This article is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, and is a collaboration of the Rice Design Alliance and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
Another year has passed but Houston is forever young. Or so it seems. Whether we love or hate living in Houston, our arguments about the region tend to come back to the same assertion: Houston is young. Our youth explains so much, after all, like how few pedestrian-friendly streets there are and how unfinished the city feels.
Except that Houston is, in fact, old. At least for a city in the United States. It was founded in 1836. Chicago was incorporated in 1837, San Francisco in 1849, Seattle in 1851, and Denver in 1858. Those younger cities seem older, though. Why do their streets have long stretches of storefronts and walk-up apartments? Why do they have old markets filled with tourists buying tchotchkes? Why do their neighborhoods seem layered with histories? Why not us? Why does Houston seem young? One reason has to do with when and how the city grew.
“By the turn of the twentieth century, Houston was a provincial city even by Texas standards,” says Stephen Fox, a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation who teaches at Rice University and the University of Houston, and is author of the Houston Architectural Guide. Other cities, though incorporated after Houston, grew faster in their early years. Chicago reached the “big city” threshold very quickly with a population of more than 2 million by 1910. That same year, San Francisco’s population reached 416,912. By contrast, Houston had a modest 78,800 people. As a result, the footprint of early twentieth-century Houston is small in comparison to its big-city peers today.
Funded in part by a 2016 Rice Design Alliance Initiatives for Houston grant, Boggess will document buildings in Houston’s industrial East End in danger of demolition to prompt a dialogue of exploration and speculation about what will become of our built history throughout the coming year. You can share your thoughts and photos of buildings you care about saving with the hashtag #htownasfound, and follow her on Instagram @jaeboggess and at her blog.
Having grown up in Houston, I will not deny that I have a love/hate relationship with this city. It is likely perceived by most out-of-towners as a confusing amalgam of freeways and suburban sprawl that, despite a relatively strong economy over the past century, lacks a deeper historical and cultural significance in our nation’s collective consciousness. Perhaps owing to its relative youth, having experienced most of its growth after World War II, Houston seems to lack a strong historical identity. Development patterns have relied more on market forces than on conventional urban planning. Automobile-oriented infrastructure has facilitated expansion outward from the urban center, leaving older disused buildings at the city’s core in the dust: out with the old, in with the new.
Eight years living in the northeastern U.S. and Europe helped me appreciate how the built environment of an older city like New York, or even small-town New England, can offer a multi-layered picture of its history embedded within the contemporary urban fabric, asserting a unique sense of place appreciated by residents and visitors alike. Like many Houstonians, I am excited by the growth and densification that I have witnessed since moving back to my hometown, but I am apprehensive about how this will ultimately impact our built environment if efforts are not taken to rescue existing structures and protect communities from the homogenizing forces of new development.
Kennedy Boulevard (Old Apopka Road), in Eatonville, Orange County, Florida, prior to roadway improvements. Photo: Everett L. Fly.
This article is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel. The article was updated December 7, 2016.
In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston depicts her childhood in Eatonville, Florida — the first all-Black incorporated town in the United States — as both Edenic and rough. It is a story more about the will of a people to achieve self-determination than one of subjugation by a White majority. Communities like that of Eatonville were built across Texas, as well — streets, houses, shops, city halls, and parks built by former slaves and their descendants — in landscapes we routinely drive by without noticing.
“I didn’t know Independence Heights was the first African-American incorporated community in Texas until I was 40, even though I have family living in the community, and I grew up in the church in Independence Heights,” says Tanya Debose, a lead organizer of the Preserving Communities of Color Workshop, a national gathering and weeklong series that culminated November 19 in Houston. The four-day, multi-venued event attracted more than 150 participants including students from Prairie View University and MC Williams Middle School.
The workshop helped expand the tent of the historic preservation movement. Preservationists, in our imaginations, busy themselves saving classical buildings fronted by columns and Corinthian capitals. The reality has always been more complex, but there is truth to the perception of a movement dominated by White elites preserving a Eurocentric history. For example, less than one percent of the National Historic Landmarks are connected to Latino history. (See Sarah Zenaida Gould’s essay in Bending the Future.)
“I don’t think our ancestors were trying to make history,” says Debose. “They were trying to make a home and they went through a lot of stress. My drive comes from wanting to build on those legacies.”
Astrodome interior taken 1999. Photo: Chris Dana.
This review is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, published in connection with two national preservation conferences in Houston in November.
Houston has long been thought of as a city that only cares about its future, a city that tears down its old buildings, a city that disregards its history. It’s hard not to believe that, especially when you check the list of lost landmarks: art deco icons such as the 1929 Turn Verein, the 1934 Southern Pacific depot with its monumental murals of Texas history, or the 1938 Jeff Davis Hospital — or the stunning midcentury modern 1949 Shamrock Hotel in all its glitzy décor, or the 1952 Prudential Insurance Building with its Peter Hurd mural, now relocated to Artesia, New Mexico. Perhaps most mourned by locals are the quartet of 1920s movie and vaudeville palaces — the Italianate 1923 Majestic (John Eberson’s first atmospheric theater), the Adamesque 1926 Kirby, the Louis V 1927 Loews State, and the marvelous Egyptian 1927 Metropolitan. Out of this list of the lost, only the Shamrock drew loud voices of protest from Houstonians.
And yet this reputation is itself a relic. Houston has turned a corner. After half a century of organizing, we now have a preservation culture and laws to protect parts of the built environment. This may be hard to believe, but I will argue that no other city in the country has such an opportunity to become ground zero for the future of the preservation movement. Now is the time to shift from lament to action.
