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Securing history

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Council, commission to seek state historical marker for City Hall West

City Hall West may soon join the state’s list of historic landmarks.

The Denton City Council has agreed to work with the Denton County Historical Commission to secure a state historical marker for the building, first erected to serve as City Hall in 1927.

The building’s tiled roof and elaborate embellishments echo architectural details of the Spanish missions of South Texas, a style the architect, Elmer Van Slyke, used in other public buildings common in other cities but not in Denton.

The council agreed to pursue a state marker after a briefing Tuesday afternoon from the city’s planning staff and a representative of the Texas Historical Commission.

The county’s initial steps toward securing a state historic designation for City Hall West met with some resistance from the city last year, in part because the city was also in talks with a developer about selling the property as part of a larger redevelopment project downtown.

City planning director Brian Lockley told the council that talks with developers cooled after the proposal for the state marker emerged.

In general, developers have told the staff that a state historic marker is considered an asset to a building, but they also told the staff that the state’s requirement for a 60-day notice before making changes to the exterior of a building “would be viewed negatively,” Lockley said.

Justin Kockritz, a regional reviewer with the Texas Historical Commission, said that applications to his agency can run concurrent with construction permit applications to the city. The agency has its own “sticks and carrots” to encourage historic preservation, Kockritz said, but it tries to work with owners and the unexpected problems that come up in a reasonable way.

City Hall West received a local landmark designation in 1982, which already means that any change, including demolition, must be reviewed by the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, which can take at least 21 days, Lockley said.

Council members asked Kockritz many questions about the value of the state program, which has offered grants to defray reconstruction costs in the past but has no money in that fund now.

Details are being worked out for a state franchise tax waiver that goes into effect in 2015 and could help with renovation costs, Kockritz said. But mainly, state markers help market a historic area to visitors, he said.

Of the 3,700 state recorded landmarks, about 2,100 are historic homes, he said. Of the remaining, about half are small commercial buildings and are privately owned. Publicly owned buildings recorded as Texas historic landmarks are uncommon, Kockritz said.

Beth Stribling, chairwoman of the county historical commission, said state markers stay with the building and are an important educational tool for residents and visitors.

It was not immediately clear when a resolution would come before the council to approve the state marker application, but the council agreed that pursuit of a marker moved on a separate track than the possible sale of City Hall West.

Council member Dalton Gregory cautioned the rest of the council that the city might want to take some time to consult with the present owners of City Hall West — the taxpayers — before taking the discussion much further.

“You don’t want to take this so far down the road that it looks like a done deal,” Gregory said.

Some residents point to the city’s long-ago sale of the old fire station on Avenue B to a private owner as a cautionary tale. The building was not given any kind of historic designation before the transfer and eventually fell into disrepair. It is scheduled for demolition along with two neighboring buildings to make room for a new pharmacy near the University of North Texas campus.

The council already talked about the possible sale of City Hall West in closed session in January. State law allows the council to discuss real estate matters behind closed doors to protect the public’s interest.

Typically, surplus government property, including city property, goes out for bid, but the Texas attorney general has ruled in favor of other kinds of exchanges when taxpayers are assured of fair market value for the property.

Gregory asked whether the council should consider the matter after a planned study of all its facilities.

That commissioned study is one of many proposed projects for the upcoming bond package, and whether it is recommended by the citizens bond advisory committee for the November election remains to be seen.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.