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Houston Lost and Unbuilt

Houston Lost and Unbuilt

This fascinating look at what has been lost—and what might have been built—in Houston sounds a call to preserve Houston's built heritage before more architectural treasures are lost forever.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture, Roger Fullington Series in Architecture

January 2010
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200 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 236 b&w illus. |

Driven by an almost fanatical desire for whatever is new, "modern," and likely to make money, Houston is constantly in the process of remaking itself. Few structures remain from the nineteenth century, and even much of the twentieth-century built environment has fallen before the wrecking ball of "progress." Indeed, the demolition of older buildings in Houston can be compared to the destruction of cityscapes such as Berlin, Warsaw, and Tokyo in World War II. But because this wholesale restructuring of Houston's built environment has happened in peacetime, historically minded people have only recently sounded an alarm over what is being lost and the toll this destruction is taking on Houstonians' sense of place.

Houston Lost and Unbuilt presents an extensive catalogue of twentieth-century public and commercial buildings that have been lost forever, as well as an intriguing selection of buildings that never made it off the drawing board. The lost buildings (or lost interiors of buildings) span a wide range, from civic gathering places such as the Houston Municipal Auditorium and the Astrodome to commercial enterprises such as the Foley Brothers, Sears Roebuck, and Sakowitz department stores to "Theatre Row" downtown to neighborhoods such as Fourth Ward/Freedmen's Town. Steven Strom's introductions and photo captions describe each significant building's contribution to the civic life of Houston. The "unbuilt" section of the book includes numerous previously unpublished architectural renderings of proposed projects such as a multi-building city center, monorail, and people mover system, all which reflect Houston's fascination with the future and optimism that technology will solve all of the city's problems.


2011 San Antonio Conservation Society Citation

2011 Good Brick AwardGreater Houston Preservation Alliance

2010 Good Brick AwardGreater Houston Preservation Alliance

Julia Ideson Award

Two Citations from The San Antonio Conservation Society

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Author's Note
  • I. Lost Houston
    • Introduction
    • Images
    • Lost Interiors
  • II. Unbuilt Houston
    • Introduction
    • Images
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Steven R. Strom is a communications specialist for the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California. He holds an M.A. in American history from Boston College. Strom headed the Architectural Archive at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) for nine years and later served as Director of HMRC. He has published numerous articles on architecture, space, and Houston history, as well as the book International Launch Site Guide. Houston Lost and Unbuilt grows out of award-winning articles he originally published in Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston.


"[T]here can be no history where there are no memories to hold on to."

Reinaldo Arenas, Cuban poet

"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set."

Proverbs 23:28


This book was written with one primary purpose in mind: to impart some idea of the loss and disruption that has been inflicted on the residents of Houston, Texas, by the steady and systematic destruction of the city's built environment over the past century. If the tone of this book is elegiac, it is meant to be. The range of buildings that have been destroyed is remarkable in its scope, and the toll on Houston's citizens has at times bordered on an almost spiritual or psychic level of loss. The photographs and architectural drawings that accompany this essay chronicle a city that entered the twentieth century in a semi-rural state to emerge on the dawn of the twenty-first century as a vast sea of concrete scattered with only a few remaining buildings from the early decades of the previous century. The destruction of buildings on this scale has been seen before as the result of massive wars; in Houston, however, the pursuit of money and the new and "modern" has had an almost as devastating effect on the city's built environment as World War II had on cities such as Berlin, Warsaw, and Tokyo. A radical and isolating disconnection has occurred in Houston between the past and the present.


Maintaining a sense of place, of being able to relate to the built environment, is one of the primary factors in imparting a sense of community and citizenship among the residents of a city. Unfortunately, the tendency of Houston's government has often been to make it easy for developers to demolish older structures deemed commercially unviable. Consequently, no visible traces remain if nostalgic Houstonians wish to visit their childhood neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, stores, or churches. Bruce Webb's description of Houston as the "Ephemeral City" has provided us with the best analogy for the city's urban condition: here today, gone tomorrow. In addition, the very auto-oriented transportation network that contributes so much to Houston's commercial stature creates the ever-expanding, outward growth patterns that move people away from the original urban core, ultimately contributing to the economic factors that make it easier to demolish a building than to restore and adaptively reuse it. Reinaldo Arenas' description of Miami as "not really a city but rather a number of detached houses peopled by cowboys for whom the horse had been replaced by the car" could be applied with equal accuracy to Houston's general lack of binding communal feelings and absence of genuine urbanity.


In short, the city's power brokers have eradicated so much of the built environment that it has become increasingly difficult for many residents to not feel some sort of emotional isolation and dislocation from the city that they call home. Sensing this distance, many urban historians and critics have commented that Houston offers no coherent sense of being a viable, functioning metropolis. The dislocation of the city's residents is often misinterpreted as dislike for the city, when in fact it is oftentimes just the opposite. Many Houstonians want badly to relate to and identify with Houston's urban environment, but the rapid and wholesale loss of the city's architectural fabric increasingly makes this almost impossible and results in this restless sense of anomie.


Historian Simon Winchester, writing about San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, describes why cities that are devastated by disasters are able to not only recover from immediate damage, but also thrive and prosper once again. In A Crack In the Edge of the World, Winchester notes that the recovery of these cities is based on "reasons that go far beyond the accumulation of buildings that is their outward manifestation." The qualities that inspire the citizens of such cities to remain and rebuild rather than pack up and relocate are "invariably due to some combination of geography and climate, together with some vague and indefinable organic reason that persuades mankind to settle there."


Should a catastrophic disaster strike Houston, there is no doubt in my mind that the city—humidity, insects, heat, and all—would rebuild and reconstitute itself on a grand scale. However, no one would claim that Houston has any "combination of geography and climate" that would motivate its citizens to rebuild—quite the opposite. The frequently miserable conditions of Houston's semitropical climate are well known. And the flat bleakness of much of the Gulf Coast prairie on which Houston is built inspires little more than a feeling of monotony. And yet, millions of people call Houston home and have tremendous love and affection for the city. Perhaps this can be chalked up to what Winchester would call a "vague and indefinable organic reason." Some would argue, however, that the reason Houston would survive a catastrophe is quite clear and definable: commerce. It is true that commerce, along with the jobs it provides, continues to be the primary factor that draws new arrivals to Houston. And, commerce would engender reconstruction were the city to suffer a major catastrophe. But commerce alone does not create loyalty to a place, and the successes of virtually unbridled capitalism offer no complete explanation for the emotional bonds that so many Houstonians have with their city.


Despite the fact that Houston entered the twenty-first century as the nation's fourth largest city, the rest of the United States has little sense of its identity except that it is inextricably linked to a fanatical hunger for modernity and the new. That Americans have a penchant for the newest and/or the most modern in every facet of life—particularly in the area of technological innovations—is hardly a startling revelation. But few cities of any size, certainly no city the size of Houston, have gone about the search for modernity with such zeal. Even Los Angeles, known nationwide for its poor track record for architectural preservation, has salvaged more of its past than Houston. Houstonians followed the exhortation of cultural modernists to "Make