UT fraternity's redevelopment plans halted by Austin Historic Landmark Commission

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A demolition permit for a house owned by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was halted late last month by the Austin Historic Landmark Commission after claiming that the house could be designated a historic landmark.

Austin’s Historic Preservation Office was asked to further research the North Campus house located on 2707 Hemphill Park, a 97-year-old year bungalow-style house purchased by the fraternity in the late ‘90s. The building is located behind Buen Retiro, the fraternity’s main house, which was designated a historical property in 1972.

Steve Sadowsky, director of the Historic Preservation Office said he will recommend to the Historic Landmark Commission on July 30 that the house be designated a historic landmark because of its unique architecture and historical associations. The Historic Landmark Commission released a statement about the need to preserve the house because it “is one of a handful of houses remaining in Austin demonstrating the shaped parapets of the early Dutch Colonial Revival.”

The building was once home to UT physicist S. Leroy Brown, who created WCM, Austin’s first broadcast station — the station would go on to become KUT, according to a 1966 obituary written by UT faculty. And according to the Austin Historic Landmark Commission documents, Brown invented the mechanical multi-harmonograph, an early form of calculator that predated digital computing.

Kent Collins, the redevelopment project’s real estate developer and Texas Phi Gamma Delta alumnus, said he believes the HLC has done a poor job of researching the house. He said according to the City’s records, the building is not unique for Austin and does not need to be preserved.

“Austin has structures in our historic inventory that preserve the architecture — both Dutch Colonial Revival and the use of unique shaped parapets in residential structures,” Collins said. “Austin has structures in our historic inventory recognizing the history of KUT ... the true history of KUT occurred after Dr. Brown’s two-year association with radio at UT, and our landmarks portray that.”

Collins said the goal of the new building is to relieve pressure from the main house, which at times holds more than 200 people. It will be a bigger, more modern version of the previous house, needed to accommodate the growing needs of the fraternity, Collins said.

“If the demolition permit for the house does pass,” Collins said, “then the building we build in its place will be used as an extension of the main house with bedrooms, study rooms, social space, computer rooms and a house mother’s apartment.”

Sadowsky said the HLC will work with Collins and his company, Centro Development to reach a compromise if the building is demolished, but options other than demolition are not economically feasibly, Collins said.

“If the HLC does not recommend historic zoning, then we will release the demolition permit. We are asking the fraternity to consider alternatives to demolition, including incorporating it into the proposed addition, building around it, or moving it within a specified area that would retain its context with UT.” Sadowsky said. “If the house is demolished, we will require a documentation package, which does include photographs, a narrative history and a dimensioned sketch plan.”

According to a statement from the Office of the Dean of Students, the HLC findings will determine the exact significance of the building.

“The fact that the house was once owned by a UT Austin professor certainly links it to the University,” the statement read. “The fact that this professor, S. Leroy Brown, made important contributions to the creation of KUT radio and even the computer is definitely important.”

After Brown died in 1966, the house became home to Martha Ann Zivley’s Typing Service.

Collins said the business and buildings around campus are bound to change over time.

“Sure, I remember going there when I went to UT, but since then many popular UT-centric businesses have closed or moved,” Collins said. “I remember getting a great breakfast at 1 a.m. at The Frisco, which has been replaced by a Schlotzsky’s. That place had been there for over 50 years. Time doesn’t stand still, that’s just not how things work.”