Ain't That a Ditch

Hiram Butler arrived in Magnolia Grove about nine years ago, a man of some means and aesthetic sensibility who ran an art gallery out of a renovated laundromat on Kirby near Greenway Plaza.

Butler bought a three-quarter-acre plot of land that was settled in the 1880s by a German cabinetmaker named Stark, who built the first house in Magnolia Grove when the neighborhood north of Memorial Drive, between Jackson Hill and Shepherd, was a tiny burg called Bruner. After hauling off 55 truckloads of trash and junk, he built a hulking cedar-and-glass gallery on the east end of the property. On the west, he faithfully reconstructed Stark's simple one-story bungalow, which was built entirely of cypresswood and is capped by a tin roof. The two structures are separated by a large, neatly landscaped sculpture garden, dominated by thick rows of wildflowers and a half-dozen different species of trees.

To Hiram Butler, this immaculate restoration is more than a nice place to live and work. It's art. Or it's enough like art that, in Butler's view, how the whole creation -- home, garden and gallery -- is framed is the difference between monstrosity and masterpiece. In that regard, Butler has found himself engaged in a struggle being waged in the drainage ditches -- or, as they are called in polite company, swales -- that surround his compound at Blossom and Patterson streets and run alongside nearly all the pocked, narrow lanes in Magnolia Grove.

It should be noted that these are no ordinary ditches; they aren't smelly messes filled with beer cans and standing water. In fact, Butler and other neighborhood homeowners have pampered their swales to the point where they are more like roadside gardens, dressed in exotic grasses and a sturdy perennial called the Louisiana iris.

This, too, is art -- or it is to some people.
"I realized one day that we have a real asset in these ditches," says Butler, a mild, well-bred man of 45. "You can grade them, you can plant them and they look good. And if you grow flowers in a ditch, people don't dump trash in them. They respect it."

Unfortunately, the lowly ditch finds no such appreciation at the city's Public Works and Engineering Department. At least once a year, city workers show up in Magnolia Grove with mowers, a backhoe and an honorable intent to clean out the neighborhood swales. If they proceed, the ditches are generally subjected to a crude gutting that removes every hint of vegetation while laying bare utility pipes and other important-looking underground hardware. Butler was the first to actually stand in his ditch in defiance of the city's tools of destruction. He is ever vigilant for enemy troops, and on behalf of his less vocal neighbors, fights, begs and cajoles public works officials by phone on a regular basis.

"Whenever we see a city vehicle in the neighborhood," he says, "we stop it and make them tell us why they're here."

Butler's battle of the swales has been joined by other neighborhood residents, some of whom are, like Butler, members of the Magnolia Grove Civic Association. They exhibit an equally zealous urge to protect what has become a sacred amenity in the neighborhood.

"I heard all this noise very early one morning," recalls Lee Littlefield, a schoolteacher and sculptor who lives on Lillian Street, about a dozen blocks north of Butler's place. "I looked down the street, and they were scraping the ditches. So I asked them why they were doing that, and they said they have to do it every once in a while because they drain better. I said, 'What about all the stuff that's in 'em?' " -- Littlefield's swale is lined with his sculptures, which resemble mutant trees -- "He said, 'Well, it's gotta go."

"And I said, 'Over my dead body. It's not gonna go. When you get down there in front of my house, don't touch a hair of that grass or the other things in the ditch.' So they scraped right up to my place and went on by and scraped it on the other side. I tried to get ahold of some of the other people who weren't home, but there was nothing I could do."

As you might expect, in a neighborhood where people think of a ditch in terms of artistic possibility, the fight for the right to have their storm water meander through elephant grass is symbolic of a more sublime struggle. What was once done for art's sake is now being carried out in the name of civic pride.

"I used to think this was about modern art," Butler says. "But what it's really about is recreating the place I love most in the world. This is about returning the neighborhood to what it used to be."

It's proven to be a rather complex assignment, despite the fact that nothing much has changed in Magnolia Grove since paved roads and indoor plumbing became the standard. The city, for instance, never bothered to build more than a few sidewalks as the original settlement was subdivided and developed. The walkways that do exist have been trampled to bits by time or fractured by the thick, twisting roots of ancient oaks and cedars that snake up from beneath tiny front yards. The rutted streets and alleyways remain untamed by the homogenizing effect of concrete curbs and gutters, and even those ditches that are not landscaped explode with out-of-control vegetation.

The architecture is a worn mix of stoic bungalows from the original German settlement, two-and-a-half-story Victorians and post-World War II prefab ranch houses. There has been little new construction the past 40 years or so, and during that time, a great many of the old homes once occupied by owners have become rent houses for low-income families, more and more of them, it seems, from Mexico and Central America. Modern construction -- aside from that erected in the name of art -- is rare. That's probably for the best: Amidst the anarchy of nature and the abundant decay of the surrounding structures, anything new is almost embarrassingly grotesque.

