Exploring Lives – Jack Evins

Editor’s Note: Jack Evins and his wife Debbie have lived in and around Hyde Park since 1974 and have been stewards of the Weisiger-White house on Avenue F since 1977. Jack served as president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association for two terms beginning in 1978. As a longtime resident, HPNA officer, and owner of a historic home, Jack offers a unique perspective worth sharing before he and Debbie move to Debbie’s hometown of Galveston to begin the next chapter of their lives.


KL: You have lived in and around Hyde Park since 1974. What brought you to Austin and Hyde Park?

JE: I came here to do graduate studies in International Relations at The University of Texas after graduating from Texas A&M with a political science major and history minor.


KL: What is it like to be the steward of a historic landmark home?

JE: Our home, the Weisiger-White house built in 1892, was one of the first structures in the neighborhood to get historic zoning. When we bought our house, it had been divided into a triplex with one unit upstairs, one unit downstairs, and a garage apartment in the back. It needed extensive work on the foundation and elsewhere; we have made several attempts over many years to get it into its current condition.


KL: How did you become involved in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association?

JE: In about 1976, shortly after the neighborhood association was formed, Debbie and I became aware of the HPNA and we began attending meetings. Merle Franke was president and Dorothy Richter was, as always, one of the main players in neighborhood efforts. Dorothy and others encouraged me to take a leadership role and I was nominated as president. I served for two terms, 1978 and 1979. As a student of history and political science, I was drawn in during an era when young people were inclined to be politically active. We were coming off the heels of Vietnam protests, Watergate, race riots, and assassinations, and so the notion of being involved in political issues that impacted a neighborhood that had historic merits was a natural fit and really engaged me. So, the HPNA favored me with the office of president for a couple of years, which was a real privilege, and at an exciting time to be involved. Of course, at the time, the neighborhood’s reputation and standing as an historic neighborhood was not well established or recognized.


KL: Will you tell me about the work you did during that time?

JE: We saw historic zoning as an opportunity to protect some of the landmark structures and try to stabilize the neighborhood. At the time, there was considerable pressure on the old housing stock. Absentee landlords, with little inclination to perform necessary upkeep for old, tenant-occupied structures, allowed homes to deteriorate. There was pressure from multi-family development to replace single-family homes. The Hyde Park Baptist Church was seeking parcels for surface parking, activities, and expanding their physical plant, and they demolished several houses.

Historic zoning was a mechanism used to stem the tide of deterioration and demolition and preserve the historic fabric of the neighborhood. We wanted to draw attention to the unique characteristics of some of the structures, which was a step in the right direction.


KL: How have you seen the character of the neighbor evolve during the time you have lived here?

JE: Well, fortunately, we were in at the beginning of the wave of historic zoning, and then the neighborhood revitalized the Historic Homes Tour. We identified particular landmarks and then the tour generated some public support and appreciation outside the neighborhood for the unique characteristics of the built environment here. Of course, we had some contentious episodes with the Hyde Park Baptist Church as they expanded their footprint and threatened housing stock. Ultimately, the inherent beauty of the neighborhood with its distinctive older housing stock, urban forest, and proximity to central city amenities drew other people with sufficient resources who came in and started fixing up houses.


The flip side of that trend is a move toward some type of gentrification, and that is a double-edged sword. The neighborhood is an asset in terms of representing a certain historical epoch. Aside from the surviving structures, there are a number of people important to the history of the city and beyond who lived in the neighborhood and who are worth memorializing. However, the requirement to invest significant capital to preserve structures means that the neighborhood is less affordable for people with modest incomes. That concerns me because I believe the neighborhood benefits from having as much diversity as it can support.


KL: As a resident and neighborhood leader, which accomplishments are you most proud of?

