Lessons From the Past: Q&A with Stephen Fox, Architectural Historian
HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Space City is known for wanting everything to be new. It is not known for saving its historical structures. But that seems to be changing with the preservation of the Astrodome after decades of debate. Why has the city torn down so many of what many consider architectural gems? Is that trend changing as developers decided to renovate rather than demolish and build? Realty News Report talked to Stephen Fox, architectural historian and a lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture and the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston. Fox is also the author of the AIA Houston Architectural Guide (2012) and has studied the city for decades.
Realty News Report: Why did Houston develop like it did?
Stephen Fox: Historically, Houston followed the same development patterns of other Southwestern and Texan cities. This has to do with the time it developed and the technology of the 19th and 20th centuries. First came the railroad, then the street car, and finally the automobile. By the mid-point of the 20th century, Houston experienced the development of metropolitan suburban sprawl.
Realty News Report: How would you describe the city’s skyline?
Stephen Fox: Houston’s downtown is architecturally impressive. What makes it distinctive are the classic, late modern buildings designed in the 1970s and early 1980s, before Postmodernism became the dominant style of corporate architecture. Downtown Houston buildings have aged well. They retain their sense of precision and elegance.
Realty News Report: With Exxon Mobil moving out, followed by Shell, is downtown Houston past its prime? Would companies rather be in a campus elsewhere, like Exxon Mobil?
Stephen Fox: No, I don’t think there is cause to worry about ExxonMobil and Shell moving from downtown. These corporations are more than 100 years old and are retiring to assisted living in the suburbs. What is not so clear is whether office space and office buildings are going to continue to conform to the tried-and-true patterns of 20th century. Since the 1990s, there’s been a lot of residential development downtown, reusing existing buildings in addition to constructing new ones.
Realty News Report: The Harris County Domed Stadium, which we call the Astrodome, opened in 1965 served Houston well for several decades before being replaced by Enron Field (for baseball) and the the new NFL NRG stadium next to the Dome. Why Is the Astrodome, which is being re-developed, so important to Houstonians?
Stephen Fox: The Astrodome is a historically significant work of engineering design. It was the first of its kind: an enclosed, air-conditioned sports arena. Houston identifies with the Astrodome. It is a site of collective memory. Judge Ed Emmett made it a priority to preserve and rehabilitate the Astrodome and that represents a tremendous change of consciousness: it means Houstonians recognize what a remarkable 20th century landmark they possess in the Astrodome and that it should be preserved, rehabilitated, and re-used.
Realty News Report: What’s the biggest tragedy in our historic preservation rap sheet? Is there a demolished building that makes you cringe when you hear about it?
Stephen Fox: For me, it wasn’t a building, but a historic district – actually two — the Freedmen’s Town Historic District and next to it the San Felipe Courts Historic District, better known as Allen Parkway Village. Houston’s Fourth Ward, where both are located, has undergone a lot of redevelopment since the mid 1990s, but there are still little pockets of historic housing stock that are left. Seventy percent of Allen Parkway Village was demolished and replaced with new housing because the powers-that-be wanted to get rid of this low-income community on the “good” side of downtown. They needed to make the public housing go away so that developers would come in and redevelop Fourth Ward on their own. The power structure of Houston in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s saw no cultural value whatsoever in preserving a low-income African American community or low-income public housing, even though when Allen Parkway Village was built it was published in the national architectural press as a site of architectural distinction.
Realty News Report: Houston did some things right, like the Medical Center. How did we get that right? How did Houston get the Medical Center?
Stephen Fox: William H. Kellar has written a very good book about that. The Texas Medical Center was the vision of Dr. E.W. Bertner, who was able to prevail on the trustees of the newly organized M.D. Anderson Foundation to fund his vision of a medical center. In the early 1940s, the foundation bought a quarter of Hermann Park, following a referendum in which fewer than a thousand people voted to sell park property to the foundation. It’s interesting to go back and read accounts of the arguments the Anderson Foundation trustees made about the value of a medical center. They didn’t articulate a philanthropic vision, but instead (and what now seems prophetic) described how health care could contribute significantly to diversifying Houston’s economy so that the city was not totally dependent on oil.
Realty News Report: What was the smartest thing Houston ever did, development-wise?
Stephen Fox: First: Three names: Arthur Comey, George Kessler, and Hare & Hare. They were two planners (Comey, Kessler) and a landscape architecture firm (Hare & Hare). In 1912, the newly organized Houston Park Commission hired Comey to prepare a park plan for Houston, published in 1913. A year later, the Park Commission hired Kessler — one of foremost city planners in the U.S. — to develop Comey’s recommendations. Kessler laid out Main Boulevard, Hermann Park, the Shadyside neighborhood, and other city parks. Then Hare & Hare took over these jobs after Kessler’s death in 1923. Hare & Hare designed the parkways along Buffalo Bayou (Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive) and Brays Bayou (North and South MacGregor Ways). Hare & Hare were the landscape architects of Memorial Park and the Houston Zoo. They did an enormous amount of work from the 1920s to the 1950s and left Houston with a substantial legacy of public space — most of it achieved between 1910-1940. Since the late 20th century there has been renewed commitment to replenishing what proved to be a tremendous legacy for Houston — although the city is many times larger now. Second: the city of Houston had the legal authority to annex surrounding territory and that made a big difference in Houston’s success. When I visited Detroit I was struck by the fact that Detroit is only 140 square miles in size vs. Houston, which is 600+ square miles. Houston has as much desolation as Detroit. If Detroit could take in adjoining territory like Houston did, it would be as prosperous as Houston. It makes you appreciate the long-term benefits of Houston’s ability to continue to expand out so that it is not just dependent on the core of city.