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Real Estate / Houses

More Historic Houston Buildings Face Teardown Danger With Funding Low

Critical Heritage Society Struggles With Budget Crisis and Maintenance Needs of Irreplaceable Sam Houston Park History Oasis

BY // 01.25.19

The near 100-year-old former Houston Press building at 1621 Milam was an important piece of Houston’s history — and as of last October, it’s history. The Heritage Society, Space City preservationists and a number of concerned citizens couldn’t save it from the bulldozer, despite their best efforts.

It’s a new year, but not much has changed. The future of even more historic structures hangs in the balance. The Heritage Society is suffering from a lack of funds, and there’s a threat of the demolition of even more beloved buildings.

While the City of Houston owns the land of Sam Houston Park — and the eclectic assortment of age-old structures there that symbolize Houston’s architectural and cultural evolution — The Heritage Society is responsible for maintaining the 10 buildings, per the lease agreement. So far, the attempts to renegotiate the maintenance contract have been fruitless.

The average cost of taking care of the homes ranges from $300,000 to $350,000 annually — against a $1 million annual operating budget. Between mid-2o12 and mid-2017, The Heritage Society spent more than $550,000 on preserving and maintaining the structures.

Now, that may just be untenable.

“The Heritage Society represents a kind of all-encompassing view of the history of Houston because we have all of these different eras of Houston’s history in Sam Houston Park. We can comprehensively tell the story of Houston’s history,” the nonprofit’s board vice president Minnette Boesel tells PaperCity. “Each of these buildings has a story to tell.”

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But preserving that narrative comes at a price. “That, as you might imagine, is quite an expense. Right now, it’s incumbent upon us in our lease agreement, but we are not able to meet the obligations presently with the financial conditions that we are under,” Boesel says.

The organization’s tense financial situation has resulted in the letting go of all 15 full-time staff members with plans to bring them back on February 1 on a contract basis. Sam Houston Park hours are expected to stay the same, morning through evening.

Sam Houston Park is The Heritage Society’s very identity. The collection of stunning structures now houses more than 23,000 artifacts.

The Park of History

The Heritage Society was founded by passionate citizens in 1954 to save the 1847 Kellum-Noble House from demolition. The Heritage Society completed Phase 1 of the Kellum-Noble House’s $2 million renovation not long ago.

After preserving the remarkable house, the oldest Houston building in its original spot, the society began protecting and moving nine other historic structures to what is now known as Sam Houston Park, like a cottage built in 1868 by German and Swiss immigrants, a rustic cedar cabin that dates back to roughly 1823 and an Evangelical church from 1891.

“All of those buildings would have been demolished if they had been left where they were,” preservationist Phoebe Tudor says. “The fact that they were able to save them and create this really interesting little park where people can educate themselves on what Houston buildings used to look like all in one place is really amazing.”

“They’re a treasure. They are Houston’s only real link that we have to some of the most important Houstonians that changed and shaped our world, our city,” says Houston historian R.W. McKinney, who serves on the advisory board of The Heritage Society and gives Houston history tours as Mr. McKinney with the Houston History Bus.

sam houston park pillot house
The 1868 Pillot House was built for a French immigrant who moved from New York City to the Republic of Texas in 1837.

It’s true. The homes and structures symbolize the life and times of many notable Houstonians, from Freedman and Reverend John Henry Yates to Captain James A. Baker, William Marsh Rice, founder of Rice University, and later Emma Richardson Cherry, who was one of the creators of the MFAH.

“Even if there wasn’t the connection to important Houstonians, it’s still just the fact that you’ve got this time capsule. I think it’s so valuable. People don’t realize this is a Houston problem. We all need to come together to find a solution,” McKinney says.

McKinney argues that the blame does not fall on The Heritage Society, which faces many financial hurdles, or the City of Houston, which has its own share of budget woes, from the looming issue of firefighter salaries to Hurricane Harvey and everything in between.

“The situation has nothing to do with bad management or mismanagement. The situation that The Heritage Society is in financially could be a problem anyone could have,” McKinney says.

Saving History in New Ways

The Heritage Society has been in talks with Houston First. Unfortunately, the nonprofit has not been able to contribute due to its own financial woes in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — to the tune of $170 million.

