July 11, 2005
There goes another neighborhood

Stories like this really depress me.

Yes, the house's new owner, Barry Norman, told the city commission, he knew he was buying property in a historic neighborhood, the Old Sixth Ward. But he had no intention of keeping the little Queen Anne cottage that stood at 1814 Lubbock since 1885. In fact, he was applying for permission to tear it down.

On the lot, Norman and his wife, Maria Isabel, proposed to build an aggressively modern house out of concrete block, metal and Hardiplank siding. Isabel, an architectural designer, had drawn up the plans herself.

With its tallest point (a meditation tower) at 49 feet 9 inches, the new house would loom over its one-story neighbors, blocking their views of nearby downtown. Though the neighbors' porches hug the sidewalk -- the old-fashioned setback is only 10 feet -- the new house would hang back 17 feet and more, creating an unsettling gap. And to the pretty street, the house would present a blank face: a wooden fence and the door to a garage big enough to accommodate five cars and the couple's RV.

Isabel and Norman's dream house would be, to say the least, very different from the dilapidated 1885 cottage currently on the lot. That cottage was built by Urbain Valentine, a son of Peter Valentine, the Houston valet of university founder William Marsh Rice (and no, not the one who famously murdered Rice in New York). When Rice retired to New York, he left his elderly Houston valet a large sum in appreciation for years of service. Peter Valentine died soon after, and his widow divided the money among their six children. Urbain Valentine used his share to set up housekeeping in what was then a middle-class neighborhood.


The neighborhood's last line of defense against the Norman house was the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, which rules on the appropriateness of permit-requiring alterations to officially recognized historic properties. At its June 3 meeting, Thomas McWhorter of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance noted that though Norman's proposed house might be appropriate in many Houston neighborhoods, it would wreak havoc on the Sixth Ward. McWhorter pointed out that the city recognizes only seven historic districts, some as small as a single cul-de-sac. Taken together, they make up far less than 1 percent of the city's land. Norman's dream house would fit much better almost anywhere in that other 99 percent, he noted. Why not go there?

Lynn Edmundson of Historic Houston also railed against Norman's plan. Randy Pace, the city's preservation officer, judged that Norman's request to demolish the Valentine house was inappropriate in every category the commission considers. All seven members voted to deny the request.

The board deployed what its legal counsel advised was the strongest weapon in its arsenal: a 90-day delay for Norman's demolition permit. "If somebody is determined to be an obnoxious neighbor," explained chair Texas Anderson, "there is precious little we can do."

On Sept. 2, Norman and Isabel will be free to raze the house. "I want to get the neighborhood cleaned up," says Isabel, who likes the Old Sixth Ward for its proximity to downtown, Memorial Park and Buffalo Bayou. "Right now that lot is full of bums. People come and put trash there. Cleaning it up -- that's my thing. The historical movement, it's not my bag."

I really don't understand the mindset - the values, if you will - of someone who'd want to buy into a unique historical neighborhood for the purpose of radically altering its character like that. There's lots of places close to downtown where you can build a dreamhouse without first destroying an existing house that is integral to the look and feel of the neighborhood. Hell, why would you want to ensure that all your neighbors hate you from the day you move in? It just doesn't make sense to me.

Anderson doubts that Norman and Isabel's new house will turn out to be a good investment: "We've seen developers try that, building big, new-looking things in old neighborhoods. People don't want to buy those. They look wrong."

Yes, well, I'm sure whoever winds up buying their castle-to-be sometime down the line can always bulldoze it and start over. It would be the fitting thing to do.

By the way, I highly recommend you read this companion piece on Historic Houston, whose salvage warehouse on Houston AvenueWest Clay is one of the coolest places in town, at least if you're looking for architectural antiques. They've got an online auction coming up this Friday as a fundraiser. It's a great cause, so check it out.

UPDATE: Gah. I saw in the story on Historic Houston that their warehouse was now on West Clay. I used to live on a side street just off West Clay. And yet I put them back on Houston Avenue. Silly me. Thanks, Tiffany!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 11, 2005 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I think the folks in the Old Sixth Ward should thank Norman and his wife for their contribution to the community.

