It's a Thursday afternoon and Robert Searcy stands in front of an indoor prayer nook in his Glenbrook Valley home. The realtor is excited to show off the details of his mid-century modern residence, and this miniature worship center is one of the many unique features.
"A lot of these homes had somewhere where you got drunk or somewhere to ask for forgiveness," says Searcy about the southeast Houston subdivision that was largely constructed between 1953 and 1962. Searcy is just the second owner of a 2,626-square-foot home that was originally occupied by one of the many Italians who settled here during the onset of Houston's space age.
When Searcy moved to the neighborhood that's loosely bordered by Sims Bayou, Telephone Road, the Gulf Freeway and Hobby Airport, he was shocked to find what he calls "an area that sits almost untouched, like a time capsule."
For Searcy, a lover of a bygone architectural style that fused Frank Lloyd Wright's principles with European Bauhaus sentiments, Glenbrook Valley, which a majority of Houstonians have never heard of, was something worth preserving. Along with abstract furnishings, Searcy's home showcases an originally intact bathroom, complete with Pepto-Bismol-colored tile, that's featured on the Web site Save the Pink Bathrooms.
For the past three years, Searcy and a number of his fellow mid-century modern fanatics have been on a quest to historically designate the neighborhood. Last June, local pro-preservationists handed in a historic-district application, which has jumped through all but one of the necessary hoops, to the City of Houston. If successful, the 1,254-structure subdivision would become the first post-World War II historic district in the state of Texas.
However, during the process, Glenbrook Valley has turned into what residents call a "war zone" between those for and those against the pending designation.
Friendships have been destroyed, "Yard of the Month" winners are afraid to answer the door and if somebody walks into a local restaurant and sees a person "from the other side," he'll turn around and leave. The situation has become so ugly that some residents who have lived in Glenbrook Valley for 20 years say they are considering a move because they fear for their safety.
The people in favor of the designation, scheduled for a June 29 vote in City Council, say that the honor will increase property values, prevent future destruction of unique homes and bring positive attention to the neighborhood that's smack-dab in the middle of urban blight. Houston is currently home to 15 historic districts, including Heights East, Heights West, and Old Sixth Ward, but none can boast as many mid-century modern dwellings as Glenbrook Valley.
Opponents, meanwhile, weren't necessarily against the designation until a self-proclaimed "poorly organized" mutiny uncovered, in their opinion, deceit, trickery and civil-rights violations used during the petition process. They're also claiming that city officials pulled a bait-and-switch following the passage of a new historic-preservation ordinance. As a result of the latest measures, Glenbrook Valley, an area that's already protected by rigid deed restrictions, is bound to even stricter rules.
Searcy admits that the landmark designation makes proposed modifications more difficult for homeowners. In one case, an area resident and former friend of Searcy's who loves mid-century modern as much as the realtor tried to change his front door, only to be told that his proposed design was too mid-century modern.
Complicating the battle-zone-like essence is a longstanding feud between the openly gay Searcy and a longtime Glenbrook Valley dweller who once displayed Halloween tombstones with homosexual slurs. Add in a population of Hispanics, Vietnamese and African-Americans who deeply care about their property rights — a subject that's always tricky, according to a historic-preservation consultant — and the neighborhood has become a tinderbox.
According to Searcy and Glenbrook Valley homeowner Maverick Welsh, who once served as chief of staff on City Council, much of the drama can be blamed on what Welsh says is a "certifiable insane" couple who have filed complaints with the city's Office of Inspector General against pro-preservationists.
Instead of praying, Searcy spends time working on his campaign and denying allegations of throwing dead cats into people's yards.
Joe Ablaza stands over a map of Glenbrook Valley that's lit up with pink, yellow and green highlighter. Wearing a dress shirt that's tucked into khaki pants, he points to the kitchen table, where the blueprint-sized diagram curls at one end. By his calculations, Ablaza, a clean-cut financial adviser who calls himself the "Seething Republican," thinks the historic district efforts being pushed by Searcy are flawed at best.
