This Old House

The City of Houston wants to further spiff up the area around Minute Maid Park. The historic Cohn House stands in its way.

"We can't help but thank everyone," says Davis. "We are very, very privileged."

The tape shows the crowd retiring to the back of the house after the ceremony to munch on a buffet set out on tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There is music, and the mood is a joyful one.

It's a good day for preservationists.

Dawn Ullrich says the city has been patient with Davis.
Dawn Ullrich says the city has been patient with Davis.
Vandals recently stole the head off a statue of St. Vincent de Paul in the house's front yard.
Monica Fuentes
Vandals recently stole the head off a statue of St. Vincent de Paul in the house's front yard.

And it's the preservationists like Lynn Edmundson who are most concerned with the future of the Cohn House. Edmundson, a former board member of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance and the founder of a small nonprofit advocacy group called Historic Houston, grew worried when she learned the city wanted to expand Avenida. She decided to apply for a grant to the Cohn House and the other remaining Quality Hill home, the Foley House (recently sold to the city by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston).

The grant request called for local architects to make detailed blueprints of the homes according to standards provided by the Historic American Building Survey program, a process known as documentation. After the blueprints and sketches of both the Cohn House and the Foley House were created, they would be sent to the Library of Congress to become part of the public record. At least then there would be some concrete memories of the Quality Hill houses on their original sites, in case they were moved or demolished to make room for the road.

"My thought was, we lose so many buildings in town all the time, and there's very little record," says Edmundson. "Unless you have photographs or some kind of document, there's nothing."

Edmundson applied for grants from several foundations, and in November 2001 the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Historic Houston a $1,500 grant to draw the Quality Hill homes. Edmundson was put in touch with Jim Arnold, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston. He said he and his students would love to be part of the process.

Edmundson initially thought the diocese owned both the Foley House and the Cohn House. But in January 2002, when it came time to gain access to the homes so the work could begin, she discovered St. Francis Charities owned the Cohn House, and she paid a visit to Mary Nell Davis to explain the grant. Davis agreed to the project, and for the next six or seven Saturdays, Edmundson would swing by Davis's home, pick up the Cohn House keys and head back to the east side of downtown to let Arnold and his students in to work.

The students enjoyed working on the houses, says Arnold. They spent their Saturdays in and outside the buildings compiling field notes -- exact measurements of every inch of the structures. Once the sketches were done, the measurements were plugged into a computer, which then created images of the houses that could be saved forever.

"Both houses are pretty eclectic," says Arnold. "They're of the late Queen Anne style, but the Cohn House almost defies definition because it has been added on to. It's just kind of crazy."

During the Saturdays that Edmundson stopped by Davis's house to collect the keys, the two women discussed the history of the Cohn House. Edmundson asked Davis if she knew more about the city's plans for the structure. One day, Edmundson says, Davis showed her a letter from the city that Edmundson says offered St. Francis Charities $264,000 to relocate the Cohn House to an adjacent lot about 50 feet from where it stood. The group would still own the house, but Davis was worried that a clause in the agreement gave the city the right of first refusal at the current price, meaning if Davis ever chose to sell it she would have to offer it to the city at 2002 market value, even if she decided to sell it years after the move. Davis was also concerned that the amount of land being swapped wasn't exactly equal -- she might lose five feet if she takes the city's offer.

But Edmundson says Davis told her what worried her most was the possibility that moving the house would cause it to lose the historic designations. Indeed, while the local and national markers can usually be maintained when a historic structure is moved, the standard state rules maintain that if a house changes locations -- by even a few feet -- the state designation is dropped.

Davis didn't want to answer many questions about the house or the city's desire to move it. While Edmundson thinks Davis is in her eighties, Davis wouldn't even reveal her exact age. ("My age is a number," she quips, "and my number's unlisted.") She and her late husband started St. Francis Charities in the 1960s, she says, to do "behind-the-scenes work," like passing out Christian literature and collecting clothes and food for the needy.

"We don't want to start controversy" over the house, she says. "We need peace in this world."

Davis's attorney, Frank Pinedo, was equally mum, saying only that "the city made a number of offers, none of which we accepted."

Edmundson says it was April when she got a call on her cell phone while at the airport. It was Davis, telling her that the city had rescinded its offer. Shortly thereafter, Edmundson says, she began to hear from others in the preservation community that there was talk of moving both the Cohn House and the Foley House to the adjacent lot originally offered to Davis. The city wanted to refurbish both houses and turn them into a regional heritage tourism center to be owned by the city and operated by a nonprofit such as the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

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