Had the forces of neglect been left to their own devices, Magnolia Grove would surely be on the brink of death right now. But as it seemed the rest of the world had forgotten it, there remained enough charm in Magnolia Grove to seduce a rather eclectic assortment of urban pioneers. Butler was among the first to see the possibilities, back in the mid-1980s.

"When I saw this neighborhood, it reminded me of where my grandmother lived," says Butler, whose grandmother was a cotton farmer in Pendleton. "And it's very much like the neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought, 'What a great place to be able to live.' "

Butler landed in Magnolia Grove with unusual impact, which is to say that his redevelopment of the community's original homestead had spiritual, as well as physical, significance. Butler figured that back in the 19th century, Stark had no use for curtains or blinds in his whitewashed bungalow. So Butler has left the windows in his house and gallery uncovered. Day and night, he watches Magnolia Grove go by while inviting his neighbors to witness almost every move he makes, to the extent that they so desire.

As a result, it's the rare man, woman or dog who walks the streets of Magnolia Grove to whom Butler isn't a familiar sight. Given that many of those who traverse the neighborhood on foot speak Spanish -- and so does Butler -- it's a phenomenon that can appear both lordly and egalitarian.

"The disparity between the rich and poor in this country continues to grow," he says. "The rich are moving into gated communities, and the poor are moving into slums. If some of us don't start moving into neighborhoods ... I have something to give back, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"I don't feel like an alien in this community," he adds. "I've had a tree blow over in the middle of the night, and I've knocked on friends' doors to get help. And they've knocked on my door in the middle of the night and said, 'We don't speak English, and our daughter is sick. We need a doctor.' "

Butler was the first, but he's not the only artist who found an outlet for expression in Magnolia Grove. Salle Werner Vaughn, an installation artist, has bought several small houses in the neighborhood, all of which have been carefully restored to their original state. A few years ago, Vaughn turned the inside of two Victorian homes into actual exhibits, including one that interpreted the Greek myth of the seasons, which revolves around the kidnapping of Zeus's daughter Persephone.

The bizarre treelike sculptures of Lee Littlefield seem particularly inspired by the rugged bohemianism of the neighborhood's north end. Like several others on the block, the Littlefield house on Lillian is a riot of form and color. On the outside, the one-story structure is overwhelmed by an assortment of exotic plant life, and weird artifacts of indeterminate origin are scattered about the yard and in the swale, alongside Littlefield's striking creations, which are painted a screaming shade of yellow.

"I like it here," he says. "It's like the Wild West."

One of the realities of urban life, however, is that nothing resists taming forever. Under Mayor Bob Lanier, in particular, neighborhoods like Magnolia Grove, which is ten minutes from both downtown and the Galleria, have become Houston's new frontier. Lanier's Neighborhoods to Standard and Safe Sidewalk programs have been successful in removing many of the barriers to profitable inner-city redevelopment, as has a huge EPA-mandated project to retool the city's sewer system.

The payoff on all this public investment is most obvious in Montrose, where, in the past few years, whole blocks have been transformed into exclusive townhome enclaves. The once-delightfully funky neighborhood, the acknowledged hedonistic heart of the city, has suddenly become populated with thousands of upscale professionals who can now experience suburban life without the commute.

It hasn't escaped the members of the Magnolia Grove Civic Association that just across Shepherd/Durham from them, a charming old subdivision named Rice Military is beginning to look a lot like Montrose, which means Magnolia Grove could be next in line for gentrification. Indeed, the neighborhood has seen a few early missionaries from the private sector already, but has managed to remain largely untainted.

Michael Bell, a professor of architecture at Rice University, studied Magnolia Grove for a year as part of a class project. In the end, he was impressed with the residents' enthusiasm toward their neighborhood, but not altogether convinced they'd be able to stem the inevitable tide of the market.

"They feel incredibly vulnerable," Bell observes. "Up until a few years ago, you could buy a house and a lot for $22,000. Even now, there's no reason somebody wouldn't tear that down and build two houses.

"People are willing to live inside the Loop again, and that neighborhood is on the precipice of possibly being wiped out if somebody really wanted to give it a go. It's possible."

Led by a core group of civic association members, however, Magnolia Grove is defending itself quite nicely by fighting fire with fire. They've become urban developers themselves and are scurrying around the neighborhood, buying parcels of land and dilapidated houses out from under the speculators. Stan and Karen Hallett, for instance, recently bought about a half-acre adjacent to Butler's gallery, saving it from a developer who was planning to tear down three low-rent buildings, including one of some historical significance, and replace them with townhouses. The Halletts aren't sure what they'll do with the property now, but they do know what they don't want.

"People who live in townhomes, most of the time, they come home, they go in through their automatic garages, and you never see them again," says Stan, who, as a technical sales representative for IBM, might actually seem at home in a townhouse. "They don't participate, and they're not as friendly, it seems."

