The demolition of a Baylor University-area home with a state historical marker appears to have violated state law while exposing gaps in the city of Waco’s preservation policies.
The J.H. Bagby house, built by a prominent cotton broker and Baptist leader in the 1870s, was razed under a city demolition permit issued Dec. 18.
Located at 1825 S. Eighth St. near Baylor’s Armstrong-Browning Library, the ornate Victorian house had a historic medallion on its front porch.
Dallas developer Mark Boozer bought the property in August and is planning to build student duplexes on that block. The demolition permit was in the name of the prior owner, Marcia Cooper, who said the demolition was Boozer’s decision. Boozer was not available for comment Monday afternoon.
Texas Historical Commission officials said it is not illegal to tear down a private building with a state historical marker, but it is rare and a cause for concern. Under state law, owners are supposed to notify the state commission 60 days before altering or razing a designated historical structure.
“They didn’t notify us, and they didn’t take the steps they were supposed to under the law to let them know they planned a significant change to the exterior, which of course would include demolition,” commission spokesman Chris Florance said. “We would have urged them to reconsider. We would have been more than willing to work with the owner and the city and anyone else interested to find a way to avoid that.”
Florance said the THC is consulting with the state Attorney General’s Office about possible penalties for disregarding the requirements for review.
Meanwhile, the city of Waco mechanism to halt the demolition of historic properties failed.
Under city ordinance, the city’s planning director can issue a 90-day moratorium on a significant building, even if it didn’t have an official designation. The Waco Historic Landmark Commission can extend the moratorium another 90 days.
But with no system of checking whether a property was historically important, city inspection officials approved the demolition permit unchallenged.
Planning director Clint Peters said he would have asked for a moratorium, but didn’t know about the demolition until a few weeks ago, far too late.
Don Davis, executive director of Historic Waco Foundation and head of the Waco Historic Landmark Commission, said he didn’t even know about the demolition until Monday.
He said city staff didn’t mention the case at last week’s commission meeting.
“I’m sorry that it happened, and I’m unhappy that it happened without being checked by the historic landmark commission,” he said. “I thought that was one of our reasons for being. Obviously, there’s something wrong with the overall process. Hopefully, this will be corrected so it doesn’t happen again.”
Chief building official Randy Childers, who oversees inspections and demolition permits, said he has modified the review process because of this incident.
From now on, for demolition requests in the historic parts of town, he will ask the planning department to ensure the property is not historic.
That includes not only the handful of houses with state historic markers and city historic landmark designations but properties that were identified as high-priority in a 1989 survey of historic properties.
City planner Beatriz Wharton, who has been dealing with the case, said it has been “a learning experience for increased communication between departments.”
She has talked to the new owner, Boozer, and she said it appears that he didn’t realize that the home had a state historic designation.
“From what I can see, he did not come in with the intention of destroying something historic,” she said. “I really think it was a matter of miscommunication and him not being aware.”
But Marcia Cooper said she made it clear when she put the house up for sale this summer that it was a historic house, and that was a selling point. Photos of the house on the real estate site Zillow show photos with the plaque on the front porch.
“I had a buyer within a week who wanted to keep the house for his son to live in,” she said, referring to Boozer, a Baylor alumnus who has developed other student housing around campus.
She said after she had moved out, the buyer found that a leak in the outside wall had rotted the wood.
“It was more than they thought they could restore,” she said.
Cooper, 70, a retired Baylor secretary, had lived in the house off and on since she was a baby and was responsible for researching and applying for the historical marker in 1983.
“I loved the house and was very happy someone wanted to keep it,” she said, adding that she thinks the buyer was honest about his intentions.
According to the marker, James Henry and Mary Franklin Bagby built the house sometime in the 1870s on their 100-acre farm, which is now mostly student housing.
“Originally a one-story, L-shaped house, it features late Victorian architectural styling with some Queen Anne influences,” the marker says. “Interesting features include the fish-scale shingles in the gables and the corner jigsawn woodwork.”
The Bagbys moved from Kentucky to Texas in 1852 and settled in Waco in 1863, according to the “Handbook of Waco and McLennan County, Texas.”
J.H. Bagby was one of the first deacons of First Baptist Church of Waco, and one of his grandchildren would become its preacher.
The Bagbys’ youngest son, William “Buck” Bagby, was the first theology student at Waco University, now Baylor. He married Anne Luther, head of the Baylor Female College in Independence, and they became the first permanent Southern Baptist missionaries to Brazil.
Cooper said that after her grandparents bought the house, it became a home both for the family and for Baylor students. At one point, they rented the entire house to the Baylor student chamber of commerce.
Cooper continued to live in the house with two of her grown children, but she has watched as the neighborhood has given way to dense student housing, and the land became more valuable. She decided to move to a farm in Mart and leave the house behind.
“The house had the sweetest spirit about it,” she said. “You knew that godly people had lived there. When I was leaving, I thanked it for being a good home for so many children. That was the only time I teared up. . . . I don’t miss it. I don’t cry about it. I’m grateful I got to live there.”
Cooper said she was unaware of the rules about getting permission from the Texas Historical Commission before altering or razing the house. She said she intends to give the agency a call, and she also is willing to return the marker, which is state property.
Kenneth Hafertepe, a historic preservation scholar and chairman of Baylor’s museum studies program, used to work with Cooper and used to discuss with her the challenges of maintaining and living in an old house.
He said the demolition of the house is a loss to the Baylor neighborhood, and he hopes it will be a wake-up call.
“I think the demolition of this house highlights the need to pay attention to what are the the buildings that are worth saving in this neighborhood,” said Hafertepe, a former Waco Historic Landmark Commission member. “Quite obviously, this is an area with a great deal of development, which sometimes happens without a full consideration of historic significance or the way buildings contribute to the character of the neighborhood.”