Ain't That a Ditch

Hiram Butler and his neighbors are fighting to retain the funky charm of Magnolia Grove, and they're drawing their battle line in the ditch.

"They feel incredibly vulnerable," Bell observes. "Up until a few years ago, you could buy a house and a lot for $22,000. Even now, there's no reason somebody wouldn't tear that down and build two houses.

"People are willing to live inside the Loop again, and that neighborhood is on the precipice of possibly being wiped out if somebody really wanted to give it a go. It's possible."

Led by a core group of civic association members, however, Magnolia Grove is defending itself quite nicely by fighting fire with fire. They've become urban developers themselves and are scurrying around the neighborhood, buying parcels of land and dilapidated houses out from under the speculators. Stan and Karen Hallett, for instance, recently bought about a half-acre adjacent to Butler's gallery, saving it from a developer who was planning to tear down three low-rent buildings, including one of some historical significance, and replace them with townhouses. The Halletts aren't sure what they'll do with the property now, but they do know what they don't want.

"People who live in townhomes, most of the time, they come home, they go in through their automatic garages, and you never see them again," says Stan, who, as a technical sales representative for IBM, might actually seem at home in a townhouse. "They don't participate, and they're not as friendly, it seems."

If Hiram Butler rekindled the original spirit of Magnolia Grove with his restoration of the Stark homestead, Stan and Karen Hallett have spread it around since they moved there in 1988. They were typical suburbanites, living in northwest Houston, when on their way to a party downtown, Karen dragged Stan over to a decrepit Victorian house she'd heard about on Gibson. They sneaked inside, and despite its squalid condition -- and Stan's expectation that he'd move his family to River Oaks someday -- they bought it. For two years, they shifted their lives from room to room while they renovated the old house themselves. In addition to their own home, they have bought and restored six more original houses in the neighborhood, two of which they've sold to friends who wanted to live in Magnolia Grove.

"We try and sell to people we know," says Karen Hallett, who is vice president of the neighborhood civic association. "It's one of the few ways you can control your environment."

Another way is to protect the ditches, which, compared to fending off developers, is a full-time job in Magnolia Grove. Indeed, there is a heightened state of alert in the neighborhood right now, dating back to the day the specter of the swales' mortal enemy -- concrete -- was raised on Lillian Street.

A few months ago, Lee Littlefield stopped a city vehicle and was told by workers that his street was due to receive a complete makeover, including new curbs and gutters. After years of watching their neighborhoods fall to pieces around them, residents of most Inner Loop communities would be so elated with that kind of news that they'd leave their homes to greet city workers as if they were an army of liberation.

"I know it's usually the kind of thing that gets votes," says Littlefield, who spread word of the pending invasion, "except for around here."

As we're frequently reminded by the Lanier administration, Neighborhoods to Standard is a veritable juggernaut that buffs up the ragged edges of a neighborhood with remarkably un-bureaucratic efficiency. Ironically, Magnolia Grove was among the first half-dozen neighborhoods chosen for improvements under the program.

But following a meeting of the residents, the civic association decided to limit the improvements to a few street overlays and some additional lighting in the neighborhood. There was a near unanimous rejection of curb-and-gutter work, which would entail not only eliminating the ditches but the widening of streets. You don't have to have a trained eye to see that some magnificent trees would be destroyed in the process.

"I don't know what the city's planning to do," says Stan Hallett, "but if they want to put in curb and gutter, they're in for a fight."

And no one in Magnolia Grove's more battle-ready than Hiram Butler, for whom the cool, efficient comfort of concrete holds no appeal. Butler's experience with the invasive tendency of city government began the moment he arrived in Magnolia Grove, and he hasn't been able to drop his guard since.

Eight years ago, before he could get an occupancy permit for his home and gallery, Butler had to install a $30,000 commercial drainage system underneath his sculpture garden. Even today, he bristles while explaining how the rainwater collects in massive concrete boxes underground and is then merely funneled through a single eight-inch pipe into his swale.

"Why couldn't the garden just be sloped toward the ditch?" he asks. "I offered to do that. Then you'd have three-quarters of an acre to help absorb the water before it entered the drainage system, and it wouldn't look like the Exxon refinery under there."

In January 1994, Butler's paradise, as well as his business, were turned upside down by the installation of new sewer lines as part of the federally mandated Greater Houston Wastewater Program. Access to the gallery was blocked for almost a year while the streets surrounding his compound were dug up. Butler says he was forced to show his clients' work in restaurants and other less-than-ideal venues.

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