Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

"Proper identification is a mandatory requirement," Cahill said in a severe tone. "Because the [preservation] ordinance is voluntary, this is not just a rote exercise devoid of substantive meaning. It is the only way the city has to communicate to those people who are ready, willing and able to destroy the integrity of our historic districts."

Recently, over coffee, Lopez and Hardin still seemed affected by the neighborhood's reaction to their house, the design of which is modern, although not nearly as modern as they had originally intended. Lopez, a fresh-faced Filipino who is a graduate student in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, said he wanted "glass, steel, the whole international-style thing. Very little wood."

The couple said they had received no advance notice from the city that their plans didn't conform to the neighborhood's architectural "language," nor did anyone from the Old Sixth Ward association contact them before the hearing. "It's hard for me to express how frustrating it was for me," Lopez said. "There were some serious misrepresentations that took an already tense group of people and whipped them into a frenzy."

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

Indeed, upon closer inspection, Chung's design -- while unlike anything else in the neighborhood -- appears to be a carefully thought-out compromise between old and new. The recessed gabled roofs over the carport and the two porches mirror the cottages and Victorians that line Decatur Street; same with the pier-and-beam foundation, a touch that increased the cost of the house. An attached structure, which likely will become a studio for Hardin's optometry practice, is on a slab, just like the one-story warehouse across Silver Street. The house will be covered in Hardi-Plank, a cement-and-fiberglass material that looks like wood but is more durable.

Yet the historical commission rejected Chung's plans, claiming the setback -- the distance between the building and the street -- did not match that of neighboring structures. Rather than just wait the 90 days and proceed as planned, Lopez and Hardin revised the design accordingly. But in November their plans were rejected again by the commission. By then, it was obvious there was little room for compromise on either side of the divide; after another 90-day delay, construction of the house began.

But if Chung's design upset the aesthetic sensibilities of the Old Sixth Ward when it was still on the drawing board, it enraged them once the house started taking shape. It is obvious that, when finished, the building will sit hard against a carefully restored Victorian at 1908 Decatur, casting a perpetual shadow on the old home's wraparound porch.

This has put J.D. Bartell in a permanent snit. Bartell, the neighborhood association's historic-conservation officer, lives around the corner in the Andrew J. and Josephine M. Kuhn House, a national landmark that looks every bit as impressive as it sounds. Bartell, who had a chemical analysis done to determine what color the Kuhn House was painted when it was built in 1822, says the problem with Chung's design isn't about style but compatibility and, apparently, common decency.

"That house has completely destroyed the fabric of that block," says Bartell. "It's rude and crass and completely inconsiderate of the house next door."

Not long after construction began on the Lopez/Hardin house, the neighbor across the street made his similar feelings known by erecting a dozen signs on his lawn slagging Chung's company: "MC2 = BAD DESIGN," the signs said. The architect also was approached by several people in the neighborhood who urged him to take a look at a couple of faux Victorians that had been built down the street. He did, and in his estimation, they're "perverse."

"I just don't think that's the way you do architecture in the 21st century," he says.

Architectural historian Stephen Fox agrees. Fox, who spoke on behalf of Chung's design at the second historical commission meeting, says preservationists often regard any modern design, no matter how good, as incompatible. "I've had conflicts with preservationists who don't really understand the difference between preserving historic buildings and building new buildings that look old," Fox says.

Lopez and Hardin say they've come to learn that opposition to their house isn't as widespread as they've been led to believe. A number of Old Sixth Ward residents have told them they're looking forward to seeing the house when it's finished, probably later this spring. When they move in, they plan to make the best of the situation.

"Maybe when things settle down, I feel like we have something to contribute to the neighborhood," Hardin says. "Marty wants to volunteer at MECA," a cultural arts center in the neighborhood, "and I want to get curbside recycling."

Last month about two dozen people gathered for a meeting of the Houston Homeowners Association in a conference room inside the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street. Although very few were residents of a city-created historic district, preservation was the topic of the evening.

The homeowners association is headed by Mike O'Brien, a tall, husky man with graying hair and a pink Irish face. O'Brien says that for most of the 1990s homeowners were seduced by political rhetoric such as "neighborhoods to standards" and "neighborhood-oriented government," only to find out the real beneficiaries of those programs were developers. O'Brien points out that less than two years ago, over the complaints of dozens of neighborhood associations and civic clubs, City Council changed the city development code to allow construction of up to 27 town homes on a single acre of land. The deep setbacks and wide lawns of Montrose, Neartown and the West End disappeared -- from entire blocks in some cases -- and were replaced by towering canyons of red brick and stucco. Taxes shot up; traffic increased; parking became scarce; and the overburdened storm-water and wastewater systems began to falter.

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