Before mid-century modern became an industry that spawned trendy magazines and boutiques, a young Ablaza, like many Houston natives, visited Glenbrook Valley to look at the often over-the-top holiday lights displays. Less known, even today, were the accomplished people who lived in the Italian-settled area. At one time or another, the founders of Mandola's Deli and Carraba's, jazz musician Steve Tyrell and the late professional wrestler Paul Boesch could call Glenbrook Valley home.
Between Ablaza's holiday visits and his move to Glenbrook Valley in 2000, the area suffered through the economic decline kick-started by the 1980s oil bust, which caused aging residents to abandon once-charming homes that would eventually fall into disrepair.
As a result, and due to strict deed restrictions, developers largely ignored Glenbrook Valley, which, according to recent City of Houston data, possesses a median household income of $37,860. Though some unique homes were remodeled beyond original recognition, a passerby won't see McMansions and loftzillas. Instead, home shoppers can find a spacious dwelling (which may need $20,000 in upgrades) and a sizable chunk of land for as low as $190,000.
For people like Ablaza, the island-like quiet of the area was perfect for him and his wife Leticia, who moved to Texas at age eight after growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, to start a family.
The neighborhood's off-the-radar essence was also important to Searcy when he settled there four years after the Ablazas. More impressive for the mid-century modern addict was, and still is, the eccentric throwback features that he's discovered as Glenbrook Valley's most successful realtor.
Several homes showcase original "Sputnik" light fixtures that hang over the front door or in the kitchen, cedar-lined closets and an interplay between indoor and outdoor living spaces. "It's a diamond in the rough, due to people's 'southeast side vertigo,'" says Searcy, referring to, in his opinion, buyers' tendencies to move to Oak Forest or Westbury instead of a neighborhood that was once known as "The Little River Oaks."
In 2005, on the strength of Searcy's promotion through www.glenbrookvalley.org, the stylish design magazine Dwell featured Glenbrook Valley for its take on the architectural approach that several residents, including Stephen Stovall, would get together and geek out over. "We had shared a fanaticism about mid-century modern," says Stovall, whose home resembles a set from The Jetsons. "I would go to people's homes to see how cool it was and vice versa. We used to have a lot in common."
In 2008, Searcy and members of the Glenbrook Valley Civic Club began the process of applying for historic-district standing. Community outreach included volunteers going door-to-door and asking residents to sign petitions. "People were excited that we were unifying the neighborhood," says Glenbrook Valley Civic Club President Ann Collum, who has lived in the area for 38 years.
However, the Ablazas think that limited-English speakers were either forced or duped into agreeing to the historic designation, which requires 51 percent approval. Collum, meanwhile, says that the Ablazas are screaming bloody murder in order to get their way. "The venom they spout and the accusations they make are totally unfounded," says Collum.
Marlene Gafrick, director of the city's Planning and Development Department, says that nearly 54 percent of Glenbrook Valley's residents signed the petition. When asked if the amount of uproar coming from the neighborhood is commonplace, Gafrick, who's been with the department for 30 years, says, "For me to compare to other past districts is a little difficult" because of the amended ordinance, which was approved in October 2010.
Houston's historic-preservation ordinance disallows demolition, rebuilding or new construction without city approval. According to historic-preservation consultant Diane Wray Tomasso, several cities, including Englewood, Colorado, are working on crafting similar regulations. On one hand, green-lighting an ordinance with some muscle may not be a bad thing, says Tomasso. On the other, she states that city government-controlled ordinances "tend to be problematic."
"The core foundation of American society is the sanctity of private property, and historic preservation flies in the face of that," says Tomasso.
Carmen Villarreal had never heard of mid-century modern architecture before Glenbrook Valley's historic district efforts. Today, she wishes that she hadn't; if not, she might still be talking to her neighbor of 17 years.
The Ablazas were largely indifferent to historical preservation when they caught wind of Searcy's efforts. Because Joe and Leticia didn't take the time to do their homework, they erred on the side of caution and did not sign the petition.
"We didn't really mind one way or the other," says Joe Ablaza. "Then we started asking around and found out that nobody really understood what was going on."
