City Condemns My Beloved Building

HOUSTON – (By Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report) – Last week, as Good Friday was being remembered, I learned the building that I love the most was being shut down by the City of Houston.

Located on Montrose Boulevard, the beautiful Italian Romanesque structure was designed by Houston architect William Ward Watkin, who designed the original Museum of Fine Arts Houston, a number of buildings at Rice University and numerous other local landmarks. Watkin was a thought-leader in church architecture in the mid-1900s.

Originally a church, the Montrose edifice was renovated and became the Freed-Montrose Library public library in 1988.

Under municipal management, the Montrose library building has been deteriorating and deferred maintenance issues have been mounting, according to the Houston Landing publication.

So last week, the city announced the Montrose library would close because of “ongoing safety and facility issues that cannot be resolved in a timely manner.” Then Mayor John Whitmire announced Houston Public Library Director Rhea Lawson was being replaced.

The fate of this William Ward Watkin masterpiece structure in Houston’s Inner Loop is uncertain.

Why do I love this building so much?  I’m writing this on Easter Sunday. So I will go to full disclosure mode.

Opening in 1946, the building was originally Central Church of Christ. I was baptized there as a boy. As a pre-schooler, it’s where I sang “Jesus Loves Me.”

I received a great deal of foundational religion instruction in that church building. I learned first-hand about the woes of poor children in east Montrose where alcoholism or incarceration destroyed families and left little ones in need of shelter.

This Montrose building is sacred to me, not that I’m special. It happens at all houses of worship where people experience weddings, funerals, baptisms and the occasional spiritual connection to something they consider to be holy.

Even though an MAI real estate appraiser can’t quantify it, we should not ignore the emotional values that humans hold for sacred places. Across the nation, there are some 100,000 “emptying houses of worship” that are obsolete now or appear to be heading toward transitioning to other uses in a few years, according to a recent report in Urban Land magazine. It will be a painful experience for many congregants who see their church become a redevelopment opportunity.

The Central Church of Christ opened in 1946 near the corner of Montrose Boulevard at Richmond Avenue. The church’s sanctuary became a public library 40 years later. Last week, the city announced the Montrose library would close because of “ongoing safety and facility issues that cannot be resolved in a timely manner.”

The Fate the Former Home of Freed-Montrose Library and Central Church of Christ

In recent years, a plan has been slowly progressing to build a new replacement library near the corner of Montrose Boulevard and Westheimer Road in the Montrose Collective mixed-use center developed by Radom Capital. In 2021, the Houston City Council voted to spend $4.6 million to create the new library.

Developer Steve Radom says the library location in the  Montrose Collective was turned over to the city in 2022, but work has not yet started, the Houston Landing reports.

Perhaps the city could change the plan and spend a  million or two to restore the Freed-Montrose Library building instead of plowing ahead at Montrose Collective.

But it appears the nearby University of St. Thomas wants to take over the Freed-Montrose library property and assimilate it into the university’s Montrose area campus which covers more than 30 acres north of Richmond Avenue, according to U.S. News  & World Report.

The City of Houston’s maintenance of the Freed-Montrose public library has been criticized. Photo credit: Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report, copyright 2024.

A university affiliate, UST Realty Company, already owns the retail strip center attached to the Freed-Montrose library, public records say. The Black Labrador pub was located there in the former church fellowship hall. The Black Lab closed in 2019 after pouring pints there for 30 years and then the university converted it into a place for students.

But St. Thomas has a desire to acquire the Montrose library property, taking it out of the public realm.

Last November, the university suggested a $1.25 million offer to acquire the Freed-Montrose Library from the city, according to a letter obtained by Houston Landing journalist Maggie Gordon, who has unearthed an impressive load of facts on the Montrose library situation.

When the late Houston developer John Hansen donated the church sanctuary to the city in 1986, a clause was inserted into the gift deed claiming that if the church property is not used as a library for more than 30 consecutive days, the clause could be enforced to transfer ownership of the library building from the city to the University of St. Thomas, Gordon reports.

The taxpayers and citizens of Houston would be better served if the Freed-Montrose Library stays under city ownership, available for use by the general public, not just St. Thomas students and faculty.

If the clause truly means the space needs to remain a library without a 30-day interruption before St. Thomas assumes ownership, then the clock is ticking. Will the city let ownership of the property transfer to St. Thomas without a whimper?

The great architect William Ward Watkin would be pleased to know people would fight to preserve public access to a building he designed.

Watkin had a real talent for designing libraries. He designed the Houston Public Library, which opened  in downtown in 1926. It’s been renamed the Julia Ideson Building, and it’s the most magnificent library I’ve ever visited.

If by some odd chance, the city does retain and restore the Freed-Montrose Library, nee Central Church of Christ, I’d like to suggest two books be added to the shelves there. They are both architecture books by the great Watkin: The Church of Tomorrow (1936) and  Planning and Building the Modern Church. (1951)

Commentary by Ralph Bivins, founding editor, Realty News Report.


April 1, 2024 Realty News Report Copyright 2024

Photos By Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report Copyright 2024

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File: City Condemns My Beloved Building Montrose University of St.Thomas

 

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