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Dilapidated home could serve downtown as historical visitors center

By Melissa Crowe
July 27, 2013 at 2:27 a.m.
Updated July 28, 2013 at 2:28 a.m.

What was once a kitchen in the Zahn House has piles of items from furniture to knickknacks in front of the sink and shelves where bottles are still neatly placed. The current owner of the house is prepared to knock the structure down if no one steps up to take it away.

Self-proclaimed "downtowners" are laying the foundation to find a new life for the pre-Civil War era Zahn House.

These Victoria residents, historians and preservationists believe moving the home to the entrance of Victoria's downtown - at the 600 block of Main Street - will add to the renaissance of the area, where businesses cater to people who come visit, those who moved back and some who never left.

Torin Bales, one of several entrepreneurs investing in downtown, considers the 152-year-old house, located a 107 S. DeLeon St., not only an historical asset but an economic opportunity.

"There's not much Victoria can hang their hat on as far as tourism except its history," said Bales, who has called Victoria home the past 20 years. "We don't have an amusement park. ... The one thing we do have is history."

He is one of dozens of residents urging the city to incorporate the house into the visitors center design and spend hotel/motel occupancy tax dollars to restore it. The house is owned by Bud and Linda Hankins, who want it moved so they can build a new home.

"You can't build character," Bales said. "You can make something new look old, but it won't have that character."

He restored the building on Santa Rosa Street where Steve-a-Reno's Rock 'N' Roll Blues Bar is located, and he is in the process of restoring what will become a rental hall for receptions and parties at 212 S. Main St.

"When I moved to Victoria 20 years ago, the one thing that really touched me was our downtown - even then," Bales said.

However, the increasing price tag to move and restore the old house could be an issue.

Chip Dence, a partner with East End Builders, estimates moving the house would cost about $20,000, and all the extras - trimming trees for the move, setting the foundation and clearing the lot - could tip the cost to more than $80,000.

Dence, who has experience restoring homes, including the Victoria County Courthouse, the Mitchell House and a house in Cuero at 307 N. Terrell St., estimates the restoration for the 1,400-square-foot Zahn House would cost about $150,000.

"That's the very starting place," Dence said. "If $100 a square foot scares you, you better not do it."

He doesn't have any doubt that the house is worth it and considered purchasing it back in the mid-1970s.

"It's got pretty good bones," he said.

At an informal planning meeting Monday, Mayor Paul Polasek and Councilman Tom Halepaska took turns raising questions about the project.

Polasek suggested developing a historical village near the Riverside Park entrance on Stayton Street but said he is open to discussing the Main Street proposal as well as any other ideas for the house.

"I want to preserve the home, and I do want to build a visitors center, but I'm concerned that trying to combine these projects would complicate the issue too much," Polasek said.

He said he has no problem using hotel/motel funds for historic preservation. However, he said he wants to see the private sector "spearhead the effort."

"I don't think the city should be hands-on in this project," he said.

Former Mayor Will Armstrong is one of several pushing for the project to move forward quickly.

"We need walking tours, we need driving tours, and we need a place where people can pick up information," Armstrong said. "I think the house needs to be on Main Street since we have investors who are investing on Main Street."

Because hotel/motel taxes have specific guidelines on what they can and cannot be spent on - one being historical preservation - the project is a perfect fit, Armstrong said.

"I consider this a very serious form of economic development and preservation combined," he said.

Whether the city decides to invest in restoring the Zahn House, downtown Victoria is not showing signs of slowing down.

Bales' new business remodel is coming along, and a new restaurant on the top floor of One O'Connor Plaza is set to open soon. Boutiques, restaurants and a growing nightlife scene create an atmosphere that keeps visitors and locals entertained.

"If someone just sees the north side of town, that doesn't tell what Victoria is all about," Bales said. "It's the history that tells what Victoria is all about."

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