The famed Kirby Mansion could be the latest Houston historic treasure to bite the dust. Or meet the bulldozer. When it comes to this storied house, you can’t go home again.
The Tudor Revival house faces an uncertain — and seemingly dire — fate after a recent sale. The remarkable Kirby Mansion, a slice of 100-year-old history, has been sold to the owner of several car dealerships. It’s out with the old and in with the who knows?
The Tudor-Revival home and iconic Houston landmark at 2000 Main was officially signed over to Central Houston Auto Properties II LLC this month, and it’s looking like demolition could be in the cards. The red brick estate’s future isn’t set in stone, but Preservation Houston believes it’s in peril.
Will Central Houston Auto pave paradise and put up a parking lot?
The property, consisting of the mansion and two separate structures, is now valued at $3.9 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District. The 18,000-square-foot home sits on a 62,500-square-foot block near the Pierce Elevated, where I-45 splits Downtown from Midtown. The area is bounded by Brazos, Pierce, Smith and Gray.
Preservation Houston learned of potential threats to Kirby Mansion several months ago and sent out a warning email to its members. “Reliable sources indicate the historic house is under contract and that the new owner does not intend to retain the building,” the organization’s email reads.
A House With History
Originally constructed for Houston overachiever John Henry Kirby — or “a lawyer, lumberman and entrepreneur from East Texas who emerged at the turn of the 20th century as Houston’s first tycoon,” as Stephen Fox puts it in his AIA Houston Architectural Guide — the 36-room Kirby Mansion dates back to 1894.
“It’s connected to one of the most colorful figures in Houston business history. One of those larger than life figures,” Jim Parsons of Preservation Houston tells PaperCity.
The mansion’s value extends beyond its doors. The estate is a symbol of a bygone era of Space City.
“One of the important things to remember is that it’s one of the few surviving structures from the South End,” Parsons says. “That was the elite residential neighborhood in Houston from the late 1800s to shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
“It was to that period what River Oaks is to Houston today.”
Back in the day, mansions lined Main. Kirby Mansion fit right in, size and scale-wise.
“It makes the building like that all the more valuable when it’s one of the only survivors in the neighborhood,” Parsons adds.
Kirby Mansion transformed from its original Victorian theme when Kirby and his family first moved in back in 1897 to a more modern look through their expansions and additions in the 1920s. Architect J.S. Price built the original home, and James Ruskin Bailey was responsible for the updated design.
Kirby’s wife sold the home in 1947, seven years after his death. For the next three decades, Kirby Mansion led a philanthropic life as the site of the Houston-Harris County Red Cross.
Since the late 1970s, the landmark has been used as office space. Longtime owner attorney Phillip Azar worked out of the building. He sold the home to Central Houston Auto, which has connections to Nicpa Holdings, Ricardo Weitz, Central Houston Cadillac and Central Houston Nissan.
Central Houston Auto was far from the first interested buyer in recent years. Several of the groups were more keen on restoring Kirby Mansion than on razing it. John Deveau — who owns Sara’s Inn on the Boulevard, the bed and breakfast in The Heights — considered purchasing Kirby Mansion and revitalizing it as a boutique hotel.
“What we’re seeing in Houston is that it’s an evolving city,” Parsons says. “A lot of our in-town neighborhoods are getting more dense. We’re seeing a lot of development as we see that happen.
“One of the results of that is the loss of historic structures. To a lot of people, when they see a familiar landmark like Kirby Mansion in peril, it makes them feel like Houston is losing a little more of its character.”
It’s the same, old sad story. Is this Kirby Mansion’s fate?