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.

But despite several attempts to contact Nau, he also declined to be interviewed for this story.

Ullrich says the plans are not definite, and that's why no one wants to talk about them. The city is still hoping that Mary Nell Davis will be interested in allowing the house to be used for the center.

But David Godwin, a board member of St. Francis Charities, says it is not just Davis's decision. All seven members of the board will vote on whether to take the city's offer, with the majority deciding what will happen. And Godwin hopes the charity can keep using the home.

Avenida de las Americas dead-ends at the Cohn House's front door.
Monica Fuentes
Avenida de las Americas dead-ends at the Cohn House's front door.
The Cohn House once was surrounded by similar homes in Houston's first upscale neighborhood, Quality Hill.
Monica Fuentes
The Cohn House once was surrounded by similar homes in Houston's first upscale neighborhood, Quality Hill.

"I would like to see St. Francis Charities keep the house and continue the work," says Godwin. "We would like to still be able to use it because the house has a lot of history with us."

According to Ullrich, if the regional tourism center ever comes into existence, organizations from around the area will be invited to participate and display exhibits. The hope is that the two homes would inform Houston's visitors about the variety of historical sites nearby.

"There would be some exhibits set up in there, maybe some historic artifacts, from Washington-on-the-Brazos, for instance, that would try to pique your interest in traveling in that direction," says Ullrich. The idea isn't a radical one, she adds -- unless you take into consideration the fact that Houston rarely bothers to preserve anything at all.

"This is something that has been done before in other cities; it has been successfully done," says Ullrich. "We're not inventing something."

Daniel Carey, director of the southwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the same organization that gave Lynn Edmundson her grant), has watched a lot of cities struggle with how to best practice preservation. He came down from Fort Worth to attend the first steering-committee meeting for the proposed center.

"I think there was cautious optimism at the meeting," says Carey. "There were many unanswered questions, and quite frankly the owner is a big part of it. I think there's certainly great enthusiasm to do a preservation project in Houston, but that has to be balanced with the owner's rights. The timeline is pretty tight to get this thing accomplished."

According to Carey, other large cities that have used old structures as tourism centers have generally used more industrial buildings, such as railroad depots. A few smaller communities have used private homes. Fort Smith, Arkansas, recently renovated an old brothel. But Carey wonders if two private homes that both need extensive repairs could do the job.

"These buildings are certainly important and significant, but I think they present challenges in terms of how they would be adaptively used," he says. "There are a lot of code issues, I would think. It may require new construction to go along with it, and that would be challenging."

According to Stephen Fox, a Rice University professor of architecture and one of the city's most respected architectural historians, the city's plans for a regional tourism center to be operated inside the Cohn and Foley houses represents the typical manner in which Houston practices preservation. Which is to say, not well.

"Because Houston lacks zoning, in my analysis the long-term consequences have been that there is no public planning process in Houston," says Fox. "And every decision is sort of a one-off decision in which it seems like what has happened before doesn't affect it and what will happen in the future won't affect it." No precedents are set, no traditions are recognized. For example, Fox says, the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission, which is in charge of enforcing the city's preservation ordinance, should have been consulted before any discussion of the proposed center began. Ullrich acknowledges the commission hasn't been involved.

A revised preservation ordinance -- the only one in the country that includes a nondesignation clause that allows an owner to demolish a historic property without first appearing before the Archaeological and Historical Commission -- will be brought to City Council this spring. The commission has suggested some amendments to the law, but Fox worries that's not enough. It's not just the ordinance that's the problem, it's the generally haphazard, patchwork way the city thinks about preservation.

"Houston never looks at the greater whole," says Fox. "It keeps preservation constantly on the defensive. For instance, with these two houses, there was no public planning process, no public hearings to determine what the range of alternatives were."

Carey and Fox also worry that if the worst-case scenario occurs -- that is, if Davis refuses to accept an offer and the city takes the house -- property-rights supporters will have every reason to fight an already leaky preservation ordinance, arguing that the city can use preservation as a reason to take someone's home.

However, Carey acknowledges that it is doubtful that the city would have even bothered to save the houses even five years ago. The city has lost numerous historic homes over the past few years, including the Allen Paul and Ross Sterling houses. Allen Parkway Village, the Music Hall and Jefferson Davis Hospital are also gone, and it's almost impossible to recognize Freedmen's Town, the neighborhood settled by former slaves. The historic homes in Houston that have been saved have been shuttled off to Sam Houston Park to be part of what most preservationists like to call a historic homes petting zoo. Most think it's an example of preservation that is hopelessly out of date because it moves the historic houses out of their original context.

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