In the minds of the Ablazas, many of the improperly informed people were Glenbrook Valley's Hispanic and Vietnamese residents with limited English language skills. Leticia Ablaza, a fluent Spanish speaker who continues to be outspoken at City Council meetings as well as on Telemundo and Univision, came to this conclusion after communicating with many of her Hispanic neighbors and friends. (City of Houston numbers show that Hispanics occupy the area at a 65 percent rate.)
Months after the completion of the historic-district application, the Ablazas began collecting retraction signatures. In the process, they recruited volunteers to hand out flyers bearing text such as "WARNING" and "Ready for $500 a day fines?"
Villarreal, who has since rescinded her support, gave her approval after a neighbor approached her on several occasions. She says in Spanish, through an interpreter, that she was conned. "I was told that [my signature] would get rid of crime and protect the neighborhood," says Villarreal. "It was a dumb decision to sign...I would like to move, but my daughters don't want to."
Secundino Vasquez, Villarreal's ex-husband, who works at the Spanish-language digital television station KHLM-LD 43.3, was also promised that his autograph would help discourage blight. At the time, Vasquez, who spoke Spanish during his interview with the Houston Press, had experienced two unfortunate episodes: Somebody broke into his home, and he found a naked woman, who he thinks was a prostitute, shivering in his front yard on a wintry morning. Because Vasquez was led to believe that the petition would diminish similar incidents, he signed.
When the Ablazas laid out their interpretations of the historic designation to Vasquez, he confronted the neighbor who had presented the petition and shouted, "Why did you trick me?" Vasquez and his neighbor are no longer on speaking terms.
According to a December 2010 City of Houston Planning and Development report, 155 retractions were collected, bringing the support level down to 45 percent. Searcy thinks Joe and Leticia Ablaza used outlandish assertions and flat-out lies to get the retraction signatures. "It's easy to get elderly and Spanish-speaking people scared," says Searcy. "What are they going to accuse us of next? Performing abortions on pregnant Girl Scouts?"
Though the number falls nearly 6 percentage points below the required approval level, Planning and Development Department director Gafrick recommended designating the historic district "with no changes" and moved the issue for final approval in City Council.
The decision has troubled some Glenbrook Valley inhabitants as well as several local government officials. During the March 2 City Council session, councilmember C.O. "Brad" Bradford, speaking to Gafrick, said, "When I hear 45 percent of the people supports it and you're recommending let's go forward with it, my blood turns to Freon. Private property rights in this country are right behind life as far as I'm concerned."
The Ablazas have also alleged that petition signatures were collected under racist circumstances during outreach efforts to Glenbrook Valley's Spanish-speaking residents. The events in question took place at the Taqueria Del Sol restaurant on Park Place, where a spread of complimentary food and bilingual information about historic designation were provided.
According to Searcy, one such event was a "giant flop" because only three households (two of whom signed petitions) attended the gathering. Joe Ablaza, who was not in attendance that day, has gone on record at City Council and said that people "were given tacos for their property rights."
Maverick Welsh is a full-time history teacher whose political career includes serving as then-councilmember Peter Brown's chief of staff as well as an unsuccessful run at a District H City Council seat. A year ago, because of his self-professed love of mid-century modern architecture, he moved from a 1,200-square-foot English cottage in the Heights to Glenbrook Valley.
In December, Welsh and the Ablazas were involved in an episode that Joe Ablaza "still hates talking about." The Ablazas needed to replace their shoddy furnace, which necessitated the dumping of ductwork in the front yard. While the contractor went to procure a permit, a city inspector — who, according to Leticia, was inundated with phone calls for the unsightly mess — came to red-tag the Ablazas.
Moments later, explains Joe, Welsh drove by the Ablazas' house "honking, waving and laughing with an 'I gotcha' grin." Joe said that Welsh had never before extended a neighborly gesture towards him.
Welsh explains that he sometimes passes the Ablaza residence, located five houses away from his property, on his way home from his gig as a history teacher at Milby High School. He also says that his natural tendency is to be friendly.
Leticia Ablaza isn't buying that. Instead, she claims that Welsh, a Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission board member, prevented her family from heating their home on a frigid December night. She ended up filing a formal complaint with the Houston Office of Inspector General.
