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Then There's This: Saving the Baylor House

The fight to spare the home of the woman who saved Clarksville

By Amy Smith, Fri., April 11, 2014

The Baylor House
The Baylor House
Courtesy of The City of Austin

No one doubts the critical role Mary Baylor played in shaping Austin's civil rights history, but the question of where she lived during her most active years could determine the fate of her former home at 1607 W. 10th.

The modest, Fifties home in West Austin's historic Clarksville is on City Council's agenda today (Thursday, April 10) for consideration for historic zoning, although the case is expected to be postponed at the request of the Clarksville Community Devel­opment Corpor­a­tion. The CCDC – along with the city Historic Landmark Commission, Baylor's daughters, and neighborhood residents – seek to preserve the structure over the objection of owner Sean Kubi­cek, who bought the home last year from a cousin of Bay­lor's husband. Kubicek, who says he wasn't informed of the home's history when he purchased it, is requesting the city's permission to demolish the house to build a 2,100-square-foot home for his family.

Opponents of the home's removal argue that Clarksville – a freedman's community founded and built by former slaves and their descendants – is losing too many of its original homes to gentrification. And if any home should be spared the wrecking ball, they say, it should be the Baylor House – listed as the No. 1 contributing structure in the historic district and the first home one sees when entering Clarksville, the oldest surviving freedomtown west of the Mississippi River. Baylor's contributions are well documented: She led the fight in the Sixties and Seventies to have basic city services extended to Clarksville. She fought against the construction of MoPac, which wiped out a third of Clarksville's homes, and successfully challenged a proposed crosstown freeway that would have decimated the neighborhood, which has since won state and national historic designations. Baylor was a volunteer in President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty Pro­gram, served as director of the Clarksville Neigh­borhood Center, and founded the CCDC in 1978 with the express purpose of preserving and rehabbing old homes for low-income residents.

But the case has been complicated by the fact that Baylor and her family moved to a house next door, at 1609 W. 10th, in either 1964, or the early Seventies, depending on whether you rely on the historical accuracy of city directories or on the memories of Baylor's daughters and others who fought alongside Mary Baylor, who died in 1997. Both daughters told the Planning Commission last month that they remember living at 1607 W. 10th well past 1964 – the year Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, relying on directories on file at the Austin History Center, says the Baylors moved from the home they rented to one they purchased. It's the first home, however, that has retained its original features, and Sadowsky has deemed it to be in good condition. He told the commission he would recommend historic zoning "if the commission feels that this house has a significant association with the life and career of Mary Freeman Baylor."

Preservation advocates insist that the home's association with Baylor is clear. "There were many meetings and get-togethers" at 1607 W. 10th, daughter Cynthia Baylor told the commission. "I have recollections of being there in 1967 when I was 13 years old [and] it was when I began to realize what was going on at these meetings," she said, recalling discussions about the dusty roads, potholes, and scarcity of street lighting. She submitted similar written testimony to the Historic Landmark Commission, noting: "Those meetings during our stay at 1607 from the mid-60s until we moved in 1971 always consisted of improvements for the residents of Clarksville."

The Planning Commission, with one of its members absent the night of the vote, deadlocked on a decision and sent it to Council without a recommendation. Commissioner Brian Roark was altogether dismissive of the historic zoning argument and made the first motion to deny the designation, saying, "If the heirs of Ms. Baylor thought this house was that important, they shouldn't have sold it."

His remarks, as well as testimony from the property owner and his allies, didn't sit well with Commissioner and Clarksville resident Jean Stevens, who fears the historic integrity of the neighborhood is on the verge of extinction "with people coming in, purchasing the land, claiming ignorance, then getting the free-for-all to do what they want." She urged Sadowsky and the Historic Landmark Com­mission to "get on the ball" and start giving Clarksville the attention it deserves.

Council Member Kathie Tovo shares the sentiments of Stevens, her appointee on the commission, and questions why the length of time Baylor lived at 1607 W. 10th should even be considered. "It's clear that she lived in the house for some period, and her significance in that house and in Clarksville, and really the broader community is uncontested," she said. The possibility of the house being demolished is, in Tovo's view, "such an unfortunate irony" because of Baylor's role in fending off wrecking crews. "She spent so much of her life making sure her neighbors got the services they deserved and making sure the neighborhood was preserved and recognized for its historical integrity."

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