Bulldozers at the Gate
Twenty years have passed since Mrs. Castillo died, but Al Morin is more certain than ever that change killed her. She lived in the Heights, on Columbia Street, and like most of her neighbors, she was poor and elderly. Morin met her -- "a beautiful woman," he recalls -- when he worked for the city's community-development office, scouting targets for federal urban-renewal grants.
His boss at the city often reminded Morin that he wasn't the neighborhood handyman, but he was happy to do whatever he could for the residents. For Mrs. Castillo, who used a wheelchair, he built a plywood ramp so she could get in and out of her house more easily.
Morin learned carpentry from his father, a contractor who started taking his son to work with him when Al was ten years old. Every summer he fetched tools and washed baseboards for a dime an hour, although what he took away -- a color-blind reverence for working-class people -- had more enduring value. "I don't know if it was intentional, but it was something my father gave me," he says. "It was a gift."
From that point on, Morin's faith in the essential, egalitarian order of things touched everything he did. He enrolled at the University of Houston, and instead of living with his parents in the West End, he took up residence in the Third Ward with the family of a black truck driver. Though he had it in mind to become an architect, before long Morin was devouring philosophy texts, classic literature and poetry. In his spare time, he tutored other students, including a young man from Louisiana who, in no time, enlisted Morin in the civil rights movement.
Morin began building a life that would be guided by an unfailing commitment to community activism. He taught high school during the tense early years of classroom desegregation. He organized low-income communities during the war on poverty. He was a career counselor for undereducated and underpaid union workers employed by the county. In the mid-1970s Morin became a community-development program coordinator for the city, a job that would test his faith in government's ability to protect its most vulnerable citizens.
Mrs. Castillo had lived on Columbia Street for 20 years, surrounded by friends and her children, who had settled nearby with their families. While most outsiders thought the place depressing, Morin was moved by the expansiveness of the Mexican-American residents and how, despite their lack of means, they could rely upon, and find security in, one another.
But just below the surface, the neighborhood around Columbia Street was changing. An oil boom had triggered a coming wave of real estate speculation that, after years of declining land values, inner-city property owners were keen to capitalize upon. Slowly at first, then more quickly, longtime residents in Mrs. Castillo's neighborhood were displaced by investors and "urban pioneers."
One day Morin got word that Mrs. Castillo's landlord had asked her to move. The woman was so distraught that Morin volunteered the city's help in finding her another place in the neighborhood. But beyond a few hundred dollars for moving expenses, neither the city nor Morin could do much, and Mrs. Castillo ended up across town in the East End. Morin continued to visit, but he couldn't help noticing how the change in Mrs. Castillo's surroundings, from the nurturing familiarity of Columbia Street to the frightening anonymity of the East End, had depleted her spirit.
When she died, no more than a year after the move, Morin's spirit plummeted. Believing that he and the city of Houston had somehow failed Mrs. Castillo, he went home that night and thought about his place in the world.
In the ensuing two decades, Houston hasn't changed so much as it has been recycled, from good times to bad and, as the last half-decade will attest, back to the very good. The city's current prosperity often turns Al Morin's mind back to Mrs. Castillo, so many years after she passed away in an unfamiliar place.
"I got out because I couldn't see any action," Morin says, shaking his head as he remembers the day he quit his job with the city. "My soul was racked. I went back to what my dad taught me."
Morin is standing on the small front porch of his 120-year-old house on Kane Street in the Old Sixth Ward. His oval face is faintly creased. He's wearing a pair of worn chinos, a plaid work shirt and silver-framed glasses. Morin's 59-year-old body is fit, other than a slight paunch in the middle, and he stoops briefly at the shoulders, like someone who's been a long time on his knees, pounding fat, heavy nails into ancient hardwood.
Typically, Al Morin, Contractor, is a proxy for the ideals that have shaped its sole proprietor since he was a ten-year-old on the job with his father. Those ideals led Morin and his wife, Diane, to buy the house on Kane Street in 1977. They closed the deal while demolition crews were waiting to go to work on the old Victorian, which had a 15-foot hole in the roof and a pier-and-beam foundation infested with termites. Al and Diane rented a place down the block for 17 years until the house was in livable shape, although that's no reflection on Morin's carpentry skills.
"I couldn't get a loan to do the work," he explains. "The house had zero value, and the land just wasn't worth enough. It was the same for everybody back then. Nowadays the banks lobby you to borrow money."
