Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

Wintz, the chair of the history department at Texas Southern University, says the developers' position -- no building could be designated historic without the owner's consent -- was intractable. Likewise, when the historical commission began amending the ordinance three years ago, the developers, represented by the Greater Houston Builders Association, opposed increasing the 90-day demolition delay to 180 days. Wintz concedes that but for the builders association's insistence, there would be no such "opt out" provision.

"A lot of what we've done is defined by the political culture that we operate in," Wintz says. "We tried to produce an ordinance that would have teeth in it but one that wouldn't generate a groundswell of opposition from the developers."

Predictably, the builders association also supports the certificate of non-designation, calling it "a fair and reasonable provision" despite the fact that it's apparently unique among the 2,000 cities and towns that have historic preservation laws. "We are the only city in the entire country that has this stupid non-designation," says J.D. Bartell, the historic conservation officer for the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association. "It's absolutely ludicrous."

Property rights advocates have distributed more than 30,000 leaflets opposing the preservation ordinance.
Deron Neblett
Property rights advocates have distributed more than 30,000 leaflets opposing the preservation ordinance.
Mike O'Brien: Without the ordinance, neighborhoods will become "piles of crap."
Monica Fuentes
Mike O'Brien: Without the ordinance, neighborhoods will become "piles of crap."

Preservationists point out that the non-designation strips the historical commission of its authority and puts it in the hands of developer-friendly city planners. Two years ago, for example, the non-designation was used to undermine an effort to save Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway.

Considered a classic of moderne architecture, Jeff Davis was built in 1936 with $2.2 million from the Public Works Administration. Before it closed, hopelessly outdated, in 1989, the hospital was an important training ground for doctors and researchers, and some of the work done there helped establish Houston's renown in the medical world. In 1953, for example, Drs. Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley performed the first successful resection of an aneurysm of the thoracic aorta, a procedure that many thought couldn't be done. DeBakey and Cooley also developed the first artificial arteries at Jeff Davis.

But once the fates of nearby Allen Parkway Village and Freedmen's Town were sealed in 1998, local developer Marvy Finger announced his intent to buy Jeff Davis from the Harris County Hospital District for $5.8 million, demolish it and build apartments on the site. Finger's plan triggered a mad rush by Lynn Edmundson, a Greater Houston Preservation Alliance board member, to establish Jeff Davis as a city landmark. Edmundson assembled copious amounts of historical information on the old hospital, which she used to qualify Jeff Davis for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In January 1999 she submitted an application to the Houston Archeological & Historic Commission to have Jeff Davis designated a city landmark. Commission members agreed to study the matter for a week then hold a public hearing.

But one day before the scheduled hearing, Randy Pace, the city's historic preservation officer, told Edmundson that a certificate of non-designation had already been granted for Jeff Davis. Edmundson looked into the matter and discovered that the non-designation had been approved by city planning director Bob Litke just hours before her request for landmark status had been filed. Edmundson challenged Litke's decision, pointing out that the non-designation request had not been signed by a representative of the county, which still owned Jeff Davis, nor had the $25 application fee been paid.

The city attorney's office reviewed the non-designation request, and while acknowledging "irregularities," ruled that Edmundson's own application for landmark status was invalid because she did not own the building. When the historical commission backed down -- some members had apparently never heard of a certificate of non-designation -- Edmundson tried to get City Council to step in and name the hospital a city landmark. She lobbied councilmembers furiously and bombarded their offices with information, including letters of support from DeBakey and Cooley, the Texas Historical Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a dozen civic clubs and numerous architects, historians and private citizens, including one Jerry Arnold. In a short handwritten letter to the city's Randy Pace, Arnold noted that although he was currently in prison, he was "so sad" to hear Jeff Davis was slated for demolition. "Mr. Pace," Arnold wrote, "do take the time to bring me up to date on this issue; I do want to be an asset to your office."

Edmundson had put in hundreds of unpaid hours making a case for Jeff Davis's landmark status, assuming that she enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. But when council held a hearing on the matter in April 1999, she was surprised to see that no one else from the alliance, including executive director Ramona Davis, had bothered to show up. In fact, the alliance, in essence, had withdrawn its support for Jeff Davis, according to a prepared statement Davis had sent to councilmembers.

"We are not here to take sides on the application for non-designation of Jeff Davis," the statement read, "but to ask instead that you use the lessons of this sad occasion as a foundation for creating a stronger preservation ordinance…."

Council agreed to let the non-designation stand. Three days later Edmundson quit the alliance board. In a three-page letter of resignation, Edmundson noted bitterly that the "only accomplishment that [the alliance] can rightfully claim as their own is that under their direction preservation has no presence in Houston."

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