If Hiram Butler rekindled the original spirit of Magnolia Grove with his restoration of the Stark homestead, Stan and Karen Hallett have spread it around since they moved there in 1988. They were typical suburbanites, living in northwest Houston, when on their way to a party downtown, Karen dragged Stan over to a decrepit Victorian house she'd heard about on Gibson. They sneaked inside, and despite its squalid condition -- and Stan's expectation that he'd move his family to River Oaks someday -- they bought it. For two years, they shifted their lives from room to room while they renovated the old house themselves. In addition to their own home, they have bought and restored six more original houses in the neighborhood, two of which they've sold to friends who wanted to live in Magnolia Grove.

"We try and sell to people we know," says Karen Hallett, who is vice president of the neighborhood civic association. "It's one of the few ways you can control your environment."

Another way is to protect the ditches, which, compared to fending off developers, is a full-time job in Magnolia Grove. Indeed, there is a heightened state of alert in the neighborhood right now, dating back to the day the specter of the swales' mortal enemy -- concrete -- was raised on Lillian Street.

A few months ago, Lee Littlefield stopped a city vehicle and was told by workers that his street was due to receive a complete makeover, including new curbs and gutters. After years of watching their neighborhoods fall to pieces around them, residents of most Inner Loop communities would be so elated with that kind of news that they'd leave their homes to greet city workers as if they were an army of liberation.

"I know it's usually the kind of thing that gets votes," says Littlefield, who spread word of the pending invasion, "except for around here."

As we're frequently reminded by the Lanier administration, Neighborhoods to Standard is a veritable juggernaut that buffs up the ragged edges of a neighborhood with remarkably un-bureaucratic efficiency. Ironically, Magnolia Grove was among the first half-dozen neighborhoods chosen for improvements under the program.

But following a meeting of the residents, the civic association decided to limit the improvements to a few street overlays and some additional lighting in the neighborhood. There was a near unanimous rejection of curb-and-gutter work, which would entail not only eliminating the ditches but the widening of streets. You don't have to have a trained eye to see that some magnificent trees would be destroyed in the process.

"I don't know what the city's planning to do," says Stan Hallett, "but if they want to put in curb and gutter, they're in for a fight."

And no one in Magnolia Grove's more battle-ready than Hiram Butler, for whom the cool, efficient comfort of concrete holds no appeal. Butler's experience with the invasive tendency of city government began the moment he arrived in Magnolia Grove, and he hasn't been able to drop his guard since.

Eight years ago, before he could get an occupancy permit for his home and gallery, Butler had to install a $30,000 commercial drainage system underneath his sculpture garden. Even today, he bristles while explaining how the rainwater collects in massive concrete boxes underground and is then merely funneled through a single eight-inch pipe into his swale.

"Why couldn't the garden just be sloped toward the ditch?" he asks. "I offered to do that. Then you'd have three-quarters of an acre to help absorb the water before it entered the drainage system, and it wouldn't look like the Exxon refinery under there."

In January 1994, Butler's paradise, as well as his business, were turned upside down by the installation of new sewer lines as part of the federally mandated Greater Houston Wastewater Program. Access to the gallery was blocked for almost a year while the streets surrounding his compound were dug up. Butler says he was forced to show his clients' work in restaurants and other less-than-ideal venues.

Butler retaliated by raising hell at every inconvenience -- like the time raw sewage started spewing from the gallery's toilets -- and by refusing to allow city equipment to be parked on his property. The conflict grew so heated that he was threatened with arrest numerous times by off-duty sheriff's deputies who had been hired to guard the work site.

Three weeks ago, Butler threw himself into action when he noticed some ditch-cleaning equipment parked a few feet away from a particularly lush section of his swale. He quickly backed his car from the driveway, and parked it in the middle of Blossom, barring any further advance by the workers. Butler saved his swale from the backhoe, only to find out later that the civic club had arranged to have some of the unkempt ditches in the neighborhood cleaned; the city workers had simply gone to the wrong location.

Such close calls could be avoided if Magnolia Grove decides to place deed restrictions on its residents, a possibility being considered by the civic association. The new rules would dictate what homeowners can and cannot do with their homes, from the size of their fences to how they maintain their swales. It's not an ideal solution, says Karen Hallett, and it may prove near impossible to enforce. But deed restrictions, she explains, might make it easier to deal with the outside forces that threaten to change the neighborhood.

"Most people accept this place the way it is," Karen Hallett says. "But still, it's a strain."

As for Hiram Butler, until the day they outlaw concrete, he'll wake up every morning wondering if this will be the day his swale gets whacked. In hopes of overwhelming the public works crew with the sheer number of beautiful ditches, he has secured an annual donation of Louisiana irises from the local chapter of the Lafayette-based Louisiana Iris Society.

Every year, Butler needs more bulbs to meet the demand of residents anxious to gussy up their swales. Maybe the day every homeowner in Magnolia Grove lines up for a Louisiana iris will be the day he can rest easy.

"There's something that has always surprised me," he says, "and that's that people many times will move to a neighborhood because there's something charming about it. And, the first thing they start talking about is removing all the things that are charming. And then you don't have a charming neighborhood anymore.


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