This review is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, published in connection with two national conferences in Houston in November.
This week Houston serves as host city for two significant symposia on historic preservation: the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, PastForward, and the Preserving Communities of Color conference, organized by the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. For the next five days, preservation professionals, stakeholders, and enthusiasts will gather to exchange ideas, tour preservation sites, and discuss the future of the field as they mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Houston’s unique history of urban development, which has now grown to support 22 historic districts reaching across the nation’s fourth-largest and most ethnically diverse city, makes it a welcome context in which the leaders of the field can strategize about the future of the preservation movement.
As our city prepares to host these exchanges, both seasoned and new preservationists alike could benefit from reading Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation and United States, an anthology edited by historians and preservationists Max Page and Marla L. Miller. Inspired by the occasion of the NHPA’s 50th anniversary, Page and Miller have assembled a comprehensive collection of essays — or as the editors call them, “provocations” — that collectively challenge the field’s status quo and make recommendations for the years ahead.
OffCite invites short essays, reviews, and observations on specific moments and places. Interested in contributing your own? Let us know.
The way the girls kept their distance made me think the dog wasn’t theirs. They stood in their yard facing each other but looking across their shoulders at the small dying animal in front of the house. If it was theirs, maybe they were so disturbed by its death – the violence and uncertainty – that they left him alone. The woman who hit the dog was the only one who gave any impression of urgency. But she stood impotently outside the car looking and wouldn’t move past the open driver’s side door. Death is ultimately a private moment. The dog was still and quiet in the road.
I drove slowly past this scene in Hearne, Texas, on the way to see my grandmother. I had traveled the two hours northwest from my home in Houston because of a story I remember my grandfather telling me nearly a decade before he died. So many years later, I wasn’t sure if I had made it up or gathered it from a movie or book and added it to my memories of him. It was about a grave in the middle of a road. A cemetery had been moved, a body left behind, and now cars had to drive around the headstone. I hoped that my grandmother had heard the story, and that, true or not, she would remember where it came from.
Machinery inside under-renovation Cheek-Neal Coffee Company Building. Photo: Jim Parsons.
Even though he’s developing the former Cheek-Neal Coffee Company Building on Preston Avenue, David Denenburg doesn’t think of himself as a developer. “I guess I’m a repurposer,” he says.
The term fits him, and it fits his project — it suggests that there’s plenty of life left in in the 55,000-square-foot building, designed by Joseph Finger and James Ruskin Bailey and completed in 1917. A rendering of the project that Denenburg’s not ready to publish shows a storage wing of the building, which now houses wheelbarrows and other tools, turned into a storefront and shared kitchen that would be used by food vendors operating stalls on the first floor; the top four floors would be furnished offices.
Denenburg has already envisioned ways of incorporating into this new concept the building’s old machinery. The fire escape he imagines as a way for people to clamor up to the rooftop bar, where an icehouse would be carved out of the decommissioned water tower. A corroded boiler in the basement could find new life as a pizza oven; an internal four-story-high motor-driven chain could become a kind of hipster dumbwaiter delivering boiler-fired pizza up to the office workers. Even the forgotten steel rods jutting out of the facade, in place for an addition that was never added, Denenburg sees as useful. “They show the history of the place,” he says.
“It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.”
Original Waldo Mansion. Courtesy: Preservation Houston.
In the long list of Houston’s long-gone places, one is especially evocative: Quality Hill, the city’s first elite residential neighborhood. It started in the mid-1800s when prominent businessmen built their houses around Courthouse Square, and from there it spread east and south, toward present-day Minute Maid Park and Discovery Green. Life in the neighborhood — at least if you believe the writers of Houston: A History and Guide, the 1942 WPA guide to the city — was something right out of the Old South:
Humble Building. Photo: Allyn West.
The police, we hope, save lives. But can they save historic buildings?
Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle reports that “the city may move its police and courts operations into the Exxon tower downtown.” In recent weeks, City Council has struggled with how to accomodate a large police department housed in “crumbling” facilities. Instead of building expensive new facilities that would require a city-wide vote, the new proposal is to lease space in the Exxon tower.
Also from the Chronicle, Lisa Gray celebrates this plan as an alternative to an earlier proposal by the building’s owner that would have removed distinctive features from the 1962 building, originally called the Humble Oil Building.
In November 2013, Matt Johnson wrote for OffCite about that earlier proposal to give a facelift to the Humble Oil Building. “The building was once the tallest tower west of the Mississippi and is a great example of what might be termed climatic modernism: that is, architecture attempting to deal with Houston’s hot-humid climate through passive means,” Johnson writes. “Its most characteristic feature — a series of 7-foot-deep brise-soliel shades — will be stripped off and the floor plates extended to add ‘new rentable area’ and ‘lease-depths of 42 feet.’ Instead of the passive shades that currently shield and cool the building from Houston’s sun, we’ll get a high-performance glazing system (as well as roughly 100,000 new square feet to be air conditioned).”
On the recent report from the Chronicle, Stephen Fox, a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation and respected architectural historian, shared the following thoughts with OffCite:
Bethel Park in Freedmen's Town. Photo: Jim Parsons.
Last week Preservation Houston celebrated its 35th Anniversary at its annual Cornerstone benefit, handing out 10 Good Brick Awards to recognize excellence in local preservation and restoration work. It was a spirited event that showcased a great variety of projects ranging from a delicate Victorian house restoration to the conversion of the historic Bethel Church into a park following the devastating fire in 2005 that left the building as just a shell. The diverse group of winners was selected from 20 nominees, a sign that Houston continues to gain momentum in building its culture of historic preservation.