As a result, Welsh spent two hours giving an affidavit about "waving to some neighbors that I saw in the street," he says. (The complaint turned out to be "unfounded" and therefore "not sustained," according to a City of Houston Legal Department document acquired by the Press.)
"I've never seen this kind of senseless drama in all my years of fighting for historic preservation. Just think McCarthyism/witch hunt and you will have a good idea of the [Ablazas'] tactics," says Welsh. "They're filing complaints against all sorts of different people to try and ruin their reputation. It doesn't have anything to do with reality."
The experience has caused Welsh, a fervent proponent of historic preservation, to wonder if serving on the historical commission is worth this kind of trouble. It has also made him take a route, whenever he's coming from or going to his house, that does not pass by the Ablazas' property.
Restored Italian marble terrazzo lines the front entryway of Stephen Stovall's home, and leads into a streamlined living room showcasing space bubble-shaped chairs with 1950s orange upholstery. In the kitchen, a Sputnik-shaped fixture broadcasts light into the room that wows with minimalist chairs sculpted by the same designer who popularized the "tulip chair" on the original television series of Star Trek.
Stovall estimates that he's invested $100,000 in making his property an authentic mid-century modern palace. However, despite his love of the form and of preservation, he's against the Glenbrook Valley historic-district designation.
"I am actually in favor of historic preservation," says Stovall. "I've lived [in Houston] all of my life, and it hurts seeing the treasures that I've seen torn down, but this is definitely not the way to go about it."
Stovall is a self-proclaimed Kennedy liberal who works from home as a software developer while his wife, Dr. Rebecca Dodds, is a full-time psychologist. The couple moved to Glenbrook Valley in 2006 because the area "was a nice, quiet and friendly neighborhood, and we thought it was a good place to live," says Stovall. Unlike the Ablazas, who have interacted with Searcy only once over the years, when they were thinking about selling their home, Stovall used to be friends with the realtor and his fellow collectors of throwback adornments.
Along with claims of underhandedness on the part of pro-preservationists, many Glenbrook Valley dissenters, including Stovall, believe the city pulled a fast one with the passage of a new historic-district ordinance. "As soon as they had the petitions, the city sat on it for five months. During that time, they crafted and passed a new ordinance that had major teeth to it," says Stovall. "When a lot of people who had signed the original petition heard that, they were furious. They felt like they had been tricked, and in fact I think they were."
Though Glenbrook Valley is a pending historic district, it's bound to the rules of the new and stricter document, which to date is available only in English. This hasn't rested well with people like Stovall, who want or need to pull the trigger on home-improvement projects.
Recently, Stovall, with the new ordinance in place, tried to replace a dilapidated colonial-style front door with something that would reflect the mid-century modern flair of his home's pricey interior. Stovall followed the rules and submitted his Photoshop-aided mock designs to the city's Planning and Development Department.
However, Thomas McWhorter, a City of Houston senior planner, denied Stovall's request because the proposed improvement, "while appropriate to the mid-century modern homes in the neighborhood, is not appropriate for your particular house," writes McWhorter in an e-mail obtained by the Press. Following six weeks of back-and-forth that included Stovall and Dodds taking vacation time to make their cases at various city offices, they were finally granted, after ponying up $300, a permit to change the front door.
Stovall's run-in with the extra bureaucracy illustrates another sticking point that he and the Ablazas say should be revisited: The number of Glenbrook Valley's mid-century modern homes versus ranch-style dwellings.
According to the neighborhood's historic-district application, only 7 percent of the homes are classified as mid-century modern. The remainder are "just plain ol' ranch homes," says Stovall. "There are thousands of them across the city." Searcy, on the other hand, feels that mid-century or not, the entirety of Glenbrook Valley needs to be landmarked. He adds that many misconceptions about historical preservation exist, and that the Ablazas are the reason.
As neighborhood relations continue to deteriorate, accusations of retaliatory tactics have increased. Stovall, who wanted his side of the debate represented in the Glenbrook Valley newsletter, was told that opposing views on certain topics are not published.