Indeed, every 5,000-square-foot lot in the Old Sixth Ward, which is located a short walk northwest of downtown, represents a small fortune today: Buyers can expect to pay upwards of $100,000 just for the land. As a result, like many of the enclaves in Houston's inner city, the Old Sixth Ward, which many consider to be the most distinctive, is caught between what it once was and what it is becoming.
In 1978 the Old Sixth Ward was the first Houston neighborhood to be designated a national historic district. Roughly 300 homes built between the 1880s and the 1920s had managed to survive, many of which were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But in the last two decades, about 120 of those homes have been demolished; if more than half the original 300 are destroyed, the Old Sixth Ward could lose its status as a national landmark.
To be sure, many of the original structures were lost when, like Al and Diane Morin, the owners couldn't get home improvement loans. But while it has been much easier the past few years for the Morins and others to restore the Old Sixth Ward's historic structures, those efforts have collided with the increasing demand for near-downtown property. Moreover, the price of land in the neighborhood has compelled developers to clear the lots and build a couple of town homes to maximize their returns.
"The given is that developers are going to come in and say, 'Hmmm, you've got a lot of tear-downs around here,' " says Morin. "But we're talking about the survival of this place as we know it. A lot of people are willing to take credit for all this economic growth, but no one's taking responsibility for the fallout."
In an attempt to discourage future demolitions, the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association, of which Morin is president, applied for and received designation as a city historic district in 1998. The city designation is supposed to offer protection under a local ordinance aimed at preserving historic buildings. So far, though, the law hasn't stopped the demolition of a single historic structure in the Old Sixth Ward or, for that matter, anywhere else in Houston.
The preservation ordinance went on the books in 1995, but not before city planners turned the law into a running joke by giving property owners two ways to dodge it. First, while the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission, the 12-member panel that administers the law, has the power to deny a demolition permit, the property owner can simply wait 90 days, then legally tear down the structure anyway. A more expedient way around the ordinance is to apply for a "certificate of non-designation" from the city planning department. The non-designation, which is routinely granted if the building hasn't already been given landmark status, allows the property owner to proceed with demolition without first appearing before the historical commission.
The inherent weakness of the ordinance has made it impossible to enforce. Not a single citation has ever been issued, not a nickel in fines has ever been levied. Meanwhile, a number of antiquated homes with distinguished-sounding names -- Allen-Paul, Ross Sterling, Brosius-Alexander, DeGeorge -- have been razed, to say nothing of how thoroughly Freedmen's Town, a 40-block neighborhood built and settled by former slaves, has been scraped clean.
From the moment the ordinance was passed, preservation advocates, including the historical commission itself, realized that it was powerless to save the city's architectural and cultural heritage. Three years ago they began revising the law, a process that will culminate later this spring, when City Council considers a series of amendments to the ordinance.
But as it stands now, the proposed new ordinance offers only a slight improvement over the existing one. For example, the 90-day demolition delay has been extended to a proposed 180 days. And the new ordinance still would allow property owners to avoid a hearing before the historical commission by securing a certificate of non-designation from city planners.
When the proposed amendments were released by city planners last August, Morin and the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association immediately began drafting their own revisions to the ordinance. The most significant of their proposals would eliminate both the demolition delay and the certificate of non-designation. In recent weeks Morin and others from the neighborhood have been lobbying councilmembers, other preservationists and Inner Loop civic clubs to support the Old Sixth Ward association's amendments. So far, the reception has been decidedly cautious. It seems no one yet knows the answer to the basic question: Is Houston ready for a historic preservation ordinance that actually preserves history?
Al Morin believes the answer has to be yes. Otherwise, the ethnic and economic diversity that the city's leaders so often tout -- and that represents the true heritage of Houston's inner city -- will disappear.
Less than a year after they moved to the Old Sixth Ward, Al and Diane shut down work on their Kane Street house to help raise money for the first St. Joe's Old Sixth Ward Fun & Food Fest, a culture and arts festival sponsored by St. Joseph's Catholic Church, at the corner of Kane Street and Houston Avenue.
