In dozer-happy Houston, a landmark ruling
HOUSTON -- Standing in the shadow of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the Magnolia Brewery Building is a lovely and still-functioning reminder of the past.
The turn-of-the-century building, once the executive offices of the Houston Ice and Brewing Company, now houses a tavern and office space -- but is still graced by stained-glass windows with the image of a magnolia blossom, the company’s emblem.
A second-floor tap room, where politicians and businessmen once drank Magnolia beer for 5 cents a bottle, is now a ballroom leased out for special occasions.
This month, the 94-year-old building was again recast when it became the first commercial structure in Houston to be named a protected landmark.
In a city where unfettered growth is a point of pride, zoning is nonexistent and building preservation laws are among the weakest in the nation, it was something of a milestone.
“This is important for Houston,” said David Bush, spokesman for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. “We have to take baby steps.”
By and large, Houstonians aren’t overly nostalgic about aged mortar and brick. Though founded in 1836, Houston is “seen as young and therefore has no history,” said Stephen Fox, adjunct lecturer of architecture at Rice University in the city. “What remains of its past is considered inconsequential.”
Only in 1995 did Houston enact a historic preservation ordinance, 22 years after a similar measure passed in Dallas. The Houston statute that protects the Magnolia didn’t exist until last year.
Under that 2005 law, an owner can petition the city to designate a structure as a “protected landmark,” which shields it from demolition in perpetuity. Landmarks that aren’t protected can be torn down as long as the building owner gives the city notice and allows 90 days for discussion.
With laws that make building preservation largely voluntary, the main tools left to preservationists are persuasion and public opinion, Bush said.
And all too often, the public’s opinion is expressed with a big yawn -- the consequence of a population largely comprising out-of-towners, Fox said. “There isn’t a strong constituency promoting local history and distinctiveness, a civic identity based on history, as one finds in other American cities.”
The tide has been turning in residential areas, where private citizens have fought, with varying degrees of success, to keep older neighborhoods intact. It is the commercial buildings that are often razed with little fanfare or public concern.
There was a ripple of interest in January when the William Penn Hotel -- designed by architect Joseph Finger in the 1920s -- was leveled overnight even as its owner, Spire Realty Group, seemed to declare its intention to renovate. “We are in the early stages of evaluating the highest and best use for this building, so that we may bring this fine historic structure back to life,” the company’s website said.
But something clicked during the summer when Houstonians heard that Weingarten Realty Investors, one of the nation’s largest real estate investment trusts, might demolish at least part of three iconic art deco structures here -- the River Oaks Shopping Center, River Oaks Theatre and Alabama Theatre.
For many, it brought back memories of the late, lamented Shamrock Hotel -- wildcatter Glenn H. McCarthy’s 1950s-era monument to Texas excess. With its kelly-green carpeting, a pool large enough for exhibition water skiing, and a lush resort-style atmosphere, the Shamrock symbolized postwar Houston: brash, flamboyant and fun.
But as economy hotels gained popularity and the city’s flashy go-go image faded, so did the fortunes of the Shamrock. The hotel was eventually sold to the Texas Medical Center, which -- despite opposition from legions of protesters -- tore it down in 1987 for a parking lot.
Fearing that another piece of Houston’s past might go the way of the Shamrock, demonstrators gathered at the River Oaks Theatre in August wearing black and carrying popcorn bags. Twenty-four thousand signatures have been collected on an online petition calling for the buildings to be saved.
Weingarten spokeswoman Deborah Fiorito said the company had no imminent plans to redevelop the properties and had never announced an intent to do so. Rumors to the contrary may have come from early talks Weingarten had with bookstore chain Barnes & Noble about leasing the space across the street from the River Oaks Theatre, she said.
However the issue plays out, Fox said, the uproar shows that even in Houston -- where property owners vigilantly oppose government interference -- some buildings are sacrosanct.
The River Oaks Theatre, built in 1939 as a deluxe neighborhood movie house, primarily shows foreign and independent films. There’s a curved marquee, porthole windows, an art deco interior, and a concession stand that serves popcorn with real butter.
Inside the ornate Alabama Theatre, a long ramp of carpeted steps leads not to movie seats but stacks of books -- it became a bookstore in the 1980s.
Though the River Oaks shopping center is hardly untouched -- two Starbucks stores stand across the street from each other, for instance -- the gently curving lines of its buildings have an elegance not seen at the average strip mall.
Few properties here have as much meaning for residents of a certain age. The buildings become “a part of people’s life experience, and they’re unwilling to relinquish it,” Fox said. “Especially at a time like now, when suddenly anywhere you look in Houston, everything is being bulldozed and something very different from what was there is being built.”
Even property rights activist Barry Klein signed the petition -- and he has long argued that preservation laws impede economic development and investment.
“People are just fond of the places that were the touchstones of their youth,” Klein said. “But I recognize that [developers] have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders not to indulge my appetite in this matter.”
Weingarten has met with preservationists and city leaders about the River Oaks properties, Fiorito said. And in an Oct. 9 letter to the Texas Historical Commission, Weingarten’s director of leasing, Patty Bender, wrote that tax breaks and other advantages of building preservation would be given “consideration as we formulate long-term plans for the centers.”
In the meantime, the city has declared or will soon declare 15 properties it owns to be protected landmarks, said Randy Pace, Houston’s historic preservation officer.
But Magnolia building owner Bart Truxillo -- director emeritus of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance -- is the only owner of a commercial building who has applied for the designation so far.
For now, Pace said, “there aren’t any others.”