The probable outcome is that the intruders are creating a white elephant which will likely fail the test of time and, in Shakespeare's 'fulness of time', provide some nice green space for the area sometime in the future.

Posted by: stumpy on July 11, 2005 3:23 PM

I share your depression. There's an appropriate balance between preserving the past and neighborhood character, and encouraging new uses of city space. Houston unfortunately falls so far to one end of the spectrum that I think it's in danger of losing some really wonderful neighborhoods and buildings (which, sadly, many longtime residents are not even aware of).

I lived in a place that was extreme in the opposite way (Boston) and while that approach certainly has its share of problems, and can be quite stifling, take a look at where Boston ranks in terms of appreciation of real estate values and desirability as a place to live (in the perceptions of the rest of the country) and you need to wonder what part its aggressive protection of its past, its neighborhoods, and its architecture played in that. Places that made the 6th Ward look like paradise when I lived there are now safe, clean, pleasant neighborhoods.

Convenience and history are about all the 6th Ward has going for it; it's close to a lot of industrial stuff and is always going to be a little to edgy for many people, in my opinion. Trying to build something like the Normans are planning just destroys one of the neighborhood's unique features.

And if you can do that in a historic district, what is the point of having historic districts?

Posted by: John on July 11, 2005 6:02 PM

Small correction- the Historic Houston warehouse hasn't been on Houston Avenue for some time. They are now somewhere around West Clay, near the printing museum, I think.

Posted by: Tiffany on July 12, 2005 7:43 AM

You really have to wonder what is in their minds to want to do this. I can understand not appreciating old houses and especially not wanting to tackle the remodelling of one. But why would you want to live in the middle of a group of people who all dislike you for ruining their vision of their neighborhood?

Posted by: bill on July 12, 2005 8:57 AM

This sounds like a European complaint. I went to Europe once and everything there is old. I won't be going back, of that I can assure you. Who wants to see a bunch of old stuff? It's all just a bunch of hand-me-downs like you get at Goodwill. I like it here in America where we get new stuff all the time. That's success! New car, new clothes, new house - heck, whole new body! And when it's out of style, you can just get rid of the old and replace it with something new and trendier. It's quintessentially American, that. Why do you hate America?

Posted by: Frank on July 12, 2005 9:39 AM


Mr. Bob Carlquist
Executive VP & General Manager
The Houston Chronicle
801 Texas Avenue
Houston TX 77002

re: Zest story “ There goes the neighborhood”

Lisa Grey printed a story that reads like an editorial with attacks to our character, both personal and professional. Without fully researching sources and facts, Lisa peppered the story with sensationalism including such statements as “monstrosity”, “McMansion on steroids“, “aggressively modern”, “defeating the principles of good architecture“, and even a quote by Texas Anderson suggesting us as an “obnoxious neighbor“.

According to British Historian Sir Banister Fletcher, the style known as “Queen Ann” merged with the Gothic in England in the 1860’s. It was characterized by segmentally pedimented windows, dormers, handsome brickwork, and imposingly grouped chimneys. Terra-cotta decorative details and Dutch gables were also part of the Queen Anne idiom, which became the hallmark of the London Board Schools designed in the 1870’s. This “little Queen Ann cottage” built in 1885 was originally a modest two room home, built by the working class of it’s time, and does not contain any of those details typical of the Queen Anne style.

Over the course of history the footprint of this little house was extended to accommodate needs and requirements. These additions were made with no attention to a particular architectural style, and using lowest cost construction techniques and materials. One major addition includes a tin roof and shingle style siding. The last time this house was worked on it was created into a duplex for leasing purpose. Professional experts found very little historic architectural interest or value. In fact the house has six different floor materials and multiple floor levels, five types of base, five styles of windows, and six different door configurations. This little house has not been properly maintained over an extended period, with roof leaks leading to ceiling collapse, structural and floor deterioration. The house has been abandoned for years during which time it has been used as a refuge for vagrants and as a dump. This careless treatment has led to the extensively damaged condition in which it’s found today.

