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.


  1. My GOODNESS thank you so much for this ... I only WISH more people CARED .. we live in a house built in 1939 ... it's wonderful

  2. I just wish the HAHC made it easier to fix up old houses. Right now people dread having to deal with them. I like old houses much better than new ones. I just don't like someone telling me if I can have shutters. I also hate the McCamelbacks. The one they just built next door is 3 feet from my property line and goes all the way to the back of the property. Yuck. We also can't stand to lose more permeable land in this city. I do love my 1920s cottage!

  3. Great article and information. As resident of Glenbrook I'm so proud that the great mods are no longer in danger. Still sad for the ones that we've lost.

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