Wrecking Ball Stages Surprise Attack in Tarrytown

City does demolition job on Reed Hall, neighborhood morale

The former Tarrytown estate of the late preservationist Roberta Crenshaw was bulldozed last Friday.
The former Tarrytown estate of the late preservationist Roberta Crenshaw was bulldozed last Friday. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The violent demise of Roberta Crenshaw's longtime Tarry­town estate over the weekend came so quickly – and with so little warning – neighborhood leaders and local preservationists were stunned by how swiftly the bureaucratic wheels moved to facilitate the demolition of the massive Tudor home.

The teardown began late in the afternoon last Friday, only hours after the West Austin Neighborhood Group filed an appeal with the city to try to halt the demolition permit granted to the home's new owners, Richard and Ann Small­ing. That permit became a reality on Sept. 24, when the Historic Landmark Commission failed to secure a supermajority vote to override the owners' demolition wishes and give the house protected status as a historic structure.

Neighborhood leader Blake Tollett said WANG's interpretation of the city's ordinance was that the group could appeal the demolition permit to City Council. As Tollett relates it, WANG got its appeal together and filed it with the city early Friday afternoon. Tollett also e-mailed a copy of the appeal to Richard Suttle, the attorney who shepherded the demolition process through the city on the Smallings' behalf. "The owner[s] have a current and valid demolition permit," Suttle responded in his e-mail to Tollett late Friday afternoon. "Work has commenced under the permit. I do not think there is an appeal right from the Landmark Commission," Suttle added. "The city agrees."

Indeed, by 4:30pm the appeal had been denied. By 5pm or so, Crenshaw's onetime home at 3200 Bowman, often referred to as Reed Hall, was being demolished behind the estate's historic gates.

Yes, the new owners of Reed Hall have property rights, Tollett agreed. And, yes, he knew it would be tough to secure the supermajority six votes from the Landmark Commission to overturn the demolition permit. But the haste of the decision – and its execution on a late Friday afternoon – left Tollett amazed. "Regardless of whether the appeal was granted ... whether or not it was successful ... that's not the issue," Tollett said. "As quick as this happened on a Friday afternoon of Texas-OU weekend, it's astounding. It was like the skids were greased. It's just not fair."

John Donisi, president of the Heritage Society of Austin, also takes issue with the city's interpretation of a code that he helped author. "The Heritage Society is very troubled with the treatment of the appeal," he said. "The code directly states that the validity of an appeal will be determined by the Planning Commission or the council. Apparently a group of city staff determined the appeal had no merit – no notice, no hearing, no written record – and this left WANG with no opportunity to pursue other remedies while unquestionable irreparable harm was done to Reed Hall. Beyond the obvious damage to Reed Hall, many have expressed to me their concern that significant damage has been done to their faith in the city process," Donisi noted. "Time will tell all that transpired on Friday, but judging from the nerve it has struck, I think it's obvious that some attention needs to be given to the process to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky says the only appeals the city code allows are appeals from the His­tor­ic Landmark Commission on a certificate of appropriateness or the demolition of either a designated landmark or a contributing structure in a historic district. "The agreement was to release the permit," Sadowsky said, responding to criticism that the process moved too quickly. "We do this all the time. Once the documentation of the building was done – and I confirmed that with Richard Suttle and with his contractor that it was done and that all the photos had turned out – there really was no legal grounds to stop the demolition."

The key argument at the Landmark Commission last month was the condition of the house. Suttle argued, and Sadowsky agreed, that mold had overrun the house due to serious roof leaks. "Personally, I think that if that house had been in better condition and would not have needed to be taken down to the studs [to repair], it would have been a great landmark," Sadow­sky said. "Unfortunately, the conditions would have resulted in the construction of a new house because of the mold and water damage."

Because of the gates and dense foliage surrounding the 7-acre estate, it was impossible to view the demolition process, although the loud crashing and banging could be heard from the neighboring Tarry House. Activist and WANG member Mary Arnold, a longtime friend of the late Crenshaw, said she was disturbed and saddened by the demolition. The city, she said, failed to provide adequate notification to the neighborhood, which is currently working on its neighborhood plan with the city. "I had unfortunately envisioned something like this happening," said Arnold, who has spent decades fighting neighborhood and environmental battles.

The Reed Hall battle is particularly curious to Arnold, given the city's entrenched stance that the neighborhood had no recourse to begin with. "The city says we can't appeal this. We've gotten no written notice as to why we can't appeal. Everything else can get appealed, so why not this one?"

Arnold and others say they intend to take their concerns to council to try to keep other pieces of neighborhood history from disappearing on the fly. "We're going to ask for their help in getting this straightened out, because this is not good for our future," she said.

"It's very, very sad," Arnold concluded of the Reed Hall affair. "I don't think the Landmark Commissioners were given an adequate opportunity to consider what the alternatives might be – and staff certainly didn't help."

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Roberta Crenshaw, Reed Hall, Richard Suttle, Blake Tollett, West Austin Neighborhood Group, John Donisi, Heritage Society of Austin, Mary Arnold

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