However, last summer Houston First submitted a plan for the park suggesting more activities and programs and more partnerships.

Moving forward, preservationists are coming up with a bevy of innovative ideas to craft a solution that will keep Sam Houston Park’s rich history safe.

“Going forward, we’re hoping to make a task force that would be put together with city representatives, representatives from Houston First, representatives from The Heritage Society and other organizations to craft a futures plan with several scenarios,” Boesel says.

But she wants to make one thing clear: while the coming year is murky, she believes Sam Houston Park is safe. “I don’t see the homes going away,” Boesel says.

“We need to prioritize our history. It’s always a bit of a fight,” Tudor says.

sam houston park yates house
Reverend John Henry Yates built the Yates House in 1870.

Tudor envisions potential collaborations like those seen across the country, a marriage of historic homes and structures with commercial ventures such as bars and cafes. It’s in line with board president Jim Furor’s interest in potentially making the park mixed-use.

“Something that could potentially liven it up. I don’t think we always have to keep historic buildings packed in mothballs,” Tudor says. “I think there are ways to make them more relevant and more lively, and just attract more people to come down there and see what an interesting bunch of buildings it is.”

More people is key. According to McKinney, only about 15,000 people visited Sam Houston Park between 2016 and 2017— a virtual handful, when you consider Houston’s 6.49 million population.

The Heritage Society could consider aligning itself with relevant nonprofits, Tudor adds. “It’s right by the Buffalo Bayou Trails. And it is a park, after all. Maybe we need to collaborate more with the parks board, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, other organizations like that,” she says.

For McKinney, collaboration is a matter of awareness and personal investment.  “There are definitely wonderful organizations out there, if you can find a way to connect the dots. My strategy would be to divide and conquer this process,” he says.

The dots are easy to connect — if you’re a historian, that is. The Kellum-Noble house has a connection to the parks department and the Houston Zoo. The Jack Yates’ home’s history could appeal to the graduates of alumni of Jack Yates High School, McKinney notes.

For the Nichols-Rice-Cherry House, it’s Rice alumni and MFAH benefactors.

“And Emma Richardson Cherry has a connection to the Cherryhurst neighborhood. The subdivision was plotted by her and her husband. You can find ways to connect these dots,” McKinney says. And George Meyer, who founded Meyerland, resided in the San Felipe Cottage.

“Organizations can individually adopt a house. They can each individually look at operations budgets for the home,” McKinney says. “If they don’t get involved, that part of their legacy will be gone.”

It’s not just their own legacy at stake. It’s Houston’s legacy, which could all too easily be lost before younger generations have the chance to learn about it.

“What we stand to lose if we lose these homes — we lose a teaching tool for kids,” McKinney says.

For example, The Staiti House was impressive in its time, built in 1905 with the earth-shattering new concept of electrical wiring.

“We tell the story to the children with children’s programs there. One structure from the 1820s is a very touchable structure, a log cabin in style that children can go in and learn how people of that time lived,” Boesel says of the Old Place structure.

The museum gallery also boasts rotating exhibitions on various topics and other programs for adults and members.

Festivals and other events organized by the city that are held at Sam Houston Park do not provide The Heritage Society with any compensation. The idea of charging a fee for the programming, especially considering the typical operations of the society are often halted during these times, has been proposed with no progress.

There’s another sad truth that Houstonians should acknowledge — even more historic places could be imperiled.

“I think we need to get a better handle on what certain buildings we do still have,” Tudor says. “I believe the City Planning Department and Archaeological Historical Commission are contemplating a survey to really try to identify what buildings are here and which ones may need protection if we’re not going to see more of them fall to the wrecking ball.”

Preservationists desperately need that foresight to spread beyond just a few voices championing the past.

“It’s the kind of thing that can happen quickly, without much notice. Then all of a sudden people are like ‘Why don’t we have more historic buildings?’ ” Tudor says. “Unless people are paying attention or raising the issue, we’re going to lose more.

“Right now, the Kirby Mansion is under threat of demolition.”

If last year’s history repeats itself, Houston’s very history could be at stake.

Home, chic home.

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