Shifting Foundation

Only 15 blocks long, Hyde Park Boulevard begins not as a boulevard at all but as a narrow lane, curling coyly out of Pacific Street just west of downtown and winding past an old three-story, faux-French townhouse where Clark Gable once stayed. The street has remained remarkably free of the boxy townhouse developments popping up all over Montrose; there are still plenty of front porches on Hyde Park, and people use them. Only after the street crosses Montrose do its curbs widen to admit a shady esplanade. A sign there commemorates the fact that this land once belonged to Republic of Texas president and frustrated poet Mirabeau B. Lamar.

After a brief commercial interlude -- a post office and a cozy Half Price Books -- Hyde Park circles into a gentle, quiet cul-de-sac where a white bungalow shyly hangs back behind grander houses built in the early part of the century by the city's lawyers and businessmen. Brick gateposts bracket a lanky curve of a driveway. A circular garden with a stone statue of the Virgin Mary is embedded in a smooth, green lawn. Rounding this cul-de-sac is a bit like swinging back to 1920, when Montrose was a carefully platted new settlement for the prosperous and the pioneering. The whole affair has the air of a well-kept secret, resembling an affluent private park with a small army of gardeners.

Only there are no servants here. In fact, the situation is not at all what you'd expect: Instead of housing the wealthy, this elegant, historic enclave provides a refuge where some of Houston's neediest can turn their lives around. Two Franciscan friars live in a yellow Victorian house that backs up to the Kolbe Project, a gray Victorian with a rainbow banner hanging from an upstairs porch. Here the friars operate a ministry for gays and lesbians and a home base for hospital visits to AIDS patients. In four other houses -- a red brick, a bungalow and the houses behind them -- two nuns run Wellsprings, a shelter for homeless and abused women. The next house on the cul-de-sac, a duplex, was until recently occupied by another group of Dominican sisters.

The Hyde Park enclave exists today by virtue of the Ryans, an Irish-Catholic family that for three decades lived in the yellow Victorian that now houses the friars. Over the past 20 years, the Burkitt Foundation, a private foundation run by the Ryans, bought up the Hyde Park homes and paid thousands of dollars to refurbish and maintain them. At the beginning of June, the Burkitt Foundation owned 11 properties in the Montrose area assessed at $2.6 million, all of them devoted free of charge to charitable use. In addition to the six on Hyde Park, the foundation owns two nearby houses on Commonwealth, which are occupied by the International Center for the Solution of Environmental Problems and the Houston Recovery Center, a residence for female former drug addicts. The Houston Area Women's Center recently vacated another Burkitt-owned house on Castle Court. Still another Burkitt property on Westheimer, the city's last bungalow-style firehouse, is used by neighborhood groups such as a nonprofit art gallery and the Neartown Association.

Yet while the Burkitt houses may mean the world to those who live in them, the ground they occupy is pay dirt to the many developers who have in recent years been remodeling Montrose. Contiguous lots have become hot properties for high-density housing -- Perry Homes alone has built almost 100 townhomes in Montrose during the past two years, and will soon complete another 32. The Hyde Park enclave escaped the boom only because the Burkitt Foundation stood in the way, its handful of deeds a barrier to massive change. Then, two months ago, the foundation went from preservationist to profiteer, offering up its properties for sale en masse and practically guaranteeing that much of what has made Hyde Park so special would soon be reduced to rubble.

In a city where neighborhood character has often met the wrecking ball and lost, people are just beginning to realize the long-term value of preservation. For example, it was only two years ago that a push began for Hyde Park to adopt deed restrictions. Since deed restrictions can limit a property's short-term value, the Burkitt Foundation, like a few other residential property owners along Hyde Park Boulevard, opted not to include its houses among those accepting the deed restrictions. Still, a nonprofit charitable organization such as the Burkitt Foundation was the last owner people in the neighborhood expected to cash in its chips.

That's why, when the foundation summoned Wellsprings co-founder Sister Rita Owen to a meeting in late May, she was shocked by what she heard. After all, the foundation's four houses made it Wellsprings's most crucial benefactor. The Dominicans, the order to which Sister Rita belongs, had just honored Cornelius O. Ryan, the Burkitt Foundation president, with the St. Martin de Porres award for outstanding Christian leadership. And Wellsprings seemed to be in God's good graces: The nuns were busily furnishing two cottages adjoining the Burkitt Foundation's land that the shelter had recently purchased. Accustomed to receiving help and encouragement from the Burkitt Foundation, Sister Rita anticipated only good news at the meeting. Instead, she was told that the Burkitt Foundation had decided to put all its Hyde Park properties up for sale. The 15 women living at Wellsprings had until the end of September to find themselves a new home.

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Shaila Dewan