Down the Road

The city buys the historic Cohn House to move it into a possible future tourism center

Several years ago the City of Houston decided to extend Avenida de las Americas by two blocks north to Minute Maid Park. But the historic, nearly 100-year-old Cohn House stood in the way. Now, after almost a year of negotiations, the city and the house's owner have finally come to an agreement.

In late October, the city's convention and entertainment facilities department announced that the board of St. Francis Charities, which has owned the home since the early 1960s, had agreed to sell the house to the city. While no one lives in the house, the charity uses it for meetings and storage -- the group distributes clothes, food and religious information to the needy.

The house at 1711 Rusk was built in the early 1900s as part of one of the city's first upscale, middle-class neighborhoods, known as Quality Hill. Its legacy is prestigious; one of Houston's mayors, John T. Browne, grew up there. And it was named for Arthur Benjamin Cohn, a previous tenant who helped found Rice University.

But the city's acquisition of the historic structure has not come easily (see "This Old House," July 25). The charity balked at an original offer of $264,000 from the city to relocate the structure to an adjacent lot 50 feet away from its original spot (St. Francis Charities would retain ownership). Mary Nell Davis, president of the group, didn't like a clause in the agreement that would give the city the right of first refusal at the current price -- meaning if the charity chose to sell the house, it would have to be offered to the city first at the 2002 market value.

Davis also worried that moving the house would cause it to lose its designation as a recorded Texas historic landmark. Davis worked tirelessly in the 1970s and 1980s to have the house designated as a landmark on the city, state and national levels, but standard state rules maintain that if a structure changes location -- even by 50 feet -- it loses its Texas historical status.

As the charity stalled, preservationists feared the street-hungry city would claim eminent domain and get the house condemned, which would give the city the right to move the house anywhere. Preservationists worried that such action would strengthen the arguments of property rights supporters who would love to see Houston's already weak preservation ordinance get even weaker.

"I don't believe in takings, even in the name of preservation," says Lynn Edmunson, founder of a small nonprofit advocacy group called Historic Houston. Edmunson met Davis when she received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to document the Cohn House (an official documentation will place blueprints and sketches of the Cohn House in the Library of Congress).

"But if this is a fair market sale, then the city is free to do what it wants," continues Edmunson. "I hope [Davis] is happy."

The charity group won't say why it finally agreed to the city purchase. Neither Davis nor her attorney would comment on the sale, claiming that the city and the charity are still working out final details. Board member David Godwin would say only that the seven- member board agreed unanimously to the sale.

Dawn Ullrich, director of the convention and entertainment facilities department, says that the charity group will receive fair market value for the land and any repairs made to the house.

"Our legal department is working on wordsmithing at this point," says Ullrich, who says the city hopes to have the road extension completed by the time Houston hosts the Super Bowl in January 2004. "I'm relieved that we were able to reach an agreement that suits everyone."

It remains to be seen what will happen to the house once it is moved. The Foley House, adjacent to the Cohn House and bought by the city from the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, also will be moved to make room for the road. During negotiations over the Cohn House, the city admitted interest in transforming both houses into a local tourism center to be operated by the city or a nonprofit group like the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

Ullrich says the current focus is on finalizing the Cohn House purchase, but the agreement will allow St. Francis Charities to use portions of the house after it is moved and renovated.

"We're taking it a step at a time, but [the tourism center] is still a possibility," she adds.

The city has also hired preservation consultant Anna Mod to handle the paperwork needed to maintain the house's three historic designations. According to Al Davis, chairman of the Harris County Historical Commission, the fragile status of the state designation will be decided by the state marker review board.

"It has to proceed through a step-by-step process," says Davis. "It's a decision that won't be made until further down the road."

 
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