"It was mostly Mexican-Americans with the church, but they didn't want just a Mexican festival," Morin recalls. "They wanted to celebrate the whole history of the neighborhood, the Germans and the Italians who lived here way back when, and the Vietnamese and the Cambodians who had just arrived. Nobody else was doing that. Diane and I looked at each other and said, 'This is a great neighborhood.' "
And, Morin will tell you, it remains a great neighborhood. But while the St. Joe's festival is still held every year, fewer and fewer of the people who attend are residents of the Old Sixth Ward. The neighborhood has simply become too expensive for many who once lived there. In the last few years rents have risen from an average of $250 to at least $1,000 a month, which is why every time Morin sees another vacant lot where an elegant Victorian or a late-19th-century cottage once stood, he thinks about Mrs. Castillo and how the price paid for economic prosperity is often too high.
"The real history of this place is as a working-class district," he says. "I don't want to lose that .All we're saying is that if you want people to have a say in their communities, then let's do that. If not, then the whole thing is a sham."
On the whole, few people seem to share Al Morin's respect for the city's past.
For almost a week in the early 1990s, protesters held a vigil outside Warren's Inn, a revered bar on Market Square, before it was eventually torn down to make way for a parking garage. In 1997 a minor outcry preceded demolition of the well-known Allen-Paul House,, but the only part of the building that was salvaged from the rubble was its distinctive "witch's hat" cupola. And through the years, African-American leaders criticized the neglect that ravaged Freedmen's Town, which was designated a national historic district in 1988. But when many of the neighborhood's low-income residents were evicted to make way for gentrification, those same leaders were quick to rationalize it as an unfortunate "economic reality."
Easily the city's most successful preservation effort, if not the only authentic activism on behalf of a landmark structure, was Lenwood Johnson's fight to keep the wrecking ball away from Allen Parkway Village. Johnson may have been poor and unemployed, but he was as shrewd as they come: He never underestimated his opponents, and he never compromised. Although a good part of APV eventually was torn down, Johnson managed to hold off private developers, who coveted the near-downtown site, for more than 15 years, saving more than 800 units of affordable housing in the process.
Though Johnson was hardly surprised, some of his supporters were disappointed that the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, the self-styled "voice" of the local preservation movement, didn't lend a hand to save APV. The nonprofit alliance started out in the late 1970s as a branch of the blue-blooded Heritage Society, keepers of what's often referred to as the architectural "petting zoo" at Sam Houston Park. The alliance hosted wine-and-cheese parties and gave old-home tours, an advocacy that was more boosterism than activism and that does not require the principles of a true believer. Consequently, elected officials and the business community realized they could solicit the alliance's opinions -- which are expressed calmly and, more often than not, privately -- then disregard them without fear of reproach.
This reassuring style undoubtedly smoothed the way for the city's first preservation ordinance in 1995, just as the alliance's failure to rally much grassroots sympathy for the cause ensured nothing would be preserved -- unless you count turning the Rice Hotel into an apartment building or attaching a ballpark to Union Station.
To be fair, the politics of land use in Houston have their own heritage to maintain, one that is inherently hostile toward efforts to impose even minor restrictions on development. In the bigger scheme of things, historic preservation is so irrelevant here that a building is torn down before anyone knows about it, let alone before any attempt to save it can be organized.
Stephen Fox, a professor at Rice University and the city's preeminent architectural historian, says local preservationists "lack the critical momentum that would really give them a public presence." "And, he adds, "neither the city's planning officials nor its elected officials see preservation as a legitimate issue or as having any cultural value."
In retrospect, it's astonishing that freewheeling Houston even has a preservation ordinance, weakened or otherwise. The role of the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission was spelled out in the zoning ordinance put before voters in 1993. When the referendum failed, commissioners -- who already had been appointed by then-mayor Bob Lanier -- agreed to try to draft an ordinance. Commission members studied laws enforced in other cities and solicited input from business and the preservation alliance to come up with something they hoped would fit within Houston's peculiar environment. They failed.
"We submitted a pretty good document," recalls Cary Wintz, an original member of the commission and its current chairman. "It went up to the planning commission and it was gutted, primarily by developers who feared that a bunch of wackos would come out of the woodwork and stop development by private interests."
Wintz, the chair of the history department at Texas Southern University, says the developers' position -- no building could be designated historic without the owner's consent -- was intractable. Likewise, when the historical commission began amending the ordinance three years ago, the developers, represented by the Greater Houston Builders Association, opposed increasing the 90-day demolition delay to 180 days. Wintz concedes that but for the builders association's insistence, there would be no such "opt out" provision.
