This Old House

The rambling, two-story blue-and-white house on Rusk Avenue sits behind a pair of locked iron gates. Nearly 100 years old, it has been added on to numerous times and is in need of some repair. A statue of St. Vincent de Paul made in France in the 1840s has been placed near the front steps, but vandals recently managed to scale the protective fence and knock his head off. The headless statue gives the sagging house an ominous feel.

Its official, grand-sounding name is the Arthur Benjamin Cohn House, named for one of its former tenants who helped found Rice University. But it only looks awkward sitting smack in the middle of a rapidly developing part of downtown Houston, just behind the George R. Brown Convention Center and right next to the newly renamed Minute Maid Park. Soon, the convention center will be expanded; there will be a new hotel and a new arena. The house is a sign of yesteryear in an area that screams out "progress!"

But the house wasn't always such an oddity. In the early 1900s, it was surrounded by similar homes in one of Houston's first upscale, middle-class neighborhoods, known as Quality Hill. The neighborhood had a distinguished reputation, with homes that paid attention to the tiny details, such as the glasswork in the windows and doors. The Cohn House has a distinguished history, too: A former mayor of Houston, John T. Browne, grew up in it, and it's listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But as Houston grew -- as Houston likes to do -- house after house in Quality Hill disappeared. Now there are only two left, and the Cohn House is one of them. Since the early 1960s, the house has belonged to St. Francis Charities, a group that collects clothing for the needy and passes out prayer cards and religious information at prisons and bus stations. Nobody lives in the house, but the group uses it for meetings and storage, and the group's president, Mary Nell Davis, worked tirelessly to get the house its historic designations at the local, state and national levels.

For decades no one paid much attention to the Cohn House, except for the small number of Houstonians interested in historic structures. But then Houston wanted to grow again.

"The city several years ago decided that it was important that Avenida de las Americas be extended two blocks north to the ballpark," says Dawn Ullrich, director of the city's Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department. "The Cohn House lies squarely in the middle of where the right-of-way needs to go."

For the past several months, the city and St. Francis Charities have been trying to reach an agreement over just what is going to happen to the house once the street expansion begins next fall. The city has made offers, but Davis hasn't accepted any. Now, in an uncharacteristic move, the city says it doesn't want to demolish the Cohn House or the other Quality Hill home that sits next to it. In fact, its representatives say they want to move both houses a few feet west and refurbish them for use as a local tourism center. But the president of St. Francis Charities is not so sure she's interested.

"The house is not for sale," says Mary Nell Davis. "They'd like to buy it, but we didn't buy it to make money to sell."

But if Davis and the city don't come to some agreement soon -- and the window of time Davis has to make up her mind is rapidly closing -- city officials say they are prepared for the worst-case scenario: taking the case to court to declare eminent domain and move the house anyway.

"We're trying to do something with Ms. Davis that she'll be proud of and that we'll also be proud of," says Ullrich. "But do we have the power [to take the house]? Yes, quite frankly we do."

In her house in the Montrose, full of religious cards and literature, Davis keeps an audiotape made on October 5, 1964, just a few years after St. Francis Charities purchased the house. The tape is a recording of the late Houston Monsignor Antone Frank blessing the property.

"We know as you look over this house you will see the great potential that there is for it to be a sort of house that you can dream on, and then have those dreams fulfilled," intones Frank.

The city has its own dream for the house, but negotiations are at a standstill. Can the city that rarely practices preservation really do it right, all in the name of progress?

The poorly made, jumpy videotape can make a viewer dizzy, but it captures a cheery mood that stands in contrast to the one currently surrounding the Cohn House. The tape, made in October 1986, captures a proud moment: the day the house received its designation as a Texas historic landmark. It's sunny, and the ceremony is held outside on the wide porch. The tape shows the local Knights of Columbus presenting the colors and leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Texas Pledge. After a few speeches, the ceremony culminates with Davis, dressed in a white blouse and a bright skirt, proudly unpinning the pieces of cloth covering up the historical markers. Although she's done most of the work to get the designation, she has to be encouraged by the master of ceremonies to say a few words.

"We can't help but thank everyone," says Davis. "We are very, very privileged."

The tape shows the crowd retiring to the back of the house after the ceremony to munch on a buffet set out on tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There is music, and the mood is a joyful one.

It's a good day for preservationists.

And it's the preservationists like Lynn Edmundson who are most concerned with the future of the Cohn House. Edmundson, a former board member of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance and the founder of a small nonprofit advocacy group called Historic Houston, grew worried when she learned the city wanted to expand Avenida. She decided to apply for a grant to the Cohn House and the other remaining Quality Hill home, the Foley House (recently sold to the city by the Diocese of Galveston-Houston).

The grant request called for local architects to make detailed blueprints of the homes according to standards provided by the Historic American Building Survey program, a process known as documentation. After the blueprints and sketches of both the Cohn House and the Foley House were created, they would be sent to the Library of Congress to become part of the public record. At least then there would be some concrete memories of the Quality Hill houses on their original sites, in case they were moved or demolished to make room for the road.

"My thought was, we lose so many buildings in town all the time, and there's very little record," says Edmundson. "Unless you have photographs or some kind of document, there's nothing."

Edmundson applied for grants from several foundations, and in November 2001 the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Historic Houston a $1,500 grant to draw the Quality Hill homes. Edmundson was put in touch with Jim Arnold, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston. He said he and his students would love to be part of the process.

Edmundson initially thought the diocese owned both the Foley House and the Cohn House. But in January 2002, when it came time to gain access to the homes so the work could begin, she discovered St. Francis Charities owned the Cohn House, and she paid a visit to Mary Nell Davis to explain the grant. Davis agreed to the project, and for the next six or seven Saturdays, Edmundson would swing by Davis's home, pick up the Cohn House keys and head back to the east side of downtown to let Arnold and his students in to work.

The students enjoyed working on the houses, says Arnold. They spent their Saturdays in and outside the buildings compiling field notes -- exact measurements of every inch of the structures. Once the sketches were done, the measurements were plugged into a computer, which then created images of the houses that could be saved forever.

"Both houses are pretty eclectic," says Arnold. "They're of the late Queen Anne style, but the Cohn House almost defies definition because it has been added on to. It's just kind of crazy."

During the Saturdays that Edmundson stopped by Davis's house to collect the keys, the two women discussed the history of the Cohn House. Edmundson asked Davis if she knew more about the city's plans for the structure. One day, Edmundson says, Davis showed her a letter from the city that Edmundson says offered St. Francis Charities $264,000 to relocate the Cohn House to an adjacent lot about 50 feet from where it stood. The group would still own the house, but Davis was worried that a clause in the agreement gave the city the right of first refusal at the current price, meaning if Davis ever chose to sell it she would have to offer it to the city at 2002 market value, even if she decided to sell it years after the move. Davis was also concerned that the amount of land being swapped wasn't exactly equal -- she might lose five feet if she takes the city's offer.

But Edmundson says Davis told her what worried her most was the possibility that moving the house would cause it to lose the historic designations. Indeed, while the local and national markers can usually be maintained when a historic structure is moved, the standard state rules maintain that if a house changes locations -- by even a few feet -- the state designation is dropped.

Davis didn't want to answer many questions about the house or the city's desire to move it. While Edmundson thinks Davis is in her eighties, Davis wouldn't even reveal her exact age. ("My age is a number," she quips, "and my number's unlisted.") She and her late husband started St. Francis Charities in the 1960s, she says, to do "behind-the-scenes work," like passing out Christian literature and collecting clothes and food for the needy.

"We don't want to start controversy" over the house, she says. "We need peace in this world."

Davis's attorney, Frank Pinedo, was equally mum, saying only that "the city made a number of offers, none of which we accepted."

Edmundson says it was April when she got a call on her cell phone while at the airport. It was Davis, telling her that the city had rescinded its offer. Shortly thereafter, Edmundson says, she began to hear from others in the preservation community that there was talk of moving both the Cohn House and the Foley House to the adjacent lot originally offered to Davis. The city wanted to refurbish both houses and turn them into a regional heritage tourism center to be owned by the city and operated by a nonprofit such as the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

In fact, the alliance's director, Ramona Davis, had helped organize a steering-committee meeting for the proposed center in May. People interested in preservation were invited from as far away as Fort Worth. Groups representing historic interests in Galveston and Huntsville came, too. But two names left off the list were Lynn Edmundson and the president of St. Francis Charities, Mary Nell Davis.

"Lots of people knew we were documenting the Cohn House. It wasn't a secret; we sent out press releases to everyone," says Edmundson. She asked Dawn Ullrich why Davis wasn't invited and says Ullrich told her it was because the city didn't want to unduly alarm her.

Edmundson was upset. While she understood that Davis hadn't agreed to the city's initial offer, she didn't think that meant she should be left out of the decision-making process. And more than that, she was concerned that the city felt that if St. Francis Charities wasn't going to take its offer, it was going to move on without the house's owner.

"I don't want to be involved in a taking," says Edmundson, using a term that describes a city's move to acquire a house against the wishes of its owner. "And if Mary Nell had ever once said she wanted to sell her house, that would be a different deal. But from the conversation I had with her, and from the conversations I'd had with the city that they weren't involving the property owner, well, this was a taking. And I don't want to be involved in a taking, even in the name of preservation."

