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Then There's This: The House McKown Built

The emotional fight to save 'the crown of Crestview'

By Amy Smith, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

Then There's This: The House McKown Built

Were he alive today, R.J. McKown, a pioneer road contractor who contributed much to Austin's midcentury growth, might agree that the current owner of the home he lovingly built for his family more than 60 years ago should now be allowed to demolish it.

That is to say McKown, whose line of work called for tearing things down to build things up, may have come down on the side of property rights over sentimental value attached to the home he built with sturdy yellow brick, Texas pecan flooring, ornamental gables, and other quality features. "Everything he built was always built to last for many years," McKown's granddaughter, Marilynn McKown Goode, told Crestview neighbors researching her family history.

McKown, a sturdy, thick-set craftsman of Southern stock, may have quibbled with city staff's finding that the unusually large (by Crestview standards) house at Richcreek and Woodrow lacked sufficient architectural significance to warrant a historic landmark designation. What, no respect for Fifties ranch-style houses? Late last month, the Historic Land­mark Com­mission agreed with staff's finding and, without discussion, approved a demolition permit to take down "the crown of Crestview," in a Fifties-era North Cen­tral neighborhood undergoing rapid change.

After hearing testimony from neighbors who put forth a sweet, valiant effort to save the big, rambling home known as the McKown-James House, Commission Chair Laurie Limbacher commended their endeavor but said the HLC was bound to separate emotion from the black-and-white decision before the commission: "Does the house conform to the criteria for designation as an individual landmark? ... I believe staff has made an accurate assessment." The vote to accept the staff recommendation was 4-2, with Commissioners Terri Myers and Andrea Rob­erts voting no after Myers' initial motion for historic designation failed by the same margin.

What Comes Next?

It's not yet clear what Santa Barbara, Calif.-based owner, Lori Smyth, plans to do with the property, though unconfirmed reports from residents suggest the large lot at 1501 Richcreek is slated for three duplexes, meeting one goal of the Imagine Austin Compre­hensive Plan – to diversify housing stock in central neighborhoods – while defeating another: neighborhood preservation. Devel­op­er agent Mike McHone told me he took the case on referral by another city lobbyist, and doesn't know anything beyond what he was hired to do: secure a demo permit on the house. He also noted that staff's initial recommendation – to relocate the home – would have posed too many risks, because the house would need to be "cut up" in order to move it.

Propon­ents of saving the home wanted it to stay put so it could continue captivating the hearts of future generations of Crest­view residents. The house "embodies the aspirations of past and present residents," neighbor Anne-Charlotte Patterson told the commission. "It wasn't so grand that a working family couldn't imagine themselves living there." She asked the panel to "honor the aspirations of past residents and future residents" by granting the house protected status.

Kelly Chappell, owner of Top Notch Ham­burgers, recounted how he had dreamed of someday buying and restoring the house. "I watched it for years go in and out of foreclosure," he said, adding that when the bank put the house and property up for bid earlier this year, he made the highest offer. Rival bidder Smyth, however, low-balled with cash, and the bank eagerly accepted.

Not everyone in Crestview was as enamored with the McKown-James house as those campaigning to save it. The efforts to prevent the demolition brought out three of the neighborhood's property rights proponents to testify against giving the home protected status. Fred Bosse, who lives next door to the home, dismissed Chappell as a "frustrated bidder" trying to thwart the plans of the new owner. "We have a confluence of a lot of emotion and a lot of sentiment as opposed to historical value," Bosse told the commission. "I'm more interested in seeing something productive built on that site," he said – words he may soon regret once construction crews take up residence next door. They were followed by a fourth opponent of landmark designation, architect and Crestview resident Heidi Goebel, who argued against the designation on grounds that the house does not meet the city's criteria. And, she said, the McKown family already has a designated landmark – a former home in Travis Heights.

Earlier in the evening, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky wore the look of a doctor delivering grim news to a patient whose days are numbered. He followed his prognosis with a nod to the neighborhood group's "incredible compilation of materials" about the house and R.J. McKown. "That level of neighborhood interest is something that we rarely see in any commission," Sadow­sky said. In the end, it didn't make a difference in the fate of the McKown-James House, but the research materials will be given permanent residence at the Austin History Center.

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