"A lot of what we've done is defined by the political culture that we operate in," Wintz says. "We tried to produce an ordinance that would have teeth in it but one that wouldn't generate a groundswell of opposition from the developers."
Predictably, the builders association also supports the certificate of non-designation, calling it "a fair and reasonable provision" despite the fact that it's apparently unique among the 2,000 cities and towns that have historic preservation laws. "We are the only city in the entire country that has this stupid non-designation," says J.D. Bartell, the historic conservation officer for the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association. "It's absolutely ludicrous."
Preservationists point out that the non-designation strips the historical commission of its authority and puts it in the hands of developer-friendly city planners. Two years ago, for example, the non-designation was used to undermine an effort to save Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway.
Considered a classic of moderne architecture, Jeff Davis was built in 1936 with $2.2 million from the Public Works Administration. Before it closed, hopelessly outdated, in 1989, the hospital was an important training ground for doctors and researchers, and some of the work done there helped establish Houston's renown in the medical world. In 1953, for example, Drs. Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley performed the first successful resection of an aneurysm of the thoracic aorta, a procedure that many thought couldn't be done. DeBakey and Cooley also developed the first artificial arteries at Jeff Davis.
But once the fates of nearby Allen Parkway Village and Freedmen's Town were sealed in 1998, local developer Marvy Finger announced his intent to buy Jeff Davis from the Harris County Hospital District for $5.8 million, demolish it and build apartments on the site. Finger's plan triggered a mad rush by Lynn Edmundson, a Greater Houston Preservation Alliance board member, to establish Jeff Davis as a city landmark. Edmundson assembled copious amounts of historical information on the old hospital, which she used to qualify Jeff Davis for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In January 1999 she submitted an application to the Houston Archeological & Historic Commission to have Jeff Davis designated a city landmark. Commission members agreed to study the matter for a week then hold a public hearing.
But one day before the scheduled hearing, Randy Pace, the city's historic preservation officer, told Edmundson that a certificate of non-designation had already been granted for Jeff Davis. Edmundson looked into the matter and discovered that the non-designation had been approved by city planning director Bob Litke just hours before her request for landmark status had been filed. Edmundson challenged Litke's decision, pointing out that the non-designation request had not been signed by a representative of the county, which still owned Jeff Davis, nor had the $25 application fee been paid.
The city attorney's office reviewed the non-designation request, and while acknowledging "irregularities," ruled that Edmundson's own application for landmark status was invalid because she did not own the building. When the historical commission backed down -- some members had apparently never heard of a certificate of non-designation -- Edmundson tried to get City Council to step in and name the hospital a city landmark. She lobbied councilmembers furiously and bombarded their offices with information, including letters of support from DeBakey and Cooley, the Texas Historical Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a dozen civic clubs and numerous architects, historians and private citizens, including one Jerry Arnold. In a short handwritten letter to the city's Randy Pace, Arnold noted that although he was currently in prison, he was "so sad" to hear Jeff Davis was slated for demolition. "Mr. Pace," Arnold wrote, "do take the time to bring me up to date on this issue; I do want to be an asset to your office."
Edmundson had put in hundreds of unpaid hours making a case for Jeff Davis's landmark status, assuming that she enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. But when council held a hearing on the matter in April 1999, she was surprised to see that no one else from the alliance, including executive director Ramona Davis, had bothered to show up. In fact, the alliance, in essence, had withdrawn its support for Jeff Davis, according to a prepared statement Davis had sent to councilmembers.
"We are not here to take sides on the application for non-designation of Jeff Davis," the statement read, "but to ask instead that you use the lessons of this sad occasion as a foundation for creating a stronger preservation ordinance ."
Council agreed to let the non-designation stand. Three days later Edmundson quit the alliance board. In a three-page letter of resignation, Edmundson noted bitterly that the "only accomplishment that [the alliance] can rightfully claim as their own is that under their direction preservation has no presence in Houston."
Former alliance board member Gary Coover says he wasn't surprised the organization abandoned the fight over Jeff Davis. A lanky, good-natured art-car enthusiast -- he keeps a four-wheeled replica of the "Yellow Submarine" parked beside his stately Montrose home -- Coover says the alliance rarely conducted any official business at its meetings, because there was rarely a quorum of board members. He says Davis, the executive director, busied herself developing a new logo and stationery instead of rallying support for Allen Parkway Village, the Sam Houston Coliseum and Music Hall, the Allen-Paul "witch's hat" house and other landmarks that are no longer with us.