If you ask Dawn Ullrich, Edmundson's interpretation of the city's plans couldn't be further from the truth. What the city wants -- what the city has always wanted -- is to save the houses and keep Mary Nell Davis happy.

"That's really not what's happening at all," says Ullrich of Edmundson's contention that the city is planning a taking. "We've always wanted to preserve [the Cohn House]. But we want Ms. Davis to be proud of it, and not conclude her residency on a bad note."

According to Ullrich, the city did make an offer to Davis to move the house, but she says city policy prevents her from saying what exactly was offered because they are still negotiating. But she will say that the city tried to give Davis enough time to accept or reject the first offer -- and that the city has no plans to take the Cohn House unless Davis refuses to accept any offer and time runs out.

"The [first] offer remained on the table for a long time," says Ullrich. "Frankly, we have been patient in trying to work through this so we can keep Ms. Davis happy." Ullrich says the city hopes to bring a new offer to Davis in a few weeks. If Houston goes ahead with the tourism center, Davis will be compensated for the land and the house at fair market value -- even if they're taken against her wishes.

And it isn't as if Davis was kept completely in the dark on the proposed regional heritage tourism center. John Nau of the Texas Historical Commission and Al Davis of the Harris County Historical Commission visited Mary Nell Davis and her lawyer at Mary Nell Davis's home a few days after the steering-committee meeting on May 17. All parties involved agree no deal was offered, and the meeting was strictly informational in nature.

As for why Davis and Edmundson weren't invited to the initial meeting, Ullrich refers those questions to Ramona Davis, who organized the meeting, adding that the city has no intention of getting involved in a fight between preservationists.

"We're finding there's a lot of bad blood between Ms. Edmundson and the GHPA, and we're trying to steer clear of that because that really doesn't have anything to do with what we're trying to do," says Ullrich.

There is a history of tension between Edmundson and the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance that stems from a flap over Edmundson's attempt to save Jefferson Davis Hospital from demolition while she was a board member of the alliance. Edmundson says the alliance let her down in her hour of need (see "Bulldozers at the Gate," by Brian Wallstin, May 3, 2001). She resigned in a three-page letter to the alliance in the spring of 1999.

But Ramona Davis did not want to talk about the steering-committee meeting or the Cohn House, saying that any plans about the tourism center were "just talk."

"I don't really have anything to say about the Cohn House; there's really nothing happening yet," says Davis. "Not a thing." During a second attempt at an interview, Davis quickly ended the call by saying, "I am really not interested in talking."

Davis referred questions about the proposed regional tourism center to John Nau of the Texas Historical Commission. According to Ullrich, Nau had seen regional tourism centers successfully created in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, and thought the idea might work here. A member of the commission since 1993 and chair since 1995, Nau was recently appointed by George W. Bush to sit on the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Since 1990 Nau has served as CEO of Silver Eagle Distributors, one of the country's largest distributors of Anheuser-Busch products.

But despite several attempts to contact Nau, he also declined to be interviewed for this story.

Ullrich says the plans are not definite, and that's why no one wants to talk about them. The city is still hoping that Mary Nell Davis will be interested in allowing the house to be used for the center.

But David Godwin, a board member of St. Francis Charities, says it is not just Davis's decision. All seven members of the board will vote on whether to take the city's offer, with the majority deciding what will happen. And Godwin hopes the charity can keep using the home.

"I would like to see St. Francis Charities keep the house and continue the work," says Godwin. "We would like to still be able to use it because the house has a lot of history with us."

According to Ullrich, if the regional tourism center ever comes into existence, organizations from around the area will be invited to participate and display exhibits. The hope is that the two homes would inform Houston's visitors about the variety of historical sites nearby.

"There would be some exhibits set up in there, maybe some historic artifacts, from Washington-on-the-Brazos, for instance, that would try to pique your interest in traveling in that direction," says Ullrich. The idea isn't a radical one, she adds -- unless you take into consideration the fact that Houston rarely bothers to preserve anything at all.

"This is something that has been done before in other cities; it has been successfully done," says Ullrich. "We're not inventing something."

Daniel Carey, director of the southwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the same organization that gave Lynn Edmundson her grant), has watched a lot of cities struggle with how to best practice preservation. He came down from Fort Worth to attend the first steering-committee meeting for the proposed center.

"I think there was cautious optimism at the meeting," says Carey. "There were many unanswered questions, and quite frankly the owner is a big part of it. I think there's certainly great enthusiasm to do a preservation project in Houston, but that has to be balanced with the owner's rights. The timeline is pretty tight to get this thing accomplished."

