This presentation is part of the Texas Cultural Landscape Symposium, February 23-26, Waco, TX.

Head shot of presenter

Anna Mod

Anna Mod: Good morning still. I’m here to talk about something near and dear to my heart, and that is Houston. I grew up in Houston. It has been a very challenging city for me to understand and to love. And as I’ve worked professionally, understanding and I’m still learning about it. I hope I will impart on you why it is such a great city. It is now the fourth largest city in the country and one of the most diverse cities in the country. We started in 1836, the same year as Chicago and believe it or not, San Francisco. This is a copy of our original town plan. And the idea for the city was a great center of commerce at the confluence of two bayous. This is the larger Buffalo Bayou, and then the smaller White Oak. And it was chosen because this is where a shallow draft steamship could turn around, so goods could be offloaded. The port was right here, this is Main Street. You’ll see that this map is oriented with Main Street running north-south and that’s how we refer in Houston to north. North is really over here, but that doesn’t matter. The foot of Main Street is north, so another local thing you have to adapt to when you’re doing research in Houston.

By the 1890s, this idea of this Commerce Center had taken off and here we have again, Buffalo Bayou, White Oak, the foot of Main Street. So, you can see a growing downtown. By this time the population was still under 100,000, and commerce got on these shallow-draft steamers, down Buffalo Bayou. This is Galveston Bay. Galveston was a deep water port with service to New York, to Mexico, to New Orleans, so an active trade route. This transportation infrastructure was in support of agriculture, timber, cotton and cattle.

And Houston has a voracious appetite for annexation. It is in our city charter. We are allowed to do it, Dallas is not. We have expanded. It’s a very flat landscape, on the coastal plain. There’s really no mountains in our way. The rancher looking out to greet the mountain and saying it’s okay, we have flatness. Here is an original town plat, 1839 annexation, 1840 and 1903, and it continues on, layers and layers and layers. Each is a different color. This is 1952, and then, 1976 you can see the center of the city is here. This the first ring of highway, the Loop 610 from the ’60s. This is Beltway 8. Segments, it started in the ’90s, but they’d built it in segments. Now it is a complete loop, a loop around the loop. This is Highway 6, that’s making another loop. And we have just recently completed work on 99, which is pretty much halfway to Katy to the west, and almost halfway to Beaumont, on the east.

You can see, this is the city limits we have annexed. Ellington Field was early, and then in the ’60s as NASA was developing, Houston claimed that as its own and this up here is the Kingwood and the Intercontinental Airport. And then, these are our two reservoirs, which you might have heard of in our recent flood two years ago, Hurricane Harvey.

The study and part of the cultural landscape, the historic context of Houston. I explained that agricultural infrastructure and that trade, had a 20th century shift with the discovery of oil near Beaumont, in 1901. It ushered in this new economy and with that came a tremendous amount of wealth. This is Falling Water, not in Houston, but I put it here as an iconic Modern architectural example of what was happening, what ideas were out there. This is from 1939, so Modernism had some early footholds in Houston, both in residential and commercial, and civic design. And then it was a little quiet until after the War. With suburban expansion, it really took off.

Onto that layer, Houston was also the site of the Mercury Program and here are the Mercury seven astronauts. They had their headquarters and they lived there, they had their offices in Houston and then NASA was founded. And so their offices were in what is now our Parks Department building, while the NASA campus in Clear Lake was being constructed. All of this, changing a Texas city from agriculture to oil to space, is phenomenal. And the city was just grabbing a hold of that, and we are going. We got this money, we’re going to space, we got it going on and we’re going to transform our city. This is a modern city, modern American city. Houston has the first freeway in Texas, the Gulf Freeway. And part of the systems of the cultural landscapes are how we are moving around in the cities. And starting, this opened in 1949.

Freeways. When you study historic preservation, why we got the Historic Preservation Act, you’ll see pictures similar to this, although this looks quite bucolic in Parkway like. The Gulf freeway does not look like this anymore. It’s more like this. And you see, it happened all over the country. The Eisenhower Freeway System, it cut these large swaths, cutting neighborhoods in half, and urban renewal. But so this is the Gulf Freeway. This is about halfway between Houston and Galveston, near La Porte.

And then of course the suburbs. This is Sharpstown and I don’t have time into go in this neighborhood development. It was really a complete self-contain, as most suburbs are. They have shopping and everything else beyond housing. Frank Sharp did get into some trouble, was convicted of fraud, but nevertheless that’s a side story. But the suburbs exploded in all directions around the city. We are flat, as you can see here and these are some good examples of housing types. The Ranch House, this is a builder house in Sharpstown. And Sharpstown is southwest of the center. Glen Brook Valley is closer to Hobby Airport and the Memorial Bend is on the west side. These architect design, and this designed by a large housing developer.

Modern building with an arched roofline

Houston Music Theater, 1966.

The suburbs also needed schools, shopping, churches of course, and entertainment. And this is an example of this can-do attitude. This is a music hall, entertainment. Actually, it had three stages, round, thrust and proscenium. Here it is completed. This had a replica, similar site in California that is no longer standing. This is still here in Houston. Bob Hope an investor in both of them. And it was thin shell concrete so what are you going to do? You’re going to build a mound and then spray concrete on it, and then excavate it. It’s like, “We’re inventing alloys to build these rockets, we can certainly figure this one out.”

