By Jeff Balke
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A prestigious nonprofit society of scholars, AH-HA annually recognizes heritage projects that most closely adhere to historical accuracy.
The panel of AH-HA jurists noted that the award is a first for the city of Houston in the 20 years the organization has been recognizing contributions.
A citation by the awards committee explained that more predictable preservation programs in other cities -- such as the painstaking rebuilding of pioneer cabins in Williamsburg and the restoration of the notable murals of the 1805 Katonga Cathedral in Seattle -- are prime examples of the high standards of the excruciating historical detail required of merit award candidates.
"While the city of Houston has a preservation ordinance that has yet to preserve any edifices of historical value, Mayor Brown has embarked on a bold program that reaches far beyond mere buildings," AH-HA jurists explained. "Never before has a municipality undertaken a return of its entire transportation infrastructure to the exacting conditions of the frontier era. The scale -- and sheer concept -- is incredible."
Based on the earliest of photos and illustrations still in existence, the panel found that the mayor, in only four years and with no more than $78 million, has managed a historically accurate conversion of most downtown streets. His administration has stripped away the incompatible concrete and asphalt, returning the roadways to the same authentic, rutted dirt roadways traveled by the founding Allen brothers in 1836.
"Citizens of other cities, to acquire an appreciation of their heritage, must attend museums and other historical sites to get a real sense of their area's past," jurists concluded. "In Houston, merely driving down a street, or trying to drive down one, immediately instills that same sensation on a daily basis."
With the project unearthing long-buried undersoil, even pedestrians can partake instantly of a past suddenly returned to life, AH-HA commented. "In fact, they are breathing -- literally -- the same dust of their dynamic forefathers from centuries ago," the citation said.
Jurists did criticize the extensive placement of orange construction barrels -- historical standards call for the earlier stave-and-oaken versions. But they did marvel at the work sites' use of life-size human-appearing mannequins topped by hard hats. The amazement, the panel noted, came in how these figures remain immovable for hours, only to "come alive" and depart under their own power at the end of every shift.
AH-HA officials predicted that the bold project may soon attract private-sector participation, as businesses adjust to the historically accurate conditions. Inquiries have reportedly been made about a Hertz "Rent-a-Cart" franchise and "Oxen 'R Us" outlet near Market Square.
The Award of Merit, underwritten by an endowment from Acme Shock Absorbers, also credits the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Texas Department of Transportation for their roles in expanding Brown's initiative regionally.
A post-award reception was scheduled for a Main Street restaurant near the heart of the project. It had to be canceled when the eatery went bankrupt, citing an absence of customers through the work zone. A spokesman for the mayor said the cancellation caused no problems -- Brown's limo itself was unable to get to the presentation owing to construction detours.
"I am honored to be recognized by this distinguished organization," Brown said in a prepared statement issued by his staff. "But there is so much concrete still remaining, so much yet to be done, or rather undone. In this quest, we still have a long road ahead of us."