According to Carey, other large cities that have used old structures as tourism centers have generally used more industrial buildings, such as railroad depots. A few smaller communities have used private homes. Fort Smith, Arkansas, recently renovated an old brothel. But Carey wonders if two private homes that both need extensive repairs could do the job.

"These buildings are certainly important and significant, but I think they present challenges in terms of how they would be adaptively used," he says. "There are a lot of code issues, I would think. It may require new construction to go along with it, and that would be challenging."

According to Stephen Fox, a Rice University professor of architecture and one of the city's most respected architectural historians, the city's plans for a regional tourism center to be operated inside the Cohn and Foley houses represents the typical manner in which Houston practices preservation. Which is to say, not well.

"Because Houston lacks zoning, in my analysis the long-term consequences have been that there is no public planning process in Houston," says Fox. "And every decision is sort of a one-off decision in which it seems like what has happened before doesn't affect it and what will happen in the future won't affect it." No precedents are set, no traditions are recognized. For example, Fox says, the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission, which is in charge of enforcing the city's preservation ordinance, should have been consulted before any discussion of the proposed center began. Ullrich acknowledges the commission hasn't been involved.

A revised preservation ordinance -- the only one in the country that includes a nondesignation clause that allows an owner to demolish a historic property without first appearing before the Archaeological and Historical Commission -- will be brought to City Council this spring. The commission has suggested some amendments to the law, but Fox worries that's not enough. It's not just the ordinance that's the problem, it's the generally haphazard, patchwork way the city thinks about preservation.

"Houston never looks at the greater whole," says Fox. "It keeps preservation constantly on the defensive. For instance, with these two houses, there was no public planning process, no public hearings to determine what the range of alternatives were."

Carey and Fox also worry that if the worst-case scenario occurs -- that is, if Davis refuses to accept an offer and the city takes the house -- property-rights supporters will have every reason to fight an already leaky preservation ordinance, arguing that the city can use preservation as a reason to take someone's home.

However, Carey acknowledges that it is doubtful that the city would have even bothered to save the houses even five years ago. The city has lost numerous historic homes over the past few years, including the Allen Paul and Ross Sterling houses. Allen Parkway Village, the Music Hall and Jefferson Davis Hospital are also gone, and it's almost impossible to recognize Freedmen's Town, the neighborhood settled by former slaves. The historic homes in Houston that have been saved have been shuttled off to Sam Houston Park to be part of what most preservationists like to call a historic homes petting zoo. Most think it's an example of preservation that is hopelessly out of date because it moves the historic houses out of their original context.

In that sense, says Carey, if the heritage center is realized, at least the Cohn and Foley houses will be saved and kept fairly close to their original sites. He hopes that the city and Davis will come to some agreement.

"Hopefully if this is all going to happen it will be good, and it won't have an asterisk next to it, a long explanation, and leave people with questions or lingering doubts," says Carey. "I'm hoping that can all be removed, and the owner gets a fair shake and the plan is sound."

It's been many months since Lynn Edmundson drove to Mary Nell Davis's house for the first time to pick up the keys to the Cohn House and let Jim Arnold and his students in to do their work. Davis and her attorney are staying quiet, ready to check out the next offer from the city. City officials are crossing their fingers in hopes that Davis will go for their next big idea. And Edmundson is on a long vacation, still steaming over being left out of the decision-making process, and still worrying that the city will swoop in and take the house.

If you ask Jim Arnold, a native Texan who's done preservation work all over Texas and Mexico, the uncertainty about the house's future all could have been avoided if Houston had thought about preservation in general, not only when absolutely necessary.

"If we'd had a plan, oh, my God, a plan," laughs Arnold. "What a novel idea. [But] Houston has a tendency to take things to an extreme. We don't think about things until it's too late, and then we make up for it in the end by throwing great guns and a lot of money at things."

Arnold grew close to the Cohn House during the weekends he spent guiding his students as they measured every inch of floorboard and every centimeter of windowsill. He wants the house saved. But as quick as he is to criticize, the architect admits that occasionally he takes off his preservationist's hat and looks at the city from a different perspective.

"We live in a mosquito-infested, sinking swamp," says Arnold. "You know, why did we do that? So we're constantly having to make up for it." Building foundations are always in need of repair, he says. It's become the city's nature to tear down and rebuild. To put it simply, Houston isn't Boston, and wasn't ever meant to be.

"This is the queen city of the Americas, I really do believe that," says Arnold earnestly. "But our economics have always driven bigger, higher, faster, stronger. All the time." Oddly enough, says Arnold, a constantly mutating skyline has become as much a part of Houston's history as the old homes in Quality Hill.

And for now, while the city and the owner wrangle over the next step, there's nothing left for the Cohn House to do but sit among a constantly changing downtown, waiting to become the next experiment in Houston-style preservation.

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