A Little Fixer-Upper

The state tries to sell Woodlawn, site of the historic Pease Mansion.

The Pease Mansion
The Pease Mansion (Photo By John Anderson)

For sale: One-of-a-kind 8br/6ba handyman's special in mature, in-town neighborhood. Acreage for privacy plus charming but modernized pre-war estate home -- a great project for the successful, sensitive owner with TLC to spare. Death in "family" means a motivated seller! Gov. Rick Perry's loss can be your gain! Contact Texas General Land Office.

When the state does start taking bids for Woodlawn, the historic Pease mansion in West Austin's Enfield neighborhood, the offer will be more subtle than this, but the content will be the same. The house needs plenty of work. Its Enfield neighbors and preservationists will be watching avidly to make sure the new owner does right by the house and the neighborhood.

The state of Texas' rationale for owning the house basically died with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, whose project it was. In late October, the State Preservation Board -- which oversees Woodlawn as well as the State Capitol, Governor's Mansion, and the Bullock Museum -- voted unanimously to put Woodlawn on the block. "Sorry, Bob," said Rep. Tony Goolsby of Dallas, a member of the SPB (along with Perry, Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, House Speaker Pete Laney, Sen. David Cain of Dallas, and citizen member Dealey Herndon), looking toward Bullock's heavenly rest.

The original Woodlawn was actually built and named by James Shaw, longtime comptroller of the Republic -- then the state -- of Texas. The house and 365 acres were then bought by Governor Elisha M. Pease, the Connecticut Yankee whose hometown of Enfield lent its name to the neighborhood later developed on those 365 acres by his heirs. (If you live on a street named after a place in Connecticut, you're on the old Pease estate.) By the time the Pease descendants vacated the premises in 1957 -- simply known as the Pease Mansion by then -- the family estate had shrunk to a 3.24-acre parcel after Pease's grandson, R. Niles Graham, and other family members subdivided it into the Enfield neighborhood. Gov. Allen Shivers, who had just left office, bought and lived in the mansion until his death in 1985.

Shivers' will specified that upon the death of his widow Marialice (in 1996), Woodlawn would be deeded to the University of Texas, possibly for use as a conference center. After deciding against this option, and blanching at the amount of work needed to fix up the rambling manse (22 rooms, not counting bathrooms), UT put it up for sale in 1997 at a minimum bid of $2.6 million. Enter Bullock, who foresaw Woodlawn as a new Governor's Mansion (to the dismay of that august home's own friends and fans), or perhaps as a home for visiting dignitaries akin to Washington, D.C.'s Blair House. The state duly paid UT's asking price and appropriated a further $3.2 million for restoration.

However, Bullock's notion did not tickle the fancy of the two people whose opinions really mattered: Govs. George W. Bush and Perry. "Neither [governor] expressed any desire to live there," says State Preservation Board Executive Director Rick Crawford, "so without a clear use, it didn't seem to make much sense" to spend the $3.2 million. After a few other furtive ideas floated and then sank, the state's course of action became clear.

The property will actually be marketed by the General Land Office. "The first thing they need to do is get an appraisal from [someone] who can do historic properties and who is familiar with Austin and with that neighborhood," says Crawford, relaying information he received from the GLO. This means it'll be next spring before the state closes on Woodlawn, and who knows how bad the market will be then for $7 million of house-flesh. "I guess there's people in this town who can afford that," Crawford notes.

But would -- or should -- Woodlawn be bought by people, or by an organization looking to use it as something other than a home? "There's some who argue that its highest and best use would be as a single-family residence," says architectural historian Peter Flagg Maxson, a member of the Heritage Society of Austin's board of directors. "And then others argue it should be a sympathetic adaptive use, as something that would then be accessible to the public while still being compatible to the neighborhood. It's possible there would be an appropriate nonprofit, though I don't know who or what."

Woodlawn's neighbors have not, in the past, expressed great glee about the estate's becoming a public place. Though the state has no choice but to take the best bid, one imagines that Enfield opposition would sink any plans to make it, say, a luxury spa resort. Yet such a buyer could most easily afford to restore the house (or at least its 19th-century core, designed by Governor's Mansion architect Abner Cook) to appropriate historical standards, which is what the city's preservationists would like to see.

Maxson suggests that any transaction with the GLO could be accompanied by restrictive covenants that reinforce the home's historic significance, though it's not certain whether the state can do this. Such measures "would put some checks and balances on a buyer who wanted to do something unsympathetic. But my personal thought," Maxson said, "is that it would be very nice if we had a third rich governor looking for an Austin plantation."

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