Sunday, February 9, 2014

Spencer Howard Receives Houzz’s 2014 ‘Best of Houzz’ Award

Spencer Howard Design + Construction Management of Houston, Texas 
Receives Best of Houzz 2014 Award

Annual Survey and Analysis of 16 Million Monthly Users
Reveals Top-Rated Building, Remodeling and Design Professionals

HOUSTON, TX – February 4, 2014 – Spencer Howard Design + Construction Management of Houston, Texas, has been awarded “Best of Houzz” by Houzz, the leading platform for home remodeling and design.  The 12-year old project management firm was chosen by the more than 16 million monthly users that comprise the Houzz community.

The Best of Houzz award is given in two categories: Customer Satisfaction and Design.  Customer Satisfaction honors are determined by a variety of factors, including the number and quality of client reviews a professional received in 2013.   Design award winners’ work was the most popular among the more than 16 million monthly users on Houzz, known as “Houzzers,” who saved more than 230 million professional images of home interiors and exteriors to their personal ideabooks via the Houzz site, iPad/iPhone app and Android app.  Winners receive a “Best Of Houzz 2014” badge on their profiles, showing the Houzz community their commitment to excellence.  These badges help homeowners identify popular and top-rated home professionals in every metro area on Houzz.

“We are thrilled to receive this award again this year and look forward to continuing to use the platform to collaborate with our clients in the future.” said Spencer Howard, owner of the firm.  “Houzz has become an essential tool in our efforts to achieve design and process excellence on projects.”

“Houzz provides homeowners with the most comprehensive view of home building, remodeling and design professionals, empowering them to find and hire the right professional to execute their vision,” said Liza Hausman, vice president of community for Houzz.  “We’re delighted to recognize Spencer Howard among our “Best of” professionals for customer satisfaction as judged by our community of homeowners and design enthusiasts who are actively remodeling and decorating their homes.”

With Houzz, homeowners can identify not only the top-rated professionals like Spencer Howard, but also those whose work matches their own aspirations for their home.  Homeowners can also evaluate professionals by contacting them directly on the Houzz platform, asking questions about their work and reviewing their responses to questions from others in the Houzz community.

Follow Spencer Howard on Houzz and on Facebook.

About Spencer Howard Design + Construction Management
Over the last 12 years, Spencer Howard has managed projects totaling more than $150 million that have added nearly 400,000 square feet to the city of Houston, as well as preserving and restoring 25 historic buildings, 10 of which are now protected landmarks.  Notable projects include the mitigation of Rice University's Lovett Hall and Baker College, the renovation of the Maxwell House Coffee and Kelsey-Seybold Clinic families' mansions in River Oaks, and the design and construction of an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya.

Spencer Howard's work has been featured on PBS and CBS, and in Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Houston Chronicle, Texas Architect, Architecture Today, Metropolis Magazine, Yellow Magazine, and the Houston Business Journal.

Whether designing and constructing an orphanage in Africa or managing the restoration of a historic home in Houston, Spencer Howard uses sustainable project planning tools he developed that have led to the successful completion of several projects for Rice University and 75 grants for disaster assistance and hazard mitigation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Spencer Howard is an Associate of the American Institute of Architects and is an accredited professional with the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.  He looks forward to collaborating with each of his clients to ensure total project success!

About Houzz
Houzz is the leading platform for home remodeling and design, providing people with everything they need to improve their homes from start to finish - online or from a mobile device.  From decorating a room to building a custom home, Houzz connects millions of homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals across the country and around the world.  With the largest residential design database in the world and a vibrant community powered by social tools, Houzz is the easiest way for people to get the design inspiration, project advice, product information and professional reviews they need to help turn ideas into reality.  For more information, visit

Friday, September 6, 2013

Spencer Howard featured in the Houston Business Journal

As a part of the Houston Business Journal's 40 Under 40 nominations this year, Spencer Howard was interviewed by Shaina Zucker:

Link to the full text:  "Face to Face with Spencer Howard of Design + Construction Management"

Thank you for your continued support and I look forward to bringing design and process excellence to all your projects!  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Historic Preservation in Houston

Houston, Texas, 1891

The earliest homes built by settlers of European descent in the Houston area were near the coast and accessed by boat.  Whether wealthy or poor, the building forms were simple with only one or two rooms.  The primary objective was survival and protection from the harsh climate.

House on Galveston Bay, near Baytown.
Built 1830, burned 1890.

Prior to Texas' independence from Mexico, the conditions were primitive, but improving.  The above house was most likely a log cabin that was eventually clad in clapboard siding.  Note that the house eventually burned down.  This is a reoccurring theme in the earliest structures in Houston.

Houses at Texas Avenue and Austin Street in 1847
(near Minute Maid Park)

Following independence, during which the Republic of Texas was a sovereign nation, Houston was founded and the present day street grid established.  While the building forms remained vernacular, materials began to be imported and this allowed for more refined facades.

300 block of Main Street in 1856
(near Market Square)

After annexation by the United States, the first multistory buildings began appearing.  Shortly after the above photo was taken the entire block burned down.

300 block of Main Street in 1866
(near Market Square)

Within a decade, the block was completely rebuilt with even taller buildings...

Section of 5th ward after fire.

...only for other sections of the city to burn, as well.

Destruction by fire was not unique to Houston or this time period.  However, Houston was very much still an isolated frontier outpost.  The city wasn't even connected by rail to the rest of the country until 1872.  Alcohol was safer to drink than water and lamp oil was used to see at night.  Bored and drunk, with a cigar in one hand and holding an oil lamp in the other, it's no surprise that a few people tripped in the muddy, manured filled streets and set the place ablaze. 

Postcard of Main Street in the 1890s
(near Foley's/Macy's)

By the 1890s, coupled with the exploitation of the bayou system to export cotton, Houston had become the railroad center of Texas.   Wealthy business owners didn't want to live in the dirty, original sections of downtown and Houston's first outward migration began when these businessmen built large estates about a half-mile south on Main Street in the "country." 

Postcard of Main Street in the 1890s
(near Foley's/Macy's)

And by the turn of the century a major hurricane had destroyed Galveston, the largest city in the region, and oil was discovered near Beaumont.  This led to the construction of the Houston Ship Channel and the rapid urbanization of Houston.

Postcard of Main Street in the 1890s
(near Foley's/Macy's)

The above postcard shows the 1200 block of Main Street at Dallas looking south.  The present day Houston Pavilions would be on the left, with the Courtyard Marriot on the right, and the now vacant Foley's/Macy's behind the cameraman. 

Average life span: 35 years

These houses numbered one to four a block and always faced east to take advantage of the prevailing breezes off the Gulf of Mexico, cooling the main house and keeping the smell of manure from the carriage houses in the back away from the main house. 

Average life span: 37 years

The grand old houses on Main Street, at 5,000 to 10,000 square feet each, were as large and elaborate as any other mansions across the country.  In the time before personal income tax as we know it today, businessmen showed their wealth by importing the finest building materials and architectural styles of the time.

Average life span: 62 years

However, the lives of hundreds of grand old houses on and around Main Street were short lived.  They were not destroyed by fires or hurricanes, but were all deliberately demolished in the name of progress to make room to build auto parts stores, Piggly Wiggly's, and sometimes just a parking lot.

Average life span: 42 years

As cotton was drying up as the dominate industry, oil was literally flaring up...

...and Houston's population continued to double in size every 10 years for the next several decades.

Houston's outward migration only continued, as it does to this day, where each generation simply abandons the place where they grew up and moves a little farther out.  Starting with downtown in the 1890s, then moving to places like Courtlandt Place and Westmoreland in Montrose in the 1910s, then River Oaks in the 1920s, then Tanglewood and Memorial by the 1950s, and followed by Sugar Land, Katy, and The Woodlands over 30 miles away.

Downtown Houston in 1920

By the 1920s, the first skyscrapers begin appearing.  The above photo shows downtown looking north with the Rice Hotel in the center.  The residential streets immediately adjacent to these taller buildings would have had a similar feeling to the neighborhoods around the French Quarter, while the grand old houses on Main Street that stood just a few blocks farther south would have had a similar feeling to the Garden District in New Orleans.

