By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
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In 1928 Washington architect F. Stanley Piper went to work on suitable plans for an apartment house with the kind of charm to match the character of the community now known as Houston's Museum District.
Rice University had anchored the adjoining area in 1912 with its monumental quadrangle buildings. A dozen years later the original home of the Museum of Fine Arts went up from the design of William Ward Watkin. Sam Houston -- or at least the Enrico Cerracchio sculpture of him -- arrived to greet Hermann Park visitors in 1925. The next year the fashionable Plaza Hotel found its place on Montrose Boulevard (see Return of the Plaza?" by Samantha Liskow, July 8, 1999).
For his design of the apartment complex at 4801 Montrose, Piper opted for the brick and high-pitched roofs of faux British Tudor architecture. The complex opened under the somewhat pretentious name of Gramercy Gables.
Generations of Houstonians have passed by the familiar landmark in the seven decades since then. Residents say the now Gramercy Apartments are a nice place to live, despite sewer lines in the area that have overflowed occasionally.
But the Gramercy's days as a survivor are numbered. It faces a wrecking ball if The Finger Companies has its way. In the place of the quaint apartments will rise a tower of more than 20 stories high filled with upscale tenants. Gone will be the neighborhood charm that prompted engineer Michael Mullally to buy there five years ago. If the new tower is built, he says, "I will never see sunlight again."
Mullally says he and his neighbors tried to discuss their concerns with Finger officials. But the company canceled a planned meeting, and further calls were not returned. Finger is pressing ahead with construction plans by applying for a variance -- an exemption -- to city codes requiring a connection of side streets or a cul-de-sac rather than a dead end into the rear of the property.
On Thursday, June 1, the Planning Commission is scheduled to act on the developer's request. City staff recommends routine approval, stating that the narrow streets of the neighborhood make that code section irrelevant. The staff summary says there's no real benefit to the public in requiring the changes. Finger would be deprived "reasonable use of the land" because the cul-de-sacs or connections would take up so much space there wouldn't be room left to build its high-rise, the city staff report says.
Finger is part of the Houston-based home furnishings retail outlet. Its proposed Montrose high-rise would hold about 275 apartments ranging in size up to 2,600 square feet.
Mullally and his group plan to protest the proposed variance at the commission meeting. He even created a Web site (www.mullallyphoto.com/high-rise) to rally support to stop the proposed building and save the Gramercy.
"I love the neighborhood; I don't need 500 renters next door," Mullally says.
R.M. "Monty" McDannald agrees. The commercial real estate agent lives seven blocks from the proposed project. "If it is built, I would have them looking into my backyard," he says. He's also president of the Museum Area Municipal Association, a citizens group dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the Museum District. He worries that if the Finger high-rise is allowed to be built, more would follow. The result would be the Manhattanization of Montrose, he fears.
"This is the last bastion of historic Houston," he says. "If we don't stop it now, we may have a rash of these high-rise buildings along Montrose."
Jeff Gray, spokesman for The Finger Companies, refused to comment on the proposed building, saying that his company would issue a press release "in a week or two." When asked if there would be any effort to save the historic apartments, he said, "I'm not sure that there is a historic structure on the site."
Quite the contrary, says Rice University's Stephen Fox, who has cataloged Houston's historic structures for decades. Fox says the Gramercy and adjacent Cotswald Apartments rank with the Isabella Court on Main Street and the Winslow Court on Caroline as the most architecturally significant Houston apartment complexes of the 1920s. "They have an architectural influence beyond Houston," Fox says.
Restoration architect Bart Truxillo calls Gray's comment "terribly unfortunate." He is a member and former chairman of the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission. He also owns the landmark Magnolia Ballroom downtown.
Truxillo praises the Gramercy as "wonderful Tudor revival architecture from the '20s." He believes that the property could easily qualify for historical protection. Historical plaques help protect properties by raising public awareness and pressure against any demolition, he says. "They definitely would qualify for the National Register of Historical Places, the Texas Historical Marker and the City of Houston Historical Landmark. Should that happen, it would be covered by the Houston Preservation Ordinance," Truxillo says.
However, Houston's historic preservation ordinance is among the nation's weakest. The Gramercy appears to fit the ordinance's general definition of historic: being more than 50 years old and reflecting distinctive characteristics of the community. But the ordinance can delay demolition for only 90 days on historically designated buildings. After that, the bulldozers move in.
The city's historical commission recommended a year ago that the razing moratorium be extended to 180 days and there be added tax incentives for saving a designated building. Those recommendations have gone nowhere at City Hall.
Fox blames Houston's lack of zoning and lack of a commitment to historic preservation for the devastation of such legacies from the past. "In other cities, city staff is budgeted to propose structures for the National Register," Fox says.
In fact, the city employee administering the historic preservation ordinance, Randy Pace of the Planning Department, says he is not allowed to talk to the media. A departmental spokeswoman did not return calls from the Houston Press.
While the city's record in historic preservation is by no means enviable, Fox says there are more properties on the National Register here than in Galveston, a city that sells its history as a tourist attraction. "But there is just so much more of Houston that it isn't that evident," he says.
The 1.8-acre site is owned by Greeley, Colorado-based contractor Hensel Phelps. Finger is slated to close its deal on the property in August. It was purchased two years ago as the site for a project called the Muse'o Lofts. That project has been abandoned and the sign taken down.
Last August a family bought some of the adjacent apartments and has been restoring them as Gramery Place apartments.
Houston City Councilwoman Annise Parker doesn't hold out much hope for saving the Gramercy, noting there are no ordinances applicable to stopping development.
"Good luck," she says of the neighborhood preservation effort. "This is a city that keeps voting down zoning and historic preservation," she says. "There are few tools to stop that. End of sentence."