At one point Coover developed a newsletter on behalf of city-created historic districts such as the Heights and the Old Sixth Ward. But after a few issues, Davis grew alarmed at the tone of the four-page publication and began editing it. "The newsletters got me in trouble," Coover recalls. "I thought they should be very funny and irreverent, but [Davis] chided this old Boy Scout from Oklahoma for being a wild-eyed radical."
In November 1998 Coover was driving on South Main Street, near the Astrodome, when he passed the site of the Red Lion, a classic English-style steak house that, since the 1930s, had been one of the city's premier restaurants. "It was nothing but dirt," Coover recalls. A few days later -- one year to the day after the "witch's hat" house was destroyed -- Coover quit the board. In his resignation letter, Coover noted that the alliance had become a "white-glove society" and an "image" group.
After leaving the alliance, Coover teamed up with Edmundson to start a Web-based advocacy group called Historic Houston. In 1999 and again last year, Coover and Edmundson convinced Mayor Lee Brown to issue proclamations recognizing National Historic Preservation Week -- something the alliance never bothered with, Coover says. The new organization also sponsored a weeklong symposium on preservation, an event the alliance did not participate in.
"I'm not saying that there needs to be a big fight over everything," Coover says. "But every time a building with historic significance is threatened, the alliance is unwilling, almost afraid, to say anything that might offend someone. They've basically turned into an advisory board to various influential people who give them money."
Davis concedes that the alliance has been criticized for not being aggressive enough in support of historic preservation. But she challenges anyone to provide an example of when "screaming and picketing" has saved a building from being demolished. The alliance has a history of "working behind the scenes," Davis says, and has always tried to take a "more professional approach to getting what we need." She declined to discuss specific examples of how that approach has prevented the loss of a historic structure.
"I'd love to tell you what we do, but I can't because often we're entrusted with information that we can't pass along," she says. "But you have to be thoughtful about what you try to save. You have to choose your battles; you have to choose what's worth saving. You can't save everything just because it's old. That's hoarding, not preserving."
It's worth imagining what Houston's "voice" of preservation would sound like if Barry Klein had remained a member of the chorus. Klein, a compact man with a calm gaze that belies his ready-to-go intensity, was an early supporter of the alliance and even helped draft the organization's original bylaws.
In 1993 he formed the Houston Property Rights Association to organize opposition to the zoning referendum. There haven't been many public policy issues that Klein and his principled band of Libertarians haven't weighed in on since then. In some circles, Klein's strident belief in the rights of owners to do what they will with their property is considered the lunatic fringe. But if truth be told, he merely represents what west of the Mississippi, and especially in Texas, is still considered worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. And no one can accuse him of not putting his money where his mouth is.
On a recent Saturday morning Klein sits on the porch of a bungalow on Drew Street, in the Hyde Park section of Montrose, dressed in tan shorts and a blue T-shirt over chocolate-brown socks and running shoes. An orange bandanna is tied around his head like a sweatband. At his feet are packing boxes full of leaflets and treatises, photocopied newspaper articles and editorials and, tucked inside a green tube, a few large maps.
Every weekend morning for more than a year, Klein has gathered as many as a dozen property rights association members to campaign for the hearts and minds of Houston homeowners. On this day Klein is alone, though it's only because his work is nearly done: To date, he and his supporters have delivered more than 20,000 pamphlets -- headlined "Are You Ready for $500 a Day Fines?" -- to the doorjambs of Inner Loop homes. Klein estimates that another 13,000 pamphlets have been placed directly into the hands of homeowners as they've gone in and out of churches, office buildings, corner stores and shopping malls.
Klein has papered all seven city-created historic districts, and more than a half-dozen neighborhoods whose civic clubs have made noises about applying for historic status. A nonpracticing real estate broker who once owned a company called The Old House, Klein says he's very fond of old buildings. "I really do love Montrose, and like others, I have been disturbed by the influx of triple-deckers," three-story town homes. "I've just always been of the view that [preservation] should be voluntary."
Klein perceives the proposed new ordinance as an assault by uptight aesthetes and busybodies on homeowners whose only crime is nonconformity. Typically there's no distracting him from the cause of liberty by pointing out that it's hardly unusual for people to complain when they have a pleasant expanse of grass outside their window one day and a brick wall there the next.
