Fraternity denied permit to demolish house of former professor

Joshua Fechter

The Austin Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to deny UT’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta permission to demolish the former home of a UT physics professor.

At its meeting Monday, the commission recommended granting historical status to the house of S. Leroy Brown, who created WCM, Austin’s first broadcast radio station. WCM eventually became KUT, Austin’s National Public Radio affiliate.

According to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History’s website, Brown invented the mechanical harmonic synthesizer, which is considered an early analog computer.

The fraternity’s main house at 2707 Hemphill Park, known as Buen Retiro, was granted historic status in 1972. Professor Brown’s former residence was built in 1915, and stands behind Buen Retiro.

The chapter purchased the property in 1995 after Martha Ann Zivley’s Typing Service vacated.

Finance junior Charles Branch, president of UT’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, said the fraternity planned to demolish the house in order to build a parking lot and a new facility that would provide living and study spaces for the fraternity’s expanding membership.

He said 50 members live in Buen Retiro’s 25 rooms, which he said strains the house’s bathroom and kitchen facilities.

Branch said he respects the commission’s decision, but said tearing down the smaller building will help preserve Buen Retiro.

“We’re doing this in part to save a historical landmark,” he said.

In addition to being Brown’s former residence, the commission recommended granting historical status because it exhibits Dutch Colonial Revival-style architecture and is one of the few houses in Austin that does so, according to the agenda item from Monday’s meeting.

Branch said the commission did not consider the fact that the house’s roof is caving and rodents live inside because Steve Sadowsky, Historic Preservation Office director, did not include that information in his report to the commission.

“He never stepped inside of the house,” Branch said.

Sadowsky said that the commission does not have jurisdiction over inspecting the interior of buildings.

According to the city of Austin’s webpage, the Fire Marshal’s office conducts fire and life safety inspections for multi-family residencies, fraternities and sororities. The office may also conduct investigations for single-family residencies.

Sadowsky said the recommendation to recognize the house as a historic landmark will go before the Austin Planning Commission, but he does not know when.

If the commission approves the recommendation, it will go before the City Council, who have the power to officially declare the house a historic landmark and prevent its demolition. Sadowsky said if the council approves the recommendation, the fraternity could appeal the decision in district court.

Branch said the fraternity has no current plans to contest or protest the commission’s recommendation, because it must first consult its alumni and lawyers.

Printed on Thursday, August 30, 2012 as: Fiji construction paused by ruling