Pam's Last Stand
The delivery woman standing outside the pink building at 2700 Albany Street is confused. She's supposed to be making a stop at the studio of photographer Pam Francis, who offices here.
But it doesn't seem like anyone could even get inside this place, much less run a business out of it. There are three construction-company trailers parked outside, blocking almost all the parking spots. The yard surrounding the structure is nothing but dug-up dirt and huge piles of steel, cement and stone that reach all the way up to the second floor of the three-story building. Windows are bashed in. Parked on the walkway to the front door is a growling generator providing power to the workers. Inside, the structure has been gutted and draped in pink electrical tape that reads, "Danger Lead Hazard."
Over the din of nearby bulldozers, the delivery woman glances at her clipboard, then at the building. She mutters, "Does somebody work here?"
Unbelievably, somebody does. Pam Francis is standing her ground. Despite the chaos, the last tenant of what was once a haven for progressive groups and punk clubs is refusing to leave until her lease expires May 1. After a developer completes renovations in about a year, the historic building will house condominiums selling for between $140,000 and $300,000.
"This place has been the heart, the soul, the center of my universe," says Francis, who has continued working despite the noisy construction that began last November.
Now Pam and assistant Anne Marie Eastman have to shout at each other above the sounds of "the claw machines" -- their name for the bulldozers. And they've learned to holler "Incoming!" each time they see debris -- including toilets and sinks -- flying out the windows. To continue advertising, Francis hung a large plastic banner out of a window. She anchored it with the flush handles from old toilets that she found amid the mess.
While other tenants were operating month-to-month and had to leave when construction began, Francis had a yearlong lease. She thought about purchasing a condo in the building, but she says it's too expensive for what would be inadequate space for her studio. She even thought about wrangling support from several artists to purchase the building but admits she didn't act fast enough.
Last September, the Hollyfield Foundation sold the Mediterranean-style structure to HHN Homes. The 1913 building, shell-pink and covered in large windows, has been designated as a city and state landmark. It is also listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Now it's set to become one of the hottest properties among an influx of yuppies.
They "decided this would be the cool place to live, so they built trailers up on end and covered them in bricks," says Francis. She refers to the cookie-cutter town houses that have started covering the Fourth Ward in recent years.
Where Francis once felt small-town community, she now sees row upon row of sameness. Her longtime friends, artists and senior citizens who paid $250 or $300 in monthly rent, have been shoved out to make way for hordes of young professionals wanting to live closer to downtown.
"My neighborhood used to be full of people running from the police," she says. "Now it's full of people jogging. They're running for no reason at all."
The Albany building has a colorful past. St. Louis architects Mauran, Russell & Crowell, the same firm responsible for the Rice Hotel and The Hotel Galvez in Galveston, designed it for the DePelchin Faith Home Orphanage. DePelchin operated there for 25 years.
Wendy Harshbarger, executive director of the Hollyfield Foundation, says the building became a private drinking establishment called The Rams Club in the 1940s. The club closed in the late '60s and remained vacant until Jay Hollyfield purchased it in the 1970s. He turned it into a gay dance club, the Farmhouse.
Rumor has it, says Harshbarger, that Hollyfield had a passion for the building because he himself had lived there years earlier as a DePelchin orphan. But Hollyfield never confirmed or denied the story.
The Farmhouse, eventually renamed The Officer's Club, was a popular haunt for the hipsters of the day.
"Back in the '70s, when disco was going on, all the cool chicks would come because they knew that Johnny knew how to dance," laughs Harshbarger. He says the club even attracted international music celebrities during their stops in Houston. One memorable night, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant showed up to drink and dance.
"He was very young and handsome then," remembers Harshbarger.
The now-defunct punk club Emo's eventually began operating out of the bottom floor, and in the mid-'80s Hollyfield began renting out office space on upper floors. That's when Francis moved in.
"Jay was an odd fellow, and interested in artistic people," says Harshbarger. "He made artistic people want to gravitate there. One thing we can say is everyone knows Pam was Jay's favorite tenant. She was queen of the house."
After Hollyfield's death, his foundation used the rental profits to fund grants for those working to secure equal rights for gays and lesbians and to educate the community about HIV and AIDS. Several nonprofits found homes on Albany, including the Gay Men's Chorus of Houston and Progressive Voters in Action. According to Francis, the building was a small town unto itself.
"Everyone knew each other," she says. "It was animal-friendly. People would bring their dogs and cats to the office."
But soaring maintenance costs led the foundation to decide to sell the property and put the proceeds into more charitable funding. The building and land across the street were offered for $2.8 million. "It was appraised at $1.8 million," says Harshbarger, "and we got a lot more than that."
Ace Holley, managing director of development for HHN, declines to say how much was paid. He says that after renovations, 15 units will be available under the property's new name, Villa Serena.
As for Francis, Holley jokes that she is "the last of the Mohicans."
"The lease gives her a right to stay," says Holley.
Holley says the place needed work after years of occupancy by "grade C and D renters, a pretty interesting mix of people."
"But it's cleaned up very well," says Holley. "That's a very popular area. It's incredible. You have more of a neighborhood feel close to downtown."
However, Francis says that feel was always there, even if Holley and other developers couldn't see it. When May arrives, she'll move her studio to her house, just a few minutes away. But she fears it won't feel the same.
"This was a loving, caring building," she says with a sigh. "It was a magical place. But it's like Martians have landed on Earth and eaten up the Fourth Ward."
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