Historic Preservation – Houston, Texas

Isaac Kremer/ November 17, 2002/ preservation/ 0 comments

From the 1830s to 1880s Houston’s Main Street was the economic center of the city linking together wharves, commercial buildings, public institutions, and neighborhoods. The development of railroads had little impact on Main Street. By 1910 enterprise and prosperity began to replace stately homes along Main Street. At the same time the automobile began to transform the area, creating a traffic conduit with gasoline stations and apartment houses overshadowed by the growing downtown skyline.

A street improvement project was carried out from 1916-17, paving Main Street and stimulating the development of new cultural institutions and recreational amenities 3 ½ miles from downtown in the open countryside adjacent to Rice University. A new boulevard was also constructed, paradoxically reversing the role of Main Street as a center, carrying people out of the city rather than into it. This boulevard soon became Houston’s first suburban retail corridor.

Construction of city wide freeways between the 1950s and 1970s continued Main Street’s decline. When downtown retailing collapsed in the 1960s, value of property surpassed that of buildings and many of the 1920s buildings disappeared even more quickly than the Victorian mansions that had come before them.

Main Street became a wasteland after 1970. Downtown was rescued by episodic office building construction. In the 1990s private real estate development sparked a multi-billion dollar comeback on the corridor. The public sector is currently reconstructing streets, installing a light rail system to be completed by 2004, and creating new parks. New educational, medical, research, arts, and sports facilities are also being added.[1]

Preservation climate in Houston
Adaptive reuse of historic buildings in downtown Houston has spurred a growing interest in preservation. Preservation advocates have been able to use economic arguments to convince developers and local officials that preservation may be a catalyst for community revitalization and economic growth. [2]

Challenges to preservation in Houston are no local zoning ordinance and a weak historic district ordinance without any enforcement. The city planning office serves more as a permit issuing body. A strong local property rights movement prevents stronger ordinances. In this climate developers are allowed to be independent and aggressive with their projects, being so bold as to buy political influence with their money, and politicians being bold enough to claim that they are influenced most by the person with the most money.[3] Despite a much touted spirit of innovation, this often comes with the cost of demolishing older buildings in the name of new development.

The editor of Texas Monthly touched on an important theme of affecting development and preservation in Houston when he was asked what the most challenging aspect of editing a recent issue of the magazine devoted to Houston. He responded “It seemed to me that many of the stories involved people and institutions that had reinvented themselves, which is an old Houston theme, and so I wrote about that.”[4] And when asked what impact the Enron crisis will have on Houston, he claimed “Enron, schmenron. Houston will reinvent itself again. That’s what it does best.”[5]

This theme of change was reinforced in another article where Paul Burka claimed “In Houston, the only thing that’s permanent is that everything is temporary… The result is a freewheeling place that oozes optimism, inspires risk-taking; and rewards improvisation, cleverness and the will to survive.” Taking the weakness of Houston’s weak urban form as strength, Burka claimed “The free-ranging appearance of Houston is fundamental to its civic character. It announces that anything can happen here, that Houston, for better or worse, values unpredictability over certainty.”[6]

The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance is the leading advocate of preservation in Houston today. Begun as a sub-committee of the Heritage Society, in 1978 the GHPA was founded as an independent agency with the mission to “Promote the preservation and appreciation of Houston’s architectural and cultural historic resources through education, advocacy, and committed action, thereby creating economic value and developing a stronger sense of community.”[7] Early GHPA activities included saving the historic Pillot building in the 1970s and conducting historic resource surveys. GHPA rehabilitated 18 homes and sold these to low income residents in 1995. That same year GHPA helped to gain passage of the Historic Preservation Ordinance in Houston.

Advocacy efforts include annual Good Brick Awards recognizing individuals, businesses, and organizations for outstanding preservation projects and programs, advocacy with local government, Preservation Breakfast Series, and Preservation Week Activities; and communication through a newsletter, GHPA web site, and email Preservation Alerts. Education efforts include technical assistance, Houston Historic Resources Database, Historic Designation Program, Endangered Buildings Committee, Façade Easement Program, Restoration Grants, a salvage program and rehabilitation of two late 19th century houses.[8] GHPA also created the Historic Neighborhoods Council to work to foster positive change that will help to maintain the quality and character of Houston’s neighborhoods.

The Heritage Society was founded in 1959. Today they own and operate a heritage park and interpretive museum in Sam Houston Park, adjacent to the downtown. The mission of the Heritage Society is “to preserve the complete history of the community and region through the preservation and restoration of historic structures, exhibition of historical artifacts, and presentation of educational programs which focus on Houston and Harris County’s diverse past and its relationship to the present and future.”[9]

A nonprofit organization, the Heritage Society provides a broad range of activities including the annual Heritage Ball, Candlelight Tour, travel tours locally abroad, and classes. The Heritage Society has a professional staff supported by volunteers. Tina Breska Medlin was named the organizations new Executive Director on April 1, 2002 and Helen McDonald was named the new Chief Financial Officer and Registrar on March 25, 2002.[10]

While the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance claims to be the only preservation organization in Houston, the Heritage Society through their heritage park and educational activities may be considered a preservation organization as well, similar to Ford’s Greenfield Village or Carnegie’s Colonial Williamsburg.

Several other organizations are involved in preservation at the state level. These include the Texas Preservation Board, founded in 1983 for the purpose of preserving, maintaining, and restoring the State Capitol and the General Land Office Building and their contents and grounds to the benefit of the citizens of Texas.[11] The Texas Society of Architects was founded in 1939, made up of 17 regional chapters today, includes 5000 members and is headquartered in Austin. This group could be a powerful supporter of preservation except no reference is made to preservation in their mission statement.[12] The Texas Downtown Association is a statewide organization dedicated to supporting and assisting organizations and individuals committed to revitalizing centers of large and small communities throughout Texas. The organization attempts to accomplish this mission, among many other purposes, by “promoting the historic preservation, economic development and community vitality of downtown and neighborhood commercial districts.”[13]

[1] Fox, Stephen, Nancy Hadley (editor), and Gerald Moorhead (photographer). Houston Architectural Guide: American Institute of Architects. Houston: Herring Press. April 1990.
[2] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [Downloaded September 25, 2002]
[3] Davis, Ramona. Interview with author. September 27, 2002.
[4] Burka, Paul, “Mission Possible” in Texas Monthly, September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]
[5] Burka, Paul, “Mission Possible” in Texas Monthly, September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]
[6] Burka, Paul. “Keep the Change” in Texas Monthly. September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]
[7] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[8] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[9] Heritage Society web site, http://www.heritagesociety.org/musuem.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[10] Heritage Society web site, http://www.heritagesociety.org/new_executive_director.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[11] Texas State Preservation Board web site, http://www.tspb.state.tx.us/. [Downloaded September 25, 2002]
[12] Texas Chapter AIA web site, http://www.texasarchitect.org/society/socinfo.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[13] Texas Downtown Association web site, http://www.texasdowntown.org [Downloaded September 24, 2002]
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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac D. Kremer, MSARP, is a nationally recognized expert in the revitalization of commercial districts. Professionally he is the Executive Director of Experience Princeton, a business improvement district in Princeton, New Jersey. Kremer is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at over 30 conferences. The prior two downtowns he managed were named Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA) Semifinalists, and Metuchen, New Jersey where he and his family live was named a GAMSA winner in 2023 by Main Street America.

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