Spectators watch as the rotation of a house in Sharpstown is completed.
It is 11 a.m. on a Thursday in Sharpstown, Houston. Roughly forty spectators sit obediently on metal benches provided by Cherry House Moving Company — a mix of Rice University students, architects, “just in for the day” New York art scenesters and garden-variety devotees of conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll. Today, Carroll will rotate the ranch home at 6513 Sharpview as the climactic moment in her decade-in-the-making work, “Prototype 180.”
Arguably the most pivotal moment in the artist’s career, “Prototype 180” proposes a myriad of questions on art, architecture, and urbanism. Most obvious is that Carroll is intervening in the makeup of this neighborhood, thereby underscoring the historic significance of Sharpstown as the nation’s largest community of single-family homes when it was conceived in 1954, and its transformation after the 1982 economic downturn from white suburb to immigrant-rich density. The rotational rupture also questions issues of land art and real estate, policy and public space, urban sprawl and first-ring suburbs.
Sylvan Beach Pavilion, designed by Greacen & Brogniez, 1953. Photo by Hank Hancock.
The citizens of La Porte may be forgiven if they just can’t figure out what their elected officials have in store for the Sylvan Beach Pavilion, a significant work of civic architecture located at Harris County’s only public beach. For twenty years, the city of La Porte rented the structure for cheap from Harris County and operated the venue—a dancehall, a performance space, a banquet room, a conference hall—in just the way that a municipal government will do when it finds itself in the hospitality business, which is to say, reluctantly, negligently, and sporadically. Interested renters were turned away without explanation. The space often sat empty on weekend evenings, when one might expect it to turn some business. Once recognized across the region as one of the foremost entertainment venues, the pride of La Porte, the Sylvan Beach Pavilion withdrew into obscurity, a generational bookmark. The city put off making regular repairs, as required by its lease, so the place just got shabby.
1904 Decatur house, MC2 Architects, photograph by Hester + Hardaway from Cite 51
Recently Mayor Annise Parker has brought forth the possibility of new development restrictions in Houston’s historic districts. On a June 9 kuhf public radio broadcast, Parker commented on the potential changes to ordinance, saying, “If you’re building in a historic district, the expectation is that you will build something that in mass and scale and general appearance fits into the district. If you want to come and put a big metal ultra-modern townhome in the middle of the district you will not receive a certificate of appropriateness.”
Copper pinnacle replica lowered on Harris County Courthouse, all photographs Nash Baker
In 1910, the Harris County Courthouse defined Houston’s skyline. As the tallest building in the city by over 100 feet, the courthouse quickly became the crown jewel of the modest downtown. Today, the courthouse remains standing at 210 feet, but it is somewhat dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers. With building technology so closely tied to scale, it is no wonder that Houston’s downtown has evolved to great heights. But recently the city’s skyline has taken on a new look, the Harris County Courthouse has grown a little taller, and it is worth craning your neck to notice.
On March 14th, a 15-foot copper pinnacle that looks a bit like a chess pawn was mounted on the Courthouse’s dome. Crowning the top of the building, this piece serves as a replacement for the building’s 1910 original, which reportedly has been absent for over 90 years.
University of Houston Downtown from Allen's Landing, this photo Wikimedia Commons, all others Celeste Williams
Houston is home to a wealth of Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne architecture. Celeste Williams received a grant from the Rice Design Alliance in 2000 to develop a self-guided tour along the METRORail. Williams, an architect with Kendall/Heaton Associates, worked with graphic designer Peter Boyle to produce a brochure (download front and back). Below is an online version of the tour.
University of Houston DOWNTOWN CAMPUS
1 North Main Street
The University of Houston Downtown’s compact campus is composed of several smaller annexed structures to the former Merchants and Manufacturers Building. Originally designed in 1930 by Giesecke & Harris Architects, the building’s classic Art Deco vertical detailing was meant to call out the pinnacle of commerce near Houston’s historic Allen’s Landing. The eleven-story mid-rise height of the building allows it to hold its site amidst the larger scale freeway overpasses and bridges that surround it. On the south side, a roof terrace provides beautiful views of the downtown skyline. A detail of interest is the monel mailbox, part of a chute system that was state-of-the-art for its time.
The first preservation ordinance in the country came to life in Charleston, South Carolina in 1930. The Vieux Carre in New Orleans and Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts followed shortly after, and historic preservation gained steady strength in the United States. Houston joined late in the game, with the city’s ordinance put into effect in 1995. Fifteen years later, Houston is home to fifteen historic districts, and preservation in the city continues to evolve. Mayor Annise Parker, a known advocate for preservation of Houston’s historic districts, recently organized a task force to investigate strengthening the city’s ordinance to offer increased protections for historic resources.
Increased protections? When developers catch wind that the ordinance may bulk up, it is easy to imagine the rush to demolish before the ordinance gains strength.
New wing of the Julia Ideson building, photos by Anna Mod
The new 21,500 square-foot archival wing of the Julia Ideson Library opened in mid-April to the celebration of researchers who had been without access since November when the Houston Metropolitan Research Center closed entirely in preparation for the move. This state-of-the-art addition now houses the HMRC’s collection of photographs, historic maps, architectural drawings, rare books, oral histories, and books relating to Houston and Texas. If it was in the Texas Room, it is now in this brightly lit, newly opened wing.
Farnsworth and Chambers Building, Home to the Manned Spacecraft Center 1962-64 [Image from NASA]
Houston’s historic Farnsworth & Chambers building, located at 2999 S. Wayside, held its grand reopening opening last night following the rehabilitation of this architecturally and historically significant building. Visitors, many who had not set foot there in decades, marveled at how the building looked the same yet felt much lighter and updated — a great complement to the project team. The building is presently known as the Gragg Building after the second owners who sold it and the surrounding acreage to the city in the late 1970s.
Karachi headquarters office of Emaar, a Dubai-based real estate company [Photos Sehba Sarwar]
At a March 2009 ceremony in Houston, Mayor Bill White and Syed Mustafa Kamal, the mayor of Karachi, Pakistan, declared the two cities sisters. The connection between the two cities was not new to me. Back in 1992, when I followed my then-boyfriend-now-husband René to Houston, I remember absorbing concrete sprawls of apartment complexes, and thinking of Karachi, my home city. Since then, over the years, I’ve been writing and exploring the multiple parallels between Karachi, where I return often, and Houston, where I’ve been based for some time.