Nor is he pacified by the fact that the ordinance, which does indeed threaten fines of up to $500 a day, has never been enforced. He'll just slip you a newspaper clipping about Betty Deislinger, a 70-year-old woman who was cuffed and arrested at a historic commission meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, because she refused to remove the burglar bars from her 1870s-era house.
"What we have today is a compromise, because it only denies the right to the use of your property for three months," he says. "But if the preservationists should be successful in getting what they want with this new law, we believe they'll come back and get other controls. It's an ongoing problem."
Klein and his supporters are worked up about two proposed amendments to the new ordinance in particular. One is the historical commission's "annual plan," which would identify buildings with historic significance that the commission would then try to designate as landmarks, with or without the owners' approval.
The other is a requirement that any new construction or restoration project in a historic district meet certain architectural guidelines that would regulate the appearance of a building. Klein points out that creation of a historic district requires the approval of only 67 percent of the property owners in the area, yet anyone who opposed the designation would still be subject to the guidelines. "I don't think anybody should be bound by controls they didn't agree to," Klein says.
Klein says people should conduct the proper due diligence and avoid neighborhoods without deed restrictions or that appear to be in the path of redevelopment. But above all, he believes, no one has the right to change the rules for everyone else. "Ultimately, I think you have to live with the fact that you can't control everything around you," he argues. "That's the way it is in real life. We don't have perfection."
Klein says his group has spread the word so thoroughly that it will be difficult for preservationists to have any more neighborhoods designated historic. That may be so, but it's also true that getting a historic designation from the city is a grueling process that many civic clubs will find too daunting to undertake.
First, to qualify, the majority of buildings inside the proposed district must be at least 50 years old. Once that's determined, someone has to research the history of the neighborhood, work up an architectural survey, determine the ownership of all the properties and take slide photographs of every building. After that, two-thirds of the property owners must sign a petition supporting creation of the district.
Before the city approves the designation, it must be determined that the area has historic significance -- that is, it must serve as a "visible reminder of the development, heritage and cultural and ethnic diversity of the city, state or nation." It also helps if someone famous, but dead, has any attachment to the area, or if something significant occurred there.
Bart Truxillo, a member of the historical commission who lives in the Norhill historic district, says Klein's warnings to every homeowner inside the Loop are a wasted effort. There isn't that much history left to protect in Houston, he says, so most homeowners don't have anything to fear from the ordinance. "I mean, it's so minuscule that it's laughable," he says. As for those people who resist having someone dictate what their house looks like or what kind of materials they can use for a renovation, Truxillo says, in essence, too bad. "They say, 'I don't want anybody telling me what kind of porch to put on my front porch,' " he says. "Well, duh! That's what it's all about, so that your front porch looks like it should if it's going to be a historic building."
Marty Lopez and Christine Hardin could be poster children for the fears of Klein and his property rights advocates. Early last year they bought an empty lot on the corner of Silver and Decatur streets in the Old Sixth Ward. They hired an architect, Chung Nguyen, to design their dream house and submitted his plans to the city planning department, as required by the ordinance.
One afternoon last September, Lopez appeared before the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission -- and was stunned to see that more than a dozen of his future neighbors had showed up to protest Chung's design. One by one they strode to the podium to accuse Lopez and Hardin of being "arrogant" and "insensitive" to the historic character of the Old Sixth Ward.
Jane Cahill, who owns three historic properties in the neighborhood, urged the commission to reject Chung's plans on what appeared to be a technicality. Apparently Lopez and Hardin hadn't quite closed the deal on the empty lot, raising Cahill's suspicions that Lopez and Hardin weren't the pleasant young couple they appeared to be.
"Proper identification is a mandatory requirement," Cahill said in a severe tone. "Because the [preservation] ordinance is voluntary, this is not just a rote exercise devoid of substantive meaning. It is the only way the city has to communicate to those people who are ready, willing and able to destroy the integrity of our historic districts."
Recently, over coffee, Lopez and Hardin still seemed affected by the neighborhood's reaction to their house, the design of which is modern, although not nearly as modern as they had originally intended. Lopez, a fresh-faced Filipino who is a graduate student in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, said he wanted "glass, steel, the whole international-style thing. Very little wood."