Then this is happening around the city in the suburbs. It’s also happening in the city, in the downtown. New entertainment complexes, this was Jones Hall built for the symphony and the opera, very modernist, new formalist. And then an open air amphitheater in Herman Park near the Texas Medical Center and Rice University.

And then, this is a great example of a building that, when we look at it purely of appropriate or sympathetic conditions, it might fail, but looking at it as a cultural landscape, it is quite fascinating. This is our Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, from 1924. William Ward Watkin came to Houston to design and work on a lot of the buildings of Rice University. This building is very close. This is the Lovett Hall of Rice. This is located on a roundabout, where Main and Montrose and Herman all intersect, where the Warwick Hotel, now Hotel ZaZa. And in the late 50s, Mies van der Rohe built, designed and built an addition on the back so the back became the front. And that’s a no, no. And we’re doing additions on historic buildings, we’re going to make them subservient, we’re going to make them in the back. The main entry remains the main entry.

And so, the first edition had this beautiful lawn in the front, reoriented to Bissonnette. And then, 10 years later, another edition was also built, designed by Mies, completed after his death, filled in this lawn. I think 20 years ago we would have looked at this building and said, using the current preservation evaluation, this edition is too severe. It compromises this classical building. And then, maybe 15 years ago, well, it is Mies after all. And these are his only buildings in Texas so maybe it’s worth another look. And to now, obviously this is very important. It’s important to the city, it’s important to Texas. And both buildings are important and it’s important as a layer and an evolution. While we were building suburbs, we were also building a new housing type in Houston, the condo towers or apartment towers.

And this one is the only one downtown. You can see it’s incorporating parking below, kind of takeoff of Lever House, how do you solve the problem of the car in an urban setting? These are all more suburban, Montrose or River Oaks. New formalists, international style influenced by Louis Kahn. And these also tell the story of, especially these three in River Oaks. River Oaks was founded in the early 20th century, by the time the empty nesters came around, they didn’t have anywhere to go to downsize. These, a lot of people from River Oaks just moved across San Felipe, moved across Westheimer to these apartments or condos, in these high-rise towers. It’s more about the buildings, it’s about the stories. And we’re seeing now in the Woodlands, the first instance of the empty nesters. It’s a 70s neighborhood and it’s hit that 40, 50 year mark and where are the empty nesters going that don’t want to leave the Woodlands?

Here is an example, of to get on a bigger scale of a campus. This is Lovett Hall, the iconic entry building of Rice University from the early 20th century. And then when John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University to announce the Space Program, he spoke in Rice Stadium, from the 1950s. This building has a phenomenal history. It was designed and built in nine months, and the engineers that worked on the Gulf Freeway that I showed you, they reused some of the forms here to contract the concrete stadium structure. This is on the far west side of the campus. The campus is also undergoing these layers and infills. I’ll just go quickly, infill does continue in the downtown. Here you can see this is the Melrose Building from the early fifties, the Gulf Building, are an iconic, Gothic art deco building. Esperson adjacent to a Bank of the Southwest, our first aluminum clad building, and then Prudential, the first suburban building outside of downtown. Modern campuses, Schlumberger.

three 1950s highrise buildings

Modern 1950s buildings in downtown Houston.

These two, both oil services. This one life insurance, this one on the Gulf Freeway, and these two in the Greenway Plaza area. And what we’re seeing now, this was torn down about 15 years ago, this was torn down last year. These large parcels of acreage in the inner city are being a repurposed for new development. Mixed use or townhouses as is often the case in Houston.

Again, as we move back, downtown in the 60s the buildings are getting higher. These two are banks. One is Tennessee Gas or Tenneco. You’ll see a lot of the repetition of that story of oil, the gas Fortune 500 headquarters, Texaco, Gulf, Tenneco, all located downtown. And then low rise buildings. When Kim and I were preparing for this, we were asking the question, what are we going to do about Brutalism? How are we going to get people to love Brutalism? Some low rise examples in Houston, we don’t know the answer to that. And then, as we get into the 70s we find the scale increases. There’s lots of experimentation in technology and this is actually a poured in place concrete tube system. This is our City Hall, so adjacent is another oil company. This is One Shell Plaza by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. And there’s completed building dominating the skyline.

It was tallest for about eight years when it was surpassed by another building. And then I’ll end with this. Pennzoil Place, this is a project designed by Phillip Johnson, and Gerald Heinz was the developer, and it really ushered in this era of corporate identity. You think of AT&T. And it’s really this marriage of the developer and the architect, and the architect using the design as sort of a brand, iconic brand, of the company. This is Pennzoil Oil and Gas company and they had two divisions, Zapata Oil and Pennzoil. Hence the two separate but equal towers on one city block.

Speaker Bio:

Anna Mod is an award winning historic preservation professional with over 20 years of experience in Texas. She is director of the new Southwest regional office of MHA, a national historic preservation consulting firm that specializes in historic tax credits.


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