August 14, 2007
History everywhere you look

I confess, when I first heard about the county bond proposal for the November ballot, which would include money for improvements and additions to the criminal justice center downtown, it didn't occur to me that there might be a preservation issue buried within. But apparently, there is one.

Architectural historians and preservationists have begun questioning [Commissioners Court]'s decisions. They say the Family Law Center is a distinguished example of a late 1960s modernist style and the District Attorneys Building is notable for its art deco, mid-1930s style.

"Why can't the county deal with more pressing issues than the destruction of its past?"said Michelangelo Sabatino, a University of Houston assistant professor of architecture and an architectural historian. "I've never lived in as cannibalistic a city as Houston. I used to live in Boston, and I didn't see any older buildings torn down while I was there."

The razing of the Family Law Center and District Attorneys Building, which is mostly unused, isn't imminent.

County plans call for building an $85 million family courthouse, razing the two buildings and possibly creating a park or plaza in the block bound by Congress, San Jacinto, Franklin and Fannin.


Open space would be created, but at the cost of two buildings worth saving, said David Bush, spokesman for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.
"Oh, God, here we go again," he said. "You can't let your guard down for a minute with historic buildings in this city. You can't assume any are safe."

The Family Law Center won a design award from the Texas Society of Architects after it opened in 1969. Architects came from the firm of Wilson Morris Crain and Anderson.

The seven-story building is notable for its airy main floor that features floor-to-ceiling glass and sun screens -- recessed windows that can prevent the sun from shining directly into a room.

"It is the most distinguished work of architecture in the county complex," said Stephen Fox, an architectural historian and lecturer in Rice University's architecture department.

The Family Law Center was built in the style of American modern architecture of the 1960s. Though the style became unfashionable in the 1980s, some architects now view it more favorably, Fox said.

Work began on the 10-story, L-shaped District Attorneys Building in 1935, and it opened in 1938, Fox said.


The views of the university architectural historians and the county's elected officials so differ toward the Family Law Center that a classic aesthetes-versus-Philistines battle could be shaping up.

Sabatino, a member of Houston Mod, a nonprofit group that works to preserve modernist buildings in Houston, said, "It's very scary the way the county does things without consulting experts."

[Commissioner Jerry] Eversole, however, maintains that "it's a terrible-looking building."

"I think it's not functional, and in my opinion, Harris County would be better off tearing down the Family Law Center and starting over," he said.

As I said, the issue of preservation never occurred to me here. I'm not sure how I feel about it now that it has been raised. I'm sure the county didn't give this consideration a whole lot of weight, but how much should they have done? Saying something is "the most distinguished work of architecture in the county complex" sounds impressive, unless everything else in the complex is completely undistinguished. Similarly, saying that the DA building is "a distinguished example of the architecture of its time" doesn't tell me how many other such examples there are, nor where this one falls in the spectrum of such buildings. Putting it another way, how big a loss is it if these buildings vanish, and how much of that is mitigated by what would replace them? I can make that judgment easily enough in the case of the River Oaks Shopping Center and its related facilities, but I don't feel I have enough to go on here. What do you think?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 14, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston