Preserving Houston’s History
A long-established, wide-open attitude toward growth and everything new has helped make Houston, America’s only major unzoned city, prosperous and diverse, but has also trampled much of its architectural heritage. Neighborhoods trying to preserve their past have little success.
In August 2007, Houston’s Old Sixth Ward, a 33-acre neighborhood of 350 homes, including about 300 built between 1854 and 1935, toppled Goliath. It became the first — and only — Houston locality to get a Protected Historic Neighborhood designation with the teeth to actually prevent old homes from being indiscriminately destroyed. (In 1978, Sixth Ward was the first Houston neighborhood to make the National Register of Historic Places). Once the controversial effort actually had a chance of passing, it was covered by the media as a significant city milestone.
Saving Sixth Ward
Sixth Ward was founded in 1876, the last of the city’s now defunct geo-political divisions. Though its location to the west and slightly north of town seemed remote in those days, it is now practically downtown. Residents drive to their offices in less than five minutes — no freeways involved — or walk to a ballet or concert in 15-30 minutes. Residents with front porches facing downtown are always popular around Christmas — when the skyline is gaily lit — or on the Fourth of July for the big fireworks show.
But buyers wanting condos and suburban-style mansions near town were beginning to tear down the area’s historic character.
“We had worked on getting official protection for 30 years,” says resident Larissa Lindsay, who was president of the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association when the designation finally passed City Council after a strong push from Mayor Bill White. Lindsay’s efforts included making YouTube videos of her Sixth Ward neighbors telling why they loved their old homes.
Rules of Restorations
Often an Old Sixth Ward property brings a big commitment: turning a run-down, outdated eyesore into a charming restored home. As shown on the neighborhood’s warts-and-all website, many have met the challenge. In the photos section, click on 'tear downs' to see some success stories.
Under historic protection, restorations must be done within rules that allow for expansion and updating, as long as they don’t change the exterior’s architectural character, which may be Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Classical Revival or Bungalow, depending on when built. Most of these one-story homes were about 1,500 square feet; modern buyers usually want to do extensive additions. “You want to do that so it flows together with a historic look,” Lindsay says, “which will save and increase your property values.”
But the commitment to preserving the area’s history and character has paid off in tangible ways. “Prices have gone up since we got the designation,” Lindsay says proudly. “People are not only able to buy a house in a great location, but get a piece of history.”