Downtown Houston in 1970s

But, by the 1970s, all that remained of Houston's original, walkable Victorian neighborhoods had been destroyed and replaced with surface parking lots for the even taller skyscrapers going up every few years.  The above photo shows downtown looking southwest where the present-day Discovery Green park would eventually go.

Fortunately, in 1954 a group of citizens could see the city's past quickly disappearing and they came together to form the Heritage Society to save the below house from demolition.

Kellum-Noble House, built in 1847, is the oldest surviving building in Houston.

The Kellum-Noble House, in the shadows of skyscrapers downtown, is still in its original location.  Despite the site being used for Houston's first school, first park, and first zoo, the City wanted to demolish the structure anyway because it was in the way.  Thankfully, the Heritage Society was allowed to preserve the building and expand Sam Houston Park to include 9 other historic structures from other parts of the city.

Nichols-Rice-Cherry House, built in 1850 on Courthouse Square, moved to park in 1959.

The Nichols-Rice-Cherry House has been altered and moved several times over the years.  The roof has been restored to its original shape, but the wraparound porch has been lost to time.  William Marsh Rice, the namesake of Rice University, once lived in the house before being murdered by his butler.

Pillot House, built in 1868 at McKinney and Chenevert (now the site of the George R. Brown Convention Center), moved to park in 1965.

This house and its occupants witnessed the destruction of Houston's original residential neighborhoods.  The family donated the house to the Heritage Society upon moving away from downtown.

Staiti House, built in 1905 on Westmoreland in Montrose and moved to park in 1986. 

The Staiti house is the largest in the park and had to be cut into several pieces in order to get it under power lines, street lights and freeway overpasses. 

. . .

Finally, in 1995, City Council adopted Houston's first Historic Preservation Ordinance.  However, despite tax exemptions and other incentives, any building could still be altered or demolished after waiting 90 days.  In the next 15 years, more historic buildings would be demolished than had been in the previous 50 years.

Houston's 20 Historic Districts in 2013.

In 2010, the Historic Preservation Ordinance was revised to prevent any demolition of a structure in a Historic District.  The above map shows central Houston with the 20 current districts highlighted in red.  The cluster near the top is the Heights, followed by Old Sixth Ward and Downtown, then another cluster south in Montrose, and a couple near Rice University.  A link to an interactive map can be found here.  The neighborhood southeast of downtown, outside the loop, near Hobby Airport is Glenbrook Valley.

Images courtesy of Robert Searcy

Same home in 1954, 2004, and 2010.  The destruction continues...

In conclusion, while it is illegal to demolish buildings listed by the City of Houston as Protected Landmarks, buildings outside of Historic Districts with the more common Designated Landmark status and those listed on the National Register of Historic Places may still be torn down.

Also, many Protected Landmarks in Historic Districts are still willfully neglected and deteriorating rapidly.

In Houston, all buildings are endangered.

. . .


For permitting:
Houston Archaeological and Historic Commission (HAHC)

For history:
Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC)
(832) 393-1662

For building materials:
Historic Houston

. . .

This post was adapted from a presentation to the Rotary Club of Houston.  A higher resolution PDF can be downloaded here.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Norris of Houston and the World's Largest Barber Shop

Norris in Texas Parade Magazine, 1972.

My grandfather, Norris Womack, started cutting hair in his father's barber shop at 814 South 75th Street (now demolished), at Lawndale Avenue, in Houston's East End neighborhood back in 1952 at the age of 16.  His father, Leamon, had learned the craft from his own father (my great-great grandfather) who cut the hair of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.

Leamon, standing behind the first chair in Womack's Barber Shop in East Texas.

Norris, standing behind the third chair in Womack's Barber Shop on 75th Street and Lawndale.

Norris quickly learned the business and before long was already being called the "King of Flat Tops" in Houston.  Even though most customers preferred the shorter, conservative haircuts of the time, Norris was not one to follow these cultural norms.  Instead, his curiosity lead him to Austin's university area to pick up on the newer hair fashions coming into vogue.  Norris was ready to challenge the patterns of respectability and shock the rest of the culture as Elvis Presley, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack were doing with their own work.  They, among others, had provided the model for the wider and more deeply felt social revolution of the 1960s.

