Threats to Houston’s Historic Buildings: Q&A with Minnette Boesel
HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – For years, Houstonians seemed not to care about the past – especially when it came to buildings. Companies and residents sought the new and real estate developers often replaced buildings with a colorful past with a new structure. That may be changing with the ‘saving’ of the Astrodome. Houston Realtor Minnette Boesel has been a leader in preservation for the city of Houston for decades. She not only tries to save historical edifices but also has co-developed and invested in historic properties in the Market Square Historic District Downtown and in the East End. Minnette Boesel Properties was the first modern-era residential real estate company to locate downtown back in 1996. Realty News Report decided to check in with Boesel to find out if Houstonians are becoming more comfortable with preserving parts of its historic past.
Realty News Report: Houston has not been good about saving its historic buildings and homes. Is that even going to change?
Minnette Boesel: It’s changed dramatically since I first arrived here in the 1980s. Back then, we couldn’t get a loan from a bank to do renovation. In 30 years’ time, attitudes have shifted. When we in partnership with other nonprofits and individuals first started out, almost all the buildings in the Market Square area were vacant. The city had no preservation ordinance, so we had to work hard to change that. We also had to clean up the environment downtown. Back then, just protecting building stock was our goal. The neighborhood was not the best; people were urinating in the streets, panhandling, buying drugs, and buying alcohol and dropping the glass bottles in streets. We contacted lots of social service agencies to help. We tried to pass ordinance to prohibit public consumption in the public right of way. It took three years.
A couple of us bought the W. L. Foley Dry Goods Building, which was a built in 1889 and suffered a fire 100 years later. It is in the 200 block of Travis Street. We pooled our money – as no bank would give us a loan – and the owner financed the rest. We wanted to restore the Foley Dry Goods Building to serve as an example of what could be done with historic properties. At that time, things were starting to jell downtown. Randall Davis had just finished the Hogg Palace Lofts and began renovation of the 20-year vacant Rice Hotel. Mayor Bob Lanier got behind the Rice Hotel and the historic preservation movement, too.
Realty News Report: The city has played a significant role in preservation?
Minnette Boesel: The city created a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) which is a special zone to attract new investment in an area. TIRZs help finance costs of redevelopment and encourage development in areas that would otherwise not attract sufficient investment. Taxes attributable to new improvements (tax increments) are set aside to finance public improvements within the zone. Today there are over 25 TIRZs in the city. The TIRZ area has been expanded to include almost all of downtown and either side of Buffalo Bayou Park to Shepherd Drive. The TIRZ and its companion Downtown Redevelopment Authority started a facade grant program for historic buildings, mostly along the Main Street core, to make them financially feasible.
Realty News Report: There’s been a change in attitudes.
Minnette Boesel: When I arrived in 1982, Houston was a business center and in downtown, there wasn’t much thought about quality of life projects – preservation was not prevalent in people’s minds back then. When the economic downturn came in the mid to late 1980s, it got people’s attention. Then, Houston Proud started and as a result, the city got a lot of volunteers who were trying to do good work in varying parts of the city. Trees for Houston and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership were formed in the 1980s. Organizations added value and investment in the city, raising money, and volunteering time and talent to help plan for the future. Hermann Park had deteriorated substantially. Friends of Hermann Park, now the Hermann Park Conservancy, hired an internationally known landscape architect to develop a master plan for renovation and conservation. In the last 30 years of our city’s history we have witnessed an amazing cycle and evolution from that of primarily business oriented to a major destination that has an incredible quality of life, amenities and cultural attributes. It took years to pull the city together to where it is today, with all the parks, green space and cultural amenities and including our amazing food scene.
Realty News Report: The Astrodome – how was it saved?
Minnette Boesel: The Astrodome is a symbol to the world of Houston’s bravado and can-do spirit. It was the first of its kind and how lucky are we to have it in Houston — and that it still exists. Most cities that build new stadiums tear the old ones down. Fortunately, that didn’t happen here. People who don’t know much about Houston know the Astrodome. The Astrodome and the Alamo are the two most well-known Texas architectural landmarks that people seem to know about. The Astrodome is a world renowned architectural and engineering marvel.
I give so much credit to Judge (Ed) Emmett, who has been a steadfast supporter of the Astrodome’s reuse. It is another county asset that we need to keep up and maintain. He saw the importance and value of saving the Astrodome. Several people nominated the Astrodome to be included in National Register of Historic Places, and as a State Archeological Landmark which pretty much means any renovation plans must go through a review process. Thanks to the leadership of Chair Phoebe Tudor, the Astrodome Conservancy was formed. In partnership With the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, the Conservancy had an open house at the Astrodome in April for Houstonians. We had 25,000 tickets that went online at 10 am and by 11:45 am, the 25,000 tickets were gone. We couldn’t believe it. People were still streaming through the Astrodome at 10:30 at night, which just shows how much people care about the Astrodome.
Realty News Report: Saving the Dome – can that give more importance to the preservation movement? Or is just save the Dome and then it’s over?
Minnette Boesel: I think it will. It got people involved. It got their attention about the importance of preservation not only from the building side but from the many memories shared there.
Realty News Report: What is a Houston building that is in danger of the wrecking ball?
Minnette Boesel: A building in danger is the Kirby Mansion at 2000 Smith Street; one of Houston’s last historic “castle-like” homes. The building was actually built in the late 19th century and remodeled in the 1920s. The nearly 18,000 square foot building was constructed for John Henry Kirby, a lawyer, lumberman and entrepreneur from East Texas who was Houston’s first 20th century tycoon, according to Stephen Fox’s AIA Houston Architectural Guide. It is just south of the Pierce Elevated, the section of Interstate 45 that separates downtown from Midtown.
Realty News Report: What do you see for the future of Houston?
Minnette Boesel: We are the bright, shining star of American cities because of all the incredible work, foresight, and planning that people over the last 25 plus years have done. Look what we have created from the downturn of the 1980s. Houston worked incredibly hard to become a better city. We have an unbelievable restaurant scene; our parks are getting better thanks to the generosity of our citizens who are giving millions of dollars for park land and green space. We need to expand our preservation efforts. Under Houston’s Historic Preservation ordinance, we have 400 individually designated landmarks and protected landmarks. The city now has 22 city historic districts with over 6,600 historic properties. But we have more work to do. This only covers about 1.5 square miles of the city’s 650 plus square miles. We want to see significant older neighborhoods become historic districts to protect their history because it adds value and preserves ambiance and a neighborhood feel.