Southgate-Lewis Survives Code Probe
City finds insufficient evidence Eastside house was operating as museum
The historic Southgate-Lewis House on the corner of 12th Street and Comal is one of the city's few remaining remnants of old East Austin. You can sense 130 years of history as you approach the structure's exterior, which is adorned with portraits of influential East Austinites. Sculptures by retired artist Bertram Allen, who serves as the home's caretaker, dot the lawn where members of the W.H. Passon Historical Society host their gatherings. The society has owned the property since 1986, when they bought it from the family of the entrepreneur Charles Lewis, but has lately found itself on the wrong side of Austin Code Enforcement, after a complainant accused the society of running a museum without proper permitting.
Allen said he was first contacted by Code last August, and was told that the city received a complaint about an unstable deck and a couple of damaged side panels. Allen believed he'd fixed everything when Code came back and asked to see inside. That brought more issues, including the lack of fire alarms, which Allen installed (along with CO2 detectors). But the problems weren't over: Code returned and levied the charge that the society was operating a museum.
The W.H. Passon Historical Society is a group of elderly African-Americans who often congregate at Southgate-Lewis. And while nobody actually lives there, Allen was adamant that the property does not house a museum: "In the past, we did have some tours. [But] most of them were through the city." He blames the mix-up on a former member (since passed) who tried to open up an unrelated religious museum using the house's address. That effort is long defunct, Allen said, though mentions of it can still be found on various old websites.
Code Enforcement doesn't usually just show up to your place by accident; the department is complaint driven, which means somebody had to put the house on the city's radar. If it were found to be running a commercial enterprise like a museum without a certificate of occupancy, Code would first try to get the business into compliance, but could eventually issue a citation, affidavit, or even refer the case to Municipal Court. For a community of elders, the process would be unmanageable. Natasha Harper-Madison, a District 1 City Council candidate who's president of the East 12th Street Merchant's Association and founder of East Austin Advocates, has been working to help Allen and the society navigate the already complicated situation. She doesn't believe Code's attention and the house's placement on a highly sought-after piece of real estate are mere coincidence.
"Somebody's doing something," she said. "And I look forward to having the opportunity to get to the bottom of it. These are elderly people who have a limited amount of time and knowledge about what to do about this. This is new to them. This never happened before; nobody gave enough of a shit about what was happening at the corner of 12th and Comal before to give them a hard time. I want them to stop having a hard time."
Apparently that worked out. Last week, Code confirmed it had found insufficient evidence of a museum on the site and closed the case on June 19. That was news to Allen when I spoke to him on Tuesday, demonstrating the communication gap between the society and city staff. Nevertheless, he expressed relief that the situation appears to be at last resolved.