In regards to the statement "he knew he was buying property in a historic neighborhood, but he had no intentions of keeping the little Queen Anne Cottage"; when we contacted Karpas Properties, Wendy the agent handling the account for the Taylor’s, informed us that the property was not available for inspection due to the hazards of structural failure. Our closing documents confirm this noting that "This property is being sold for lot value only". We purchased the property from outside the fence. Recently we found that the Taylor’s decided to sell the property because they could not afford to renovate the little house, and the commission would not approve demolition.

After the closing we launched a tremendous investigation effort to discover the actual historical value, the materials and architectural details, and the condition of the building. We met with historic commission members and associates, including JD, Bart, and Lynn to assess and discuss the possibilities for refurbishing, and or relocation. We met with four local builders, including Doug Smith who has a column in your paper, and two craftsman to establish renovation costs. From Oct 9th, 2004 till March 11, 2005 we continued our research. We found that the actual cost to meet city code, and refurbish the home, in addition to the lot investment, would set the property outside market value. Due to Lisa’s lack of research and knowledge about our case and our efforts to save the little house, she failed to post in the article that we are offering a $5,600 incentive to help with the moving expenses.

In the story, it is erroneously stated that (he) “in fact was applying for permission to tear it down“, when in fact the original application form to the planning committee on March 11, 2005 was to “relocate”.

Regarding "aggressively modern", the materials were carefully chosen to mirror elements existing in the neighborhood. Our intentions as stated in the application to the planning committee were to encompass inspired modern style concepts, developed during the Victorian period from the 1860’s through the 1920’s by Norman Shaw, Mackintosh, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The dimensions of the proposed structure are incorrectly stated. The actual height of the proposed two level home is 29’, in scale with similar two level Victorian “like” houses in the area. On the southeast corner of the building we created a small 14-foot square exterior space, a Widows Walk, which rises above the main house to a total height of 37’, not 49’9”.

Preservation of the 30 year old Palm and other trees in the front of the property are the source for “the setback” of this plan. Alternating the placement of houses in consecutive lots on any given residential street allows the side windows of the homes to gaze at the neighbor’s garden landscape, a clever “architectural principle” used in urban communities where properties are often close in proximity. Concerning the adjacent neighbors, Maria on the west side has become a friend, she is excited that we are building a home for our family and chasing the bums away, eliminating the dump site that now exists, cleaning up the standing water that harbors pests and odor. She also expressed her concerns about the teenagers in the area using the abandoned house for unmentionable activities. The property on the east side is a parking lot for the business next door. Our back neighbor Mark, facing Kane Street, has a two level home with the typical gable roof, and in the rear of his property stands a two story dilapidated, rusty, dented, metal, non Victorian building he calls “the apartment“. By the way this apt is encroaching on our property by one foot. I also have established a relationship with Mary across the street. She is looking forward to “viewing” something nice from her front porch. A few weeks ago Maria and I were attending an Astros game, and she called to let us know that our gate was open and she suspected trouble. We have made it a point to know our neighbors and let them know our intentions.

The garage entrance is a typical two-car size and set back 17’ as per code. The size and design of the interior of the garage space is personal. Perhaps Lisa and the commission would prefer we keep the RV and other vehicles outside the fence on the driveway or street. The proposed driveway is made up of stone tiles, set on a sand bed, and framed with dwarf grass. We are also planning a garden outside the fence and around the culvert.

We would like to invite Lisa for a visit to the property at 1814 Lubbock, to look at our proposal for new construction, and to walk our street and meet the neighbors. We believe that if she were to do so she could see for herself that our proposed home is carefully designed, will be an asset to the neighborhood, and that the real “monstrosity” is the dilapidated homes in the sixth ward, some of which are owned by members of the HAHC and OSWHA.

Committed to the Revitalization of OSW,

Barry Norman and Maria Isabel
1518 Washington Ave, Apt H
Houston TX 77007

Posted by: maria on July 20, 2005 5:48 PM