Norris "The King of Flat Tops" at his father's shop in 1953.

Back in Houston, Norris opened his first barber shop, with his wife Sue, in the newly built and highly successful Westbury Square shopping center near the intersection of Chimney Rock Road and West Bellfort Avenue in 1962.  50 years ahead of its time, Westbury Square pioneered the neo-town square lifestyle center retail model.  The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Gray quoted Barry Moore, an architect who writes for Cite magazine, describing Westbury Square as a "retail Brigadoon" and said that it was as if Disneyland's Main Street USA had been translated into an actual place where people could buy real stuff, and then walk home to an apartment on the second floor above the shops.

Entrance to Westbury Square, 2011.

His one-chair barber shop, nestled among an ice cream parlor, candle shop, and needlecraft store in old world charm would seem more nostalgic than a means to social revolution.  But this was social change for Houston.  Westbury Square became a destination where the places outside and around the shops were just as important as the shops themselves--a huge departure from the generic retail strip centers quickly filling up the streets as Houston grew after World War II.  

It was a make-believe environment and while his customers were evolving and showing a growing preference for the longer hair of the counter-culture movement, he introduced manicures for men done by his wife who was trained as a beautician.  Norris had learned to style long hair back in Austin, but he never considered himself a hairstylist, only and always just a barber.

Womack Barber Shop, at 653 Westbury Square (now demolished), was located down an alley behind this building.

In 1964, Norris moved to a 3-chair location at 3406 Louisiana (now demolished) in Houston's "emerging" French Quarter of what is now known as Midtown, near the present-day Brennan's of New Orleans restaurant.  The old house had a men's clothing store on the first floor, called Norris of Houston, with the Womack Barber Shop above.  Within a few years, he expanded the barber shop to the whole house and now had 9 chairs.  At this point, he opened his first barber college on the Eastex Freeway, near Jensen Drive, and later another barber college on the Gulf Freeway, near Edgebrook Drive, whose main functions were to train barbers for his own operations and fill the chairs.

By 1965, he was ready to take the big leap and set up shop in the elite Warwick Hotel (now Hotel Zaza) overlooking Hermann Park and the Museum of Fine Arts at the request of oilman John Mecom, owner of the Warwick and the New Orleans Saints.  It was here that Norris of Houston was introduced to wealthier Houstonians, celebrities like John Wayne, Evil Knievel, Milton Berle, Tony Martin, Liberace, and all the astronauts at NASA who frequented his shop when in town and became lifelong customers.

Warwick Hotel, before the pool and terrace were added.

Liberace, who autographed this photo for my mother after dropping in.

After a vacation in Santa Fe one year, Norris was busy planning the opening of his third barber shop near the soon to be developed Galleria site on South Post Oak Road (now Post Oak Boulevard) which still resembled more of the wild west with horses and cows behind barbed wire fences.  Norris was inspired by the timber columns and heavy plaster he had seen in Santa Fe and set out to build the swankiest barber shop Houston had ever seen.

Post Oak Drive-In movie theater, where the Galleria and Transco (Williams) Tower are now.

In 1968, Norris of Houston opened at its present-day location at 2033 Post Oak Boulevard, between Westheimer and San Felipe, next to Norton Ditto.  The shop featured 20 chairs in private booths for the barbers and the lobby came with all the cobwebs, cowhide, chandeliers, and woodwork from the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe.  Even the enormous paintings were rumored to be of Womack ancestors (they were not) as if Norris needed any additional street cred among his well-heeled customers.

Exterior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Norris of Houston on Post Oak with more recent suburban stucco enhancements.

Current interior of Post Oak location with recent additions.

