By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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The rambling, two-story blue-and-white house on Rusk Avenue sits behind a pair of locked iron gates. Nearly 100 years old, it has been added on to numerous times and is in need of some repair. A statue of St. Vincent de Paul made in France in the 1840s has been placed near the front steps, but vandals recently managed to scale the protective fence and knock his head off. The headless statue gives the sagging house an ominous feel.
Its official, grand-sounding name is the Arthur Benjamin Cohn House, named for one of its former tenants who helped found Rice University. But it only looks awkward sitting smack in the middle of a rapidly developing part of downtown Houston, just behind the George R. Brown Convention Center and right next to the newly renamed Minute Maid Park. Soon, the convention center will be expanded; there will be a new hotel and a new arena. The house is a sign of yesteryear in an area that screams out "progress!"
But the house wasn't always such an oddity. In the early 1900s, it was surrounded by similar homes in one of Houston's first upscale, middle-class neighborhoods, known as Quality Hill. The neighborhood had a distinguished reputation, with homes that paid attention to the tiny details, such as the glasswork in the windows and doors. The Cohn House has a distinguished history, too: A former mayor of Houston, John T. Browne, grew up in it, and it's listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
But as Houston grew -- as Houston likes to do -- house after house in Quality Hill disappeared. Now there are only two left, and the Cohn House is one of them. Since the early 1960s, the house has belonged to St. Francis Charities, a group that collects clothing for the needy and passes out prayer cards and religious information at prisons and bus stations. Nobody lives in the house, but the group uses it for meetings and storage, and the group's president, Mary Nell Davis, worked tirelessly to get the house its historic designations at the local, state and national levels.
For decades no one paid much attention to the Cohn House, except for the small number of Houstonians interested in historic structures. But then Houston wanted to grow again.
"The city several years ago decided that it was important that Avenida de las Americas be extended two blocks north to the ballpark," says Dawn Ullrich, director of the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department. "The Cohn House lies squarely in the middle of where the right-of-way needs to go."
For the past several months, the city and St. Francis Charities have been trying to reach an agreement over just what is going to happen to the house once the street expansion begins next fall. The city has made offers, but Davis hasn't accepted any. Now, in an uncharacteristic move, the city says it doesn't want to demolish the Cohn House or the other Quality Hill home that sits next to it. In fact, its representatives say they want to move both houses a few feet west and refurbish them for use as a local tourism center. But the president of St. Francis Charities is not so sure she's interested.
"The house is not for sale," says Mary Nell Davis. "They'd like to buy it, but we didn't buy it to make money to sell."
But if Davis and the city don't come to some agreement soon -- and the window of time Davis has to make up her mind is rapidly closing -- city officials say they are prepared for the worst-case scenario: taking the case to court to declare eminent domain and move the house anyway.
"We're trying to do something with Ms. Davis that she'll be proud of and that we'll also be proud of," says Ullrich. "But do we have the power [to take the house]? Yes, quite frankly we do."
In her house in the Montrose, full of religious cards and literature, Davis keeps an audiotape made on October 5, 1964, just a few years after St. Francis Charities purchased the house. The tape is a recording of the late Houston Monsignor Antone Frank blessing the property.
"We know as you look over this house you will see the great potential that there is for it to be a sort of house that you can dream on, and then have those dreams fulfilled," intones Frank.
The city has its own dream for the house, but negotiations are at a standstill. Can the city that rarely practices preservation really do it right, all in the name of progress?
The poorly made, jumpy videotape can make a viewer dizzy, but it captures a cheery mood that stands in contrast to the one currently surrounding the Cohn House. The tape, made in October 1986, captures a proud moment: the day the house received its designation as a Texas historic landmark. It's sunny, and the ceremony is held outside on the wide porch. The tape shows the local Knights of Columbus presenting the colors and leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge. After a few speeches, the ceremony culminates with Davis, dressed in a white blouse and a bright skirt, proudly unpinning the pieces of cloth covering up the historical markers. Although she's done most of the work to get the designation, she has to be encouraged by the master of ceremonies to say a few words.