Everything That’s Old Is What’s New in Houston


Until recently, Houston’s interest in architectural landmarks could basically be summed up by the Witch Hat.

A spooky, 20-foot cupola built in the 1900s, the Witch Hat for generations was a local icon. The house it perched on was, as well, a lone remnant of the grand Victorians that lined once-stylish Main Street.

So when the house’s owners planned to raze it in the 1990s, preservationists leaped to combat. For four years, they lobbied and they pleaded, even hatching plans to roll the house to safety on a truck.


But in this city founded on big business and big space, old buildings rated little notice. The Witch Hat house fell in 1997. When the rubble cleared, the activists’ lone victory glared from a local salvage yard. The only thing they had rescued was the hat.

What a difference a few years make. In the span of about 30 months, the nation’s fourth-largest city has plunged into a major downtown revival--and its leitmotif is all things retro.

Entrepreneurs now jostle to convert once-scorned vintage buildings into lofts. Public funds have helped, partly financing an old-style baseball park and a Main Street face-lift, complete with fountains and old-time lampposts. The stadium, which opened last week, embraces the city’s long-disused train station as a entrance. Drawn by all this movement, merchants and residents are moving into addresses passe for 40 years.

For the first time in Space City’s history, the look of what they want is Old.

The idea of yuppies, retirees and vexed commuters moving back to city centers isn’t new. By the 1990s, it was a U.S. trend: downtowns once synonymous with despair, remade and marketed as smart and livable.

In older cities such as New York, respect for historic buildings goes back further. With memories dating to the Revolution, these cities sustained strong, shrewd preservation groups for generations. In fact, a few architecture critics now argue that these groups wield too much power, bullying cities into a kind of physical conservatism.


But in youthful Houston, the lure of age surfaced later than in almost any other place. Typical for Houston, it was developers--not preservationists--who catapulted vintage into vogue. And when they did, they fueled nothing less than a rethinking of the city’s identity.

“Suddenly, the physical environment, the built environment, the public spaces matter here,” says Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist. “This is wholly new.”

Altogether, more than $1.7 billion has coursed into downtown redevelopment; $250 million more will go into projects in surrounding neighborhoods. By 2002, some 2,500 new residents are expected to live in the city center, many in smartened-up prewar buildings.

Less clear, architecture experts say, is if the taste for gracious spaces reaches past downtown--and if Houstonians truly grasp the breadth of Houston’s heritage.

Astrodome Debut Was Proud Moment for City

Perhaps more than that of any other city, Houston’s self-image has revolved around the future. It was here, in the Clear Lake area that NASA prospered in the early 1960s. Not coincidentally, one of the city’s proudest moments was the opening of the Astrodome in 1965. The first permanently air-conditioned sports dome, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, testified to Houston’s love of growth--if necessary, at the cost of grace.

“The whole thing far surpasses all current definitions of kitsch, obscenity and bad taste,” Italian architectural critic Vicky Alliata sniped about the Dome in 1974. But Houstonians adored it for its size, its cosmic optimism, its very groundskeepers who in early years bustled through their tasks in spaceman costumes.

Minutes from the generous East Texas oil fields, Houston for much of its history had little use, otherwise, for self-definition. The jobs that doubled the population every 20 years, sometimes every decade, defined it automatically.

“The essential nature of Houston during the 20th century was riding the oil boom,” says Klineberg. “It was totally impervious to any concept of history. There was a perception in Houston that people came to this city to make money, with very little interest in the long-term past or long-term future.”

Physically and politically, it was a city sculpted not only by rich oilmen but by developers entranced by vast flat sketchboards of space. Decade after decade, voters have rejected zoning, making Houston the only major U.S. city without that planning tool. Inspired by cheap labor and low taxes, lusty developers built hosts of downtown skyscrapers and suburbs crawling boundlessly across the prairie.

The building-happy climate made for famous contrasts. Today, shadows of those skyscrapers brush clapboard houses built by descendants of freed slaves. In the close-in Montrose neighborhood, elephantine new townhouses line whole streets, their carports dwarfing humble bungalows below them.

Free of regulation, a bus repair shop here might share a street with a Mississippi-style plantation house. But the relative anarchy also coddles a distinct expressiveness. More than most cities, in Houston what you build shows what you dream.

So wooden cottages nudge homes made into temples, tiered gardens--or, in the case of the late John Milkovisch, an uninterrupted surface of tinkling beer-can tabs. Elsewhere, in immigrant neighborhoods, elongated shotgun houses--named because a bullet could course unimpeded through all its rooms--nestle amid plantain trees and discreetly roaming chickens.

Little known to most outsiders, the money that drenched Houston also financed some first-rate design. There’s the fanciful Mediterranean-Byzantine campus of Rice University, and the high-rises and signature homes by Mies Van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano created the Menil Collection, a world-class private museum, tucked in a flock of cottages painted a surrealist-inspired gray.

But spiking oil prices in the late 1970s and early 1980s also sparked a frenzy of demolitions to make space for futuristic skyscrapers. When the economy tanked in 1985, old structures were targeted again. Desperate to wrench money from the inner city, property owners flattened scores of prewar buildings to unroll parking lots in their stead. Now, some 60 vintage buildings remain downtown.

They could do this, preservationists explain, thanks to public policy cut and stitched for developers. Until five years ago, the city had no preservation laws at all. In 1995, the City Council finally adopted one: The weakest in any major U.S. city, it simply requires the owner of a historically important building to wait 90 days before leveling it.

“Houston is full of space, partly because there is a Texan endlessness of space for it to use, partly because so much of it has been knocked down,” observed British writer Alan Hollinghurst after a visit. “The parking lots are themselves part of the pattern of emptiness. They give an odd rhythm to much of downtown, like a half-cleared game of cyclopean solitaire.”

For a long time, developer and preservationist Minnette Boesel was one of a tiny band of business dissidents. Arriving from Baltimore in the early 1980s, she cringed at Houston’s blindness to the inner-city restoration trends across the country.

“In Dallas, it was the West End. In Baltimore, it was the Inner Harbor,” Boesel says. “It’s not rocket science. . . . In other cities, preservation becomes an economic development tool.”

Economics Plays Important Role

So what magic, in a city where preservationists can save nothing but a witch hat, suddenly makes old buildings viable? That’s easy, developers and architects agree.

The bottom line.

“Historic preservation is now recognized by a lot of people as a magnet for business,” says Houston resident Anne Furse, former landmarks chief of New York’s preservation commission. “It’s sort of self-evident that attractive streets and historic buildings draw visitors.”

But if older cities, including Boston, Baltimore and Denver, have for years included preservation in their downtown projects, in Houston it was only in the mid-1990s that then-Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, a millionaire developer, came round to the idea.

“The politics of this city still are defined by developers,” notes Jay Aiyer, an aide to Mayor Lee Brown. “Now the only difference is they’re doing a different kind of development.”

In 1997, Lanier shepherded a complex $32-million package of private and city funds to redo the then-84-year-old Rice Hotel. A glamorous melange of residential lofts, downstairs restaurants and pricey shops updated by developer Randall Davis, the finished Rice promptly filled to capacity.

Now, deserted Houston sparkled with pedestrians. Office folk emerged even in the grueling summer, squinting in straw hats and shirt-sleeves as they nibbled ice cream around outdoor tables at the Rice.

“In the last two years, it’s been a miracle transformation,” says Boesel, who herself renovated a small set of loft apartments before the boom began. “People are wanting to invest downtown, people want to come here. This is the place to be.”

Even Enron Field, the new stadium named for a locally based energy titan, boasts dutifully restored antique features. Though its retractable roof recalls the Astrodome’s Space Age panache, the rest of the stadium looks self-consciously retro. (The Astrodome still houses the yearly Livestock Show and Rodeo.)

Designed by Kansas City’s HOK Sports Facilities, the stadium’s red masonry and looping arches are echoes of the 1900s train station that is the entrance. True, Enron Field’s old-time aspect is just the latest example of a national vogue in stadium fashion.

But only in Houston, where the mighty Astrodome now looks merely quaint, could old-fashioned become downright revolutionary.

Historian Sees Lack of Coherent Movement

Stephen Fox is peering at the tin house through one lens of a spectacle. Tweedy, debonair and quietly eccentric, Fox is Houston’s premier architectural historian, conversant with every building of significance in the city.

Fox sees beauty in the jumbled metropolis--at the same time bristling skeptically about its character. In particular, Fox doesn’t think the downtown loft fever translates into any real grasp of historic buildings’ value beyond commercial use.

The house he’s eyeing through his broken glasses could fall prey to that obliviousness. Dotting Houston’s working-class West End, these so-called tin houses--actually they’re made of Galvalume, an alloy--comprise Houston’s sole home-grown architectural movement.

Meant to blend into working-class neighborhoods where bungalows share blocks with sheds and modest warehouses, the jaunty tin houses mostly belong to local architects and artists.

Now that the houses have raised the West End’s profile, developers have followed, replacing the surrounding cottages with out-sized townhouses. Without restrictions or binding laws to preserve them, the character of old neighborhoods is vanishing as fast as the old downtown buildings are returning to life, Fox complains.

“Preservation in Houston never amounts to a trend,” he adds. “It’s about isolated constituencies that may intersect from time to time, but what it never amounts to is a coherent movement.”

Rice sociologist Klineberg disagrees, arguing that the new attraction of vintage buildings reflects a city forced to redefine itself. “Before, the reason for Houston’s growth was that we were located in the East Texas oil fields. But oil is no longer the center of the American economy. The center of the American economy is knowledge, and there is no reason for anyone to come to Houston anymore unless it has unique qualities that make it a special place. We’re all competing on the basis of quality of life.”

Houstonians are also less transient. In the early 1980s, roughly 20% of Houston’s population had lived here for three years or less. Two decades later, that number has dropped to only 10%, and the number of people here for 20 years or more has risen by 15%.

But Fox and other historians still shake their head at recent demolitions in historic but poor neighborhoods, displacements they argue show how shallow Houston’s grasp of history really is.

The most controversial of these, at the Allen Parkway Village apartments built by the U.S. government in 1942, coincided almost exactly with downtown’s revival. Prized by architectural experts, the airy, garden-dappled complex was torn down and replaced by about half the original 1,000 subsidized units.

The redevelopment, says architecture expert Diane Ghirardo, erased not just an existing community but also an important architectural landmark. “If you’re interested in historic preservation, in retaining not just the odd building but some sense of the city’s historic fabric, then profit motive should not always be the dominant motive,” says Ghirardo, a professor at USC.

‘I Think We’re Catching Up’

Lifelong Houstonian and preservationist Clarence Bagby, though, insists his fellow citizens have always prized their past, they just didn’t know how to protect it. “I think we’re catching up.”

Of course, Houston still lacks any law that permanently protects any building from demolition. But there are other tools neighborhoods can use, he says, such as applying for state taxing zones that give the right to regulate design and land use standards. It’s a compromise, says Bagby, in a city no longer obsessed with the future--but forever in love with possibility.

“It’s the whole freedom thing--the freedom to ‘do with my property what I choose,’ ” Bagby concedes. Still, he points out, residents in his own turn-of-the-century neighborhood bordering downtown are now working together to revive its old aesthetic. They’re restoring sidewalks, putting up a gazebo.

And they’ve bought the Witch Hat to crown it.