Around the same time, Joe Ablaza's human resource manager received an anonymous package. Inside was a DVD chronicling two instances in which Ablaza, who was managing a credit union at the time, spoke at City Council during work hours. Though Ablaza wasn't fired because he had requested the time off, he says, "It could have easily gone the other way."
Meanwhile, Searcy has been blamed for dumping dead animals and beer bottles into the yards of those who retracted their petition signatures. In response, Searcy, who's usually ready to take a lighthearted attitude about the conflict, says, "If you're going to implicate us, at least say it was a Pinot Grigio or Grey Goose bottle."
An incident that Searcy isn't so laid-back about occurred in March when community activist Mary Ramos added another uppercut to the donnybrook. The Heights-area realtor, claiming to be speaking on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told City Council that several dozen "very upset" Glenbrook Valley Hispanics showed up at a LULAC office because they felt like they were "coerced, forced [and] lied to into signing that petition." She also said that the Texas Attorney General had opened an inquiry into possible civil-rights abuses.
"This was the most damaging thing they did to us up to that point. I thought we were sunk...even though I knew it was totally out of left field," says Searcy, who years ago traded verbal jabs with his down-the-street neighbor T.C. Burton II over a Halloween tombstone that read "Devil's Crowd: Queers, Child Molesters, Lesbians, Drug Dealers, and Users." (Today, Burton displays two Confederate flags at his home that he's occupied since the 1970s.)
However, the Press could not find any evidence of these investigations. The Attorney General's office, responding to a public information request, was unable to locate any related documents. Additionally, the Press's multiple interview requests to several LULAC officials and Ramos fell on deaf ears.
Despite the bad blood, the two sides want a resolution one way or another because as more time passes, fed-up residents are more likely to hightail it out of the neighborhood.
"If I could sell my house for the same amount of money that I've put in," says Rebecca Dodds, "I would leave Glenbrook Valley tomorrow."
It's a rainy Tuesday afternoon in downtown Houston and two police officers force a group of 25 (some of whom don't want the designation, and others who want a City Council vote) from the front of City Hall to the street, where the shouts and sign-waving continue. Today marks the one-year point from the date that Glenbrook Valley handed in its application. The Ablazas, Stovall, Dodds and several residents of Heights South and Woodland Heights — two neighborhoods that submitted historic-district paperwork around the same time as Glenbrook Valley — have taken time off from work to make their voices heard.
A day following the outcry, according to an e-mail acquired by the Press, Houston Mayor Annise Parker sent a memo to City Council stating that the three pending districts would be placed on the June 29 agenda. Welsh, a member of the new historic-district ordinance task force, thinks that City Council should adopt the designation, but with a stipulation that would make Glenbrook Valley go through a reconsideration process.
"If you get a majority of the people who don't want it to be a historic district, then it shouldn't be a historic district," says Welsh. "I don't want to see that happen, but I'd be damned if I'd be in favor of not giving someone a shot at making their argument."
No matter how the vote turns out, some simply want their lives back. One of those people is Dolores, a 20-year resident of Glenbrook Valley who agreed to speak on the record as long as we didn't print her full name.
The Ablazas recruited Dolores, an older African-American woman, to inform the neighborhood about retraction efforts. Out by herself one weekend afternoon, she rang the bell of a neighbor's house. Somebody she didn't know answered the door.
"[The neighbor's] friend or somebody started yelling and screaming, 'There's an old crazy woman messing everything up!' He then went out and took out the flyers that I had put up." Dolores later attempted to file a police report, only to be told that the matter was trivial. "I've been afraid since that time," she says.
Shortly after the encounter, Dolores received several white-noise phone calls from an unrecognizable number on her caller ID. The calls stopped after she threatened, to the dead air, that she was going to inform the police. (The Press rang the number. It's disconnected.)
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Joe Ablaza admits that he feels bad for Dolores because he recruited her to volunteer. However, even though the neighborhood barely resembles the one that he moved to 11 years ago, he says his efforts will help save Glenbrook Valley. "We're not going to give up. We're going to keep going until we get a vote."
"I don't think they're going to win. I've dealt with bullies before [and] the only way you deal with them is to stand up to them," says Searcy, who also feels like he's doing something good for Glenbrook Valley.
At least the two can agree on something.