Norris of Houston went on to open another shop downtown in the Tenneco (Kinder Morgan) Building and by then had become the most profitable such enterprise in the world grossing over $1 million a year.  He was the first barber shop to offer men's hair and scalp analysis, shampoo and conditioner treatment, followed by a styled cut with hair products and blow drying.  Additional services included manicures and pedicures, shoeshines, facials, massages, and even hair loss treatments, toupees, and wigs.  All, of course, by appointment only, as walk-ins were not welcome.  He also discouraged female customers, as he didn't want the men thinking they were walking into a beauty shop.

Tenneco (formerly El Paso Energy, now Kinder Morgan) Building downtown.

In 1972, planning began on his largest establishment yet and Texas Parade magazine was there to tell the story.  Stating "He's getting in Houston's hair ... as well as its pockets!  Waving his magic scissors, Norris turns hair into gold ..." and then posing the question, "How much do you tip a high school dropout who became a barber, last year grossed a cool million, and next year will probably gross twice that?"

Norris with his daughter Sherry (my mother) and his son Norris, Jr.  Both have worked for the business in the past.

Groundbreaking for new shop with then city councilman Jim McConn, who later became mayor of Houston after Fred Hofheinz and before Kathy Whitmire. 

By 1974, his new flagship super-shop had opened at 3303 Audley near Greenway Plaza.  By far his largest barber shop at over 6,000 square feet with 60 chairs all in private booths.  It was designed by renowned architect Walter Barrineau III (best known for his futuristic design of the DFW International Airport air traffic control tower).  The architecture was unlike any of his previous shops.  The building form was progressive and the use of natural light was inventive.  

While his shop on Post Oak garnered immense local press upon opening, the Audley location caught the attention of national and international media.  Soon the Guinness Book of World Records was knocking on his door to include the business in their latest edition under a new category: The Largest Barber Shop in the World.  A title he held into the 1980s when the category was retired with the advent of Vidal Sassoon, Visible Changes and the like, who all chose the more profitable franchise and licensing routes for business expansion.

Guinness Books of World Records.  I think I've set my own record for tracking down all the old copies :)

On a recent trip the Houston Metropolitan Research Center downtown, I was delighted to discover they house all the old photo negatives from the Houston Post archives.  The negatives are kept with their original photo assignment and caption sheets given to the photographers when a story was about to run.  From the comments on the sheet, it seems that the Houston Post hadn't caught up to the women's rights movement they were writing about at the time.

Note the sexist remark... in writing... and signed.  Sigh.

Norris of Houston at 3303 Audley in 1976.

Waiting area.

Private booths.

Looking down from conference area.

Shampoo sinks.

Norris with his "pretty female barbers"

As the business continued to grow, Norris of Houston was involved in several lawsuits that led to the Texas Supreme Court's decision on how non-compete agreements are handled in the State of Texas.  The most notable cases were:

However, in 1976 Harvard University chose to compile a case study on the success and growth of Norris of Houston and it would become part of the curriculum of their prestigious Harvard Business School.

The Houston Post, 1976

. . .

Surprisingly, the shop at 3303 Audley still stands.  So what does it look like these days?  Houston Medical Imaging is in the building now and aside from some deferred maintenance, the exterior has only seen minor changes.

The building is mostly obstructed from the street by overgrown landscaping.

New stretched canvas entrance canopy, stone veneer tiles falling off of walls, and fake stone ceramic tile on the steps.

Newer clerestory windows and more stone veneer tile falling off.

Overgrown landscaping.

The shop at 3303 Audley closed in 1990 when another shop opened on Post Oak across the street in the Post Oak Towers designed by architect Philip Johnson, designer of several notable buildings in Houston and around the world.  By the end of the decade, Norris of Houston had consolidated into and expanded the original location on Post Oak Boulevard.  It operates as a hair salon and day spa now where women make up the majority of the customers these days and they specialize in bridal parties.

Post Oak Towers, designed by Philip Johnson

Norris, with grandsons Landon and Spencer, in front of the original Post Oak shop.

Norris cutting Landon's hair, with me observing.

. . .

* * * UPDATE * * *

Norris atop a pile of his barbers at the end of the book, "Houston: The Once and Future City" in 1971.

Norris Womack passed away on June 4, 2013.  He will be greatly missed by all that knew and loved him.  A guestbook can be signed with condolences here.