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.

In fact, the alliance's director, Ramona Davis, had helped organize a steering-committee meeting for the proposed center in May. People interested in preservation were invited from as far away as Fort Worth. Groups representing historic interests in Galveston and Huntsville came, too. But two names left off the list were Lynn Edmundson and the president of St. Francis Charities, Mary Nell Davis.

"Lots of people knew we were documenting the Cohn House. It wasn't a secret; we sent out press releases to everyone," says Edmundson. She asked Dawn Ullrich why Davis wasn't invited and says Ullrich told her it was because the city didn't want to unduly alarm her.

Edmundson was upset. While she understood that Davis hadn't agreed to the city's initial offer, she didn't think that meant she should be left out of the decision-making process. And more than that, she was concerned that the city felt that if St. Francis Charities wasn't going to take its offer, it was going to move on without the house's owner.

UH professor of architecture Jim Arnold guided students in making sketches of the Cohn House.
Monica Fuentes
UH professor of architecture Jim Arnold guided students in making sketches of the Cohn House.

"I don't want to be involved in a taking," says Edmundson, using a term that describes a city's move to acquire a house against the wishes of its owner. "And if Mary Nell had ever once said she wanted to sell her house, that would be a different deal. But from the conversation I had with her, and from the conversations I'd had with the city that they weren't involving the property owner, well, this was a taking. And I don't want to be involved in a taking, even in the name of preservation."

If you ask Dawn Ullrich, Edmundson's interpretation of the city's plans couldn't be further from the truth. What the city wants -- what the city has always wanted -- is to save the houses and keep Mary Nell Davis happy.

"That's really not what's happening at all," says Ullrich of Edmundson's contention that the city is planning a taking. "We've always wanted to preserve [the Cohn House]. But we want Ms. Davis to be proud of it, and not conclude her residency on a bad note."

According to Ullrich, the city did make an offer to Davis to move the house, but she says city policy prevents her from saying what exactly was offered because they are still negotiating. But she will say that the city tried to give Davis enough time to accept or reject the first offer -- and that the city has no plans to take the Cohn House unless Davis refuses to accept any offer and time runs out.

"The [first] offer remained on the table for a long time," says Ullrich. "Frankly, we have been patient in trying to work through this so we can keep Ms. Davis happy." Ullrich says the city hopes to bring a new offer to Davis in a few weeks. If Houston goes ahead with the tourism center, Davis will be compensated for the land and the house at fair market value -- even if they're taken against her wishes.

And it isn't as if Davis was kept completely in the dark on the proposed regional heritage tourism center. John Nau of the Texas Historical Commission and Al Davis of the Harris County Historical Commission visited Mary Nell Davis and her lawyer at Mary Nell Davis's home a few days after the steering-committee meeting on May 17. All parties involved agree no deal was offered, and the meeting was strictly informational in nature.

As for why Davis and Edmundson weren't invited to the initial meeting, Ullrich refers those questions to Ramona Davis, who organized the meeting, adding that the city has no intention of getting involved in a fight between preservationists.

"We're finding there's a lot of bad blood between Ms. Edmundson and the GHPA, and we're trying to steer clear of that because that really doesn't have anything to do with what we're trying to do," says Ullrich.

There is a history of tension between Edmundson and the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance that stems from a flap over Edmundson's attempt to save Jefferson Davis Hospital from demolition while she was a board member of the alliance. Edmundson says the alliance let her down in her hour of need (see "Bulldozers at the Gate," by Brian Wallstin, May 3, 2001). She resigned in a three-page letter to the alliance in the spring of 1999.

But Ramona Davis did not want to talk about the steering-committee meeting or the Cohn House, saying that any plans about the tourism center were "just talk."

"I don't really have anything to say about the Cohn House; there's really nothing happening yet," says Davis. "Not a thing." During a second attempt at an interview, Davis quickly ended the call by saying, "I am really not interested in talking."

Davis referred questions about the proposed regional tourism center to John Nau of the Texas Historical Commission. According to Ullrich, Nau had seen regional tourism centers successfully created in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, and thought the idea might work here. A member of the commission since 1993 and chair since 1995, Nau was recently appointed by George W. Bush to sit on the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Since 1990 Nau has served as CEO of Silver Eagle Distributors, one of the country's largest distributors of Anheuser-Busch products.

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