JE: I served on the Travis County Historic Commission and I also served on the city’s Commission (an urban master plan committee) back in the 1980s. In terms of actual results, I am proud of what Debbie and I did to preserve our own house. In terms of my work in HPNA, I helped in resolving an impasse between the City of Austin and the Texas Fine Arts Association that was impeding a commitment for funds to preserve the Elisabet Ney Museum. The museum structure had some serious issues and, like other historic buildings, it was deteriorating. We were able to persuade TFAA and the city to work together and that resulted in an agreement that led to significant funding from the city, the Heritage Society, and others. I took my sister to visit the museum for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it was a real thrill to show her something that was so significant and to feel like I had some small role in its current vibrant state.


KL: The Hyde Park neighborhood has a long history of intense division on important issues such as the demolition of houses, the Hyde Park Baptist Church development, the local historic district, the debate about accessory dwelling units, and commercial development. People who live here tend to be very civically engaged. How do you think these conflicts have shaped the neighborhood over time?

JE: The conflicts have some pluses. To the extent that people have strong feelings about neighborhood issues, they become engaged with others in discussions that have to do with the larger fabric of the neighborhood. I think that is better than not caring at all, regardless of their position. As a political scientist, I think people should be involved in deciding what their community and larger society should be. I place a value on diversity of thought as well as socio-economic diversity. Dialogue is important. If there was a homogeneity of thought about what this neighborhood should be like, the neighborhood could develop tunnel vision and become unnecessarily hostile to or even oblivious to opportunities to evolve into something even better than it is now. Debate and emotive issues are good because they involve people. The local scene is a microcosm of what is happening at a national level. Ultimately I hope that people will find grounds to compromise and not get drawn in to non-negotiable hard-line stances where nobody is able to get anything done. That is disadvantageous. What we need to do is be able to voice opinions and try to synthesize some kind of amalgam solution that maybe makes no one totally happy, but at least moves the ball forward.


KL: You have been very involved in the Halloween celebration on Avenue F. What part did you play in developing one of the best traditions in our neighborhood?

JE: Debbie and I hosted a Halloween party annually for several years. We invited friends and co-workers. Our neighbors Earnest and Carol Adams also hosted a party. Over the years our own party took on too much of a life of its own and so we decided to stop having them, but Earnest and Carol continued. They began decorating their porch and we began incrementally upping our game in terms of decorating and attracting more trick-or-treaters. It was just so much fun to have people come by and obviously appreciate the effort we and our neighbors put into the event. Even though they were often people from outside the neighborhood, it was great to have some means of providing a relatively safe environment that honored the tradition of Halloween because I don’t know how much opportunity kids have any more to get a sense of what Halloween is. Each year, what we put together was beyond what we did the year before. We went way over the top. Apparently it was contagious and now many neighbors participate. It was great to get feedback about how much fun it was and how much people appreciated our efforts. I love the spontaneity of the event.


KL: As you plan to leave Hyde Park, are there any thoughts you would like to share with your neighbors?

JE: I encourage those who live here, who are aware of and sensitive to the unique character of this neighborhood, to continue to find ways to recognize and publicize the historical nature of the neighborhood. The neighborhood is not exclusively defined by its history, but it would be different without it. It is important to value its architectural constructs and the existence of the subdivision itself, frequently referred to as Austin’s first suburb. Also, we should remember certain individuals who have resided in the neighborhood for key parts of their lives and their contributions to our Austin’s development.


Austin is a unique community and Hyde Park defines a part of Austin and an important part of Austin’s evolution. I feel fortunate that Hyde Park still exists in the state that it does. West Campus had a lot of structures comparable to Hyde Park. While a few homes still exist, the sense of the fabric of the neighborhood as it was has been forever changed. Parts of Fairview and Travis Heights still have a little bit of that flavor, but these areas are few and far between.

I am proud of the fact that my home and the one next door are the oldest side-by-side residences in the neighborhood. We discovered years ago that William D. Eyres built our house, the one next door, and the one immediately south across 41st Street, and that he also had a hand in the construction of the Elizabet Ney Museum. It may be just the nerdy history buff in me, but these details are significant to me and part of what makes Hyde Park different from other neighborhoods. I would encourage those in the neighborhood to focus on the things that make us distinct and help foster public appreciation of those elements because absent that, those elements are in danger of being lost.