January 24, 2007
Preservation in River Oaks

The preservationist urge has come to River Oaks, whose stately old mansions are slowly being replaced by not-so-stately newer ones.

"This community is an historical area, with each of the homes having a history from the owners and residents who were the city's founding fathers, which we want to preserve," said Deborah Salvo, a member of the River Oaks Preservation Society whose home in the 2100 block of Brentwood was the third house in River Oaks to be classified as an historical landmark.

"The homes were built by nationally known architects and craftsmen for Houston's business, professional, political and social leaders that provided the city with much of its civic, cultural, philanthropic and social direction, as well as leaving legacies in Houston and Texas' history."

Yet, Salvo said every time a For Sale sign goes up, neighbors wonder if the new owners will tear the home down or preserve it.

"That is why we are asking homeowners in the area to file for the historical landmark status, so the homes will not be torn down. Each time a home is torn down, it is like tearing a page out of the history book, which we do not want to see happen," Salvo said.

Salvo said almost one-third of the homes in River Oaks have been demolished, which diminishes the neighborhood as a whole. And with each For Sale sign, the threat of losing another home is possible.

Just don't depend too much on the prevailing lot size ordinance to aid this effort. Okay, that's not likely to be an issue there, but the point I'm making is that those who want to tear things down and build cookie-cutter developments seem to see the laws that we have as obstacles to be overcome, not barriers to keep them at bay. Be vigilant, that's all I'm saying.

Said Jill Jewett, Mayor Bill White's assistant on Cultural Affairs, "We have spent so much time tearing down buildings and building new that we are now celebrating our past and where we came from. We also realize preserving our past adds to the quality of life, which is a mark of a mature city. Some of the reasons people want to stay in a place are good green spaces, culture and history. Part of that history are the homes in River Oaks, which have a great story to tell."

This statement struck a chord with me. I think it's part of my motivation for obsessively taking pictures of things like the Robinson Warehouse and Stables Restaurant, before and during their demolitions. It's not that I found either of these things to have been particularly beautiful or worthy of celebration, but it is a recognition that they're unique, and once they're gone there'll never be anything like them again. Whether they were worth keeping or not isn't necessarily the point, though in many cases it's vitally important. It's just a recognition that even in a change for the better, something is being lost. For whatever the reason, I feel a need to record some of that while it can still be done.

Jewett said there are two types of historical designations: Landmark and Protected Landmark.

"A protected landmark cannot be torn down, whereas a landmark can only be demolished with the approval of the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission appointed by the mayor," Jewett said.

To qualify for historical landmark status, the site or structure must be more than 50 years old; must be identified with a person or group that contributed significantly to the city's cultural or historical development; and must possess distinctive characteristics of architecture, building type, construction period, or method that is representative of an area.

According to the city's Web site, the benefits of a historic designated home include city property tax exemptions, special recognition for the property and a move to maintain neighborhood character.

The property tax exemption from a landmark-designated property is transferable to a new owner.

This sort of thing has come up in the matter of the River Oaks Theater and Alabama Bookstop as well. There's a time and place for tax incentives, and using them to better express the historic value of a property that would otherwise be fated for the bulldozer is one of them.

Thanks to Houstonist for the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 24, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

Don't put that camera away yet. Here's another place with some history that's going down...the Allen House apartments.


There's nothing too special about them architecturally, and they're not very old, but that place is home to a lot of memories for people like me that lived inside 610 during the last 20-30 years.

Lots of people I know, including my wife, lived there at some point. Some friends of mine had their groom's dinner in the apartment 'clubhouse'. So, like you say, it will feel like we've lost something when that place comes down.

Posted by: kh on January 24, 2007 11:41 AM