The couple said they had received no advance notice from the city that their plans didn't conform to the neighborhood's architectural "language," nor did anyone from the Old Sixth Ward association contact them before the hearing. "It's hard for me to express how frustrating it was for me," Lopez said. "There were some serious misrepresentations that took an already tense group of people and whipped them into a frenzy."
Indeed, upon closer inspection, Chung's design -- while unlike anything else in the neighborhood -- appears to be a carefully thought-out compromise between old and new. The recessed gabled roofs over the carport and the two porches mirror the cottages and Victorians that line Decatur Street; same with the pier-and-beam foundation, a touch that increased the cost of the house. An attached structure, which likely will become a studio for Hardin's optometry practice, is on a slab, just like the one-story warehouse across Silver Street. The house will be covered in Hardi-Plank, a cement-and-fiberglass material that looks like wood but is more durable.
Yet the historical commission rejected Chung's plans, claiming the setback -- the distance between the building and the street -- did not match that of neighboring structures. Rather than just wait the 90 days and proceed as planned, Lopez and Hardin revised the design accordingly. But in November their plans were rejected again by the commission. By then, it was obvious there was little room for compromise on either side of the divide; after another 90-day delay, construction of the house began.
But if Chung's design upset the aesthetic sensibilities of the Old Sixth Ward when it was still on the drawing board, it enraged them once the house started taking shape. It is obvious that, when finished, the building will sit hard against a carefully restored Victorian at 1908 Decatur, casting a perpetual shadow on the old home's wraparound porch.
This has put J.D. Bartell in a permanent snit. Bartell, the neighborhood association's historic-conservation officer, lives around the corner in the Andrew J. and Josephine M. Kuhn House, a national landmark that looks every bit as impressive as it sounds. Bartell, who had a chemical analysis done to determine what color the Kuhn House was painted when it was built in 1822, says the problem with Chung's design isn't about style but compatibility and, apparently, common decency.
"That house has completely destroyed the fabric of that block," says Bartell. "It's rude and crass and completely inconsiderate of the house next door."
Not long after construction began on the Lopez/Hardin house, the neighbor across the street made his similar feelings known by erecting a dozen signs on his lawn slagging Chung's company: "MC2 = BAD DESIGN," the signs said. The architect also was approached by several people in the neighborhood who urged him to take a look at a couple of faux Victorians that had been built down the street. He did, and in his estimation, they're "perverse."
"I just don't think that's the way you do architecture in the 21st century," he says.
Architectural historian Stephen Fox agrees. Fox, who spoke on behalf of Chung's design at the second historical commission meeting, says preservationists often regard any modern design, no matter how good, as incompatible. "I've had conflicts with preservationists who don't really understand the difference between preserving historic buildings and building new buildings that look old," Fox says.
Lopez and Hardin say they've come to learn that opposition to their house isn't as widespread as they've been led to believe. A number of Old Sixth Ward residents have told them they're looking forward to seeing the house when it's finished, probably later this spring. When they move in, they plan to make the best of the situation.
"Maybe when things settle down, I feel like we have something to contribute to the neighborhood," Hardin says. "Marty wants to volunteer at MECA," a cultural arts center in the neighborhood, "and I want to get curbside recycling."
Last month about two dozen people gathered for a meeting of the Houston Homeowners Association in a conference room inside the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street. Although very few were residents of a city-created historic district, preservation was the topic of the evening.
The homeowners association is headed by Mike O'Brien, a tall, husky man with graying hair and a pink Irish face. O'Brien says that for most of the 1990s homeowners were seduced by political rhetoric such as "neighborhoods to standards" and "neighborhood-oriented government," only to find out the real beneficiaries of those programs were developers. O'Brien points out that less than two years ago, over the complaints of dozens of neighborhood associations and civic clubs, City Council changed the city development code to allow construction of up to 27 town homes on a single acre of land. The deep setbacks and wide lawns of Montrose, Neartown and the West End disappeared -- from entire blocks in some cases -- and were replaced by towering canyons of red brick and stucco. Taxes shot up; traffic increased; parking became scarce; and the overburdened storm-water and wastewater systems began to falter.
In response, O'Brien has signed on to the fight for a stronger preservation ordinance. A languid but acerbic man, O'Brien clearly is not afraid of offending anyone; for example, he compares the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1939 paved the way for Germany's invasion of Poland.
