Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

Former alliance board member Gary Coover says he wasn't surprised the organization abandoned the fight over Jeff Davis. A lanky, good-natured art-car enthusiast -- he keeps a four-wheeled replica of the "Yellow Submarine" parked beside his stately Montrose home -- Coover says the alliance rarely conducted any official business at its meetings, because there was rarely a quorum of board members. He says Davis, the executive director, busied herself developing a new logo and stationery instead of rallying support for Allen Parkway Village, the Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hall, the Allen-Paul "witch's hat" house and other landmarks that are no longer with us.

At one point Coover developed a newsletter on behalf of city-created historic districts such as the Heights and the Old Sixth Ward. But after a few issues, Davis grew alarmed at the tone of the four-page publication and began editing it. "The newsletters got me in trouble," Coover recalls. "I thought they should be very funny and irreverent, but [Davis] chided this old Boy Scout from Oklahoma for being a wild-eyed radical."

In November 1998 Coover was driving on South Main Street, near the Astrodome, when he passed the site of the Red Lion, a classic English-style steak house that, since the 1930s, had been one of the city's premier restaurants. "It was nothing but dirt," Coover recalls. A few days later -- one year to the day after the "witch's hat" house was destroyed -- Coover quit the board. In his resignation letter, Coover noted that the alliance had become a "white-glove society" and an "image" group.

Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.
Deron Neblett
Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.

After leaving the alliance, Coover teamed up with Edmundson to start a Web-based advocacy group called Historic Houston. In 1999 and again last year, Coover and Edmundson convinced Mayor Lee Brown to issue proclamations recognizing National Historic Preservation Week -- something the alliance never bothered with, Coover says. The new organization also sponsored a weeklong symposium on preservation, an event the alliance did not participate in.

"I'm not saying that there needs to be a big fight over everything," Coover says. "But every time a building with historic significance is threatened, the alliance is unwilling, almost afraid, to say anything that might offend someone. They've basically turned into an advisory board to various influential people who give them money."

Davis concedes that the alliance has been criticized for not being aggressive enough in support of historic preservation. But she challenges anyone to provide an example of when "screaming and picketing" has saved a building from being demolished. The alliance has a history of "working behind the scenes," Davis says, and has always tried to take a "more professional approach to getting what we need." She declined to discuss specific examples of how that approach has prevented the loss of a historic structure.

"I'd love to tell you what we do, but I can't because often we're entrusted with information that we can't pass along," she says. "But you have to be thoughtful about what you try to save. You have to choose your battles; you have to choose what's worth saving. You can't save everything just because it's old. That's hoarding, not preserving."

It's worth imagining what Houston's "voice" of preservation would sound like if Barry Klein had remained a member of the chorus. Klein, a compact man with a calm gaze that belies his ready-to-go intensity, was an early supporter of the alliance and even helped draft the organization's original bylaws.

In 1993 he formed the Houston Property Rights Association to organize opposition to the zoning referendum. There haven't been many public policy issues that Klein and his principled band of Libertarians haven't weighed in on since then. In some circles, Klein's strident belief in the rights of owners to do what they will with their property is considered the lunatic fringe. But if truth be told, he merely represents what west of the Mississippi, and especially in Texas, is still considered worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. And no one can accuse him of not putting his money where his mouth is.

On a recent Saturday morning Klein sits on the porch of a bungalow on Drew Street, in the Hyde Park section of Montrose, dressed in tan shorts and a blue T-shirt over chocolate-brown socks and running shoes. An orange bandanna is tied around his head like a sweatband. At his feet are packing boxes full of leaflets and treatises, photocopied newspaper articles and editorials and, tucked inside a green tube, a few large maps.

Every weekend morning for more than a year, Klein has gathered as many as a dozen property rights association members to campaign for the hearts and minds of Houston homeowners. On this day Klein is alone, though it's only because his work is nearly done: To date, he and his supporters have delivered more than 20,000 pamphlets -- headlined "Are You Ready for $500 a Day Fines?" -- to the doorjambs of Inner Loop homes. Klein estimates that another 13,000 pamphlets have been placed directly into the hands of homeowners as they've gone in and out of churches, office buildings, corner stores and shopping malls.

Klein has papered all seven city-created historic districts, and more than a half-dozen neighborhoods whose civic clubs have made noises about applying for historic status. A nonpracticing real estate broker who once owned a company called The Old House, Klein says he's very fond of old buildings. "I really do love Montrose, and like others, I have been disturbed by the influx of triple-deckers," three-story town homes. "I've just always been of the view that [preservation] should be voluntary."

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