s Monitor, I wrote about a historic zoning case that the Planning Commission heard last week. At issue is a house in Old West Austin that used to be owned by Philip Creer, erstwhile dean of the UT School of Architecture and the first chair of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission. So basically, somebody who may be well-known in the architectural community (and therefore among members of the Planning Commission & Historic Landmark Commission) but not particularly prominent among the general public.

The debate among commissioners was not whether Creer’s home was historically significant. Nobody challenged that. The only argument was over whether its historical association was so significant that the commission should overlook the changes that the owners made to the home in recent years.

James Shieh, the chair of the commission, was conflicted: “(A)t what point are we going to say that this is extraordinary and this isn’t?”

Yep, that’s an important question that I’ve rarely seen members of the land use commissions address in ways that any average citizen –– even one with an appreciation for history –– would recognize.

There are occasionally members of the public or commissioners who will say what everybody’s thinking. A home in Pemberton Heights that was approved for historic preservation in 2016 drew opposition from a neighboring Pemberton resident who ruthlessly mocked the property’s claim to historic significance. Staff had argued that it was significant because its former owner ran a lumber company for 32 years.

Hayman suggested that Warren, who ran the business from 1933 to 1965, was not a good businessman at all. The company’s major contributions to Austin building took place before he became president, she said, and it ceased to exist entirely after his retirement. A more impressive mogul would have left behind a greater legacy, she argued.

“I maintain that he drove that company into the ground,” Hayman said, provoking chuckles from some commissioners and city staffers.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky had a different interpretation of events, saying that Warren helped take the business “to a new level” when he became a partner at the firm in 1920.

In his comments last week, Shieh wondered aloud about what makes a person historically significant. His own home, he noted, was once inhabited by a doctor who did lots of good work in the community. But was it notable enough for his home to be protected against any future alterations long after he’s gone?

City code lays out a number of requirements for buildings to be designated as landmarks. First, they have to be at least 50 years old. Second, if they’re not already recognized as landmarks by four national and state authorities, they must satisfy two of the following criteria:

Architecture. The property embodies the distinguishing characteristics of a recognized architectural style, type, or method of construction; exemplifies technological innovation in design or construction; displays high artistic value in representing ethnic or folk art, architecture, or construction; represents a rare example of an architectural style in the city; serves as an outstanding example of the work of an architect, builder, or artisan who significantly contributed to the development of the city, state, or nation; possesses cultural, historical, or architectural value as a particularly fine or unique example of a utilitarian or vernacular structure; or represents an architectural curiosity or one-of-a-kind building.

Historical Associations. The property has long-standing significant associations with persons, groups, institutions, businesses, or events of historic importance which contributed significantly to the history of the city, state, or nation; or represents a significant portrayal of the cultural practices or the way of life of a definable group of people in a historic time.

Archeology. The property has, or is expected to yield, significant data concerning the human history or prehistory of the region;

Community Value. The property has a unique location, physical characteristic, or significant feature that contributes to the character, image, or cultural identity of the city, a neighborhood, or a particular group.

Landscape Feature. The property is a significant natural or designed landscape or landscape feature with artistic, aesthetic, cultural, or historical value to the city.

As you can see, all of these categories are subjective to a certain extent. I’d argue that the architectural significance is less subjective since there are a number of very clear standards about whether a building should be considered an example of this or that style. But “community value” and “historical association” will invariably be defined very differently depending on who is in charge of the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

I’ll definitely have to write more on this issue in the future. There are other aspects of the historic preservation debate that are equally challenging, notably the fact that many of those benefiting from historic preservation tax abatements are already stupendously rich.

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