"We're in this from a neighborhood perspective as opposed to historic preservation," he says. "For neighborhoods without deed restrictions, the preservation ordinance is the only tool they have to keep their neighborhoods from turning into piles of crap."
O'Brien has been setting up meetings across the city to gain support from homeowners for the amendments to the ordinance drawn up by the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association.
At First Presbyterian, Jane Cahill, who heads a preservation ordinance committee for the Sixth Ward group, gave a brief slide show that explains, in pictures, how the ordinance has failed her neighborhood. There are the empty lots where grand old homes once stood; the renovation projects that turned Victorians into abominations; and, of course, there's the house under construction by Marty Lopez and Christine Hardin.
As she shut off the projector, Cahill lamented the increased pace of "the march of the town house" through the Old Sixth Ward. "I can see the war between the ranchers and the settlers coming," she said.
For better or worse, the rhetoric employed by O'Brien and Cahill is reshaping the historic preservation debate. No longer is it being discussed in terms of the last-minute, building-by-building efforts that seem to engage so few people, but rather as something every homeowner in the city should care about. Whether City Council will take notice remains to be seen. For now, the proposed new ordinance is stalled in council's Neighborhood Protection & Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Annise Parker.
Parker hasn't scheduled public hearings on the ordinance yet, so it's unclear when the final version will make it to the full council. Meanwhile, the councilwoman is holding weekly meetings with "stakeholders" -- O'Brien and the homeowners association; Ramona Davis of the preservation alliance; Lynn Edmundson of Historic Houston; and J.D. Bartell of the Sixth Ward association (Cahill is on kibbutz in Israel until later this month).
The talks are aimed at reaching answers to two questions: Should property owners have the right to "opt out" of the law's restrictions with the proposed 180-day demolition delay? And should the certificate of non-designation remain in the law, as proposed, or should it be eliminated? O'Brien, Edmundson and Bartell say the demolition delay must be removed from the ordinance -- "no means no," as they put it. And, of course, the non-designation should be eliminated; it defeats the purpose of a historic preservation.
But if council decides, as it has in the past, to rely on the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, the new ordinance will take only the smallest of steps toward its ultimate objective. Davis says she supports the strongest preservation ordinance possible. But in her view, the city's political and business leaders are not prepared to fully embrace historic preservation.
"Are we ready to make that step that solidifies the value of preservation without giving people an opt-out? That would be wonderful, but I think it's optimistic," she says. "Our stance is, the council is not going to go for a 'no means no' right now. And we'd rather go for what we think we can get."
It's part of Al Morin's nature to be optimistic, and he thinks Davis is selling councilmembers short. No one could predict that people would be forced from their homes by redevelopment, he says, or that redevelopment would put the city's solid old neighborhoods in jeopardy. Now that it's obvious, all it will take is a little strength on their part to make it right, to make Houston the kind of city Morin has always imagined. That's what makes the debate over historic preservation so important to Morin.
"We've been talking about it for years, mostly to ourselves," he says. "It's talking about what we all share commonly, about what we can all see together as beautiful, what we can do together. I mean, hey, if you don't have a dream about what this world should be about, then you'd better get one."
While the "stakeholders" hash out the particulars of the proposed ordinance, Morin dreams, and all one has to do to understand that dream is to visit his house on Kane Street and look down at the deep-grained heart pine that was salvaged from the 100-year-old buildings that no longer stand in Market Square but that now covers the floor of his cavernous living room. "There's nothing historic about a 45-foot room," he'll tell you. "I just had to have the room because I love to dance."
To imagine the city Al Morin imagines is to sit, as he does every morning with his coffee, in the coolness of the lemon tree that shades every inch of his front lawn, and to listen as he tries to explain why preserving the Old Sixth Ward is so necessary. Last year, he begins, the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association took part in a community cleanup along Washington Avenue. Later in the day, after most of the volunteers had gone home, Morin and a couple of his neighbors went to Mrs. Vazquez's house, which is next door to his on Kane Street.
Mrs. Vazquez has lived on Kane Street for 40 years. She had been ill but was due to come home from the hospital the following day. As a sort of welcome-home gift, Morin and friends repaired the brick pathway to her door that had been upset by the roots of an old hickory tree.
Morin shifts in his seat and nods through the branches of his lemon tree to the house next door. "Nobody got anything out of it," he says. "What I got was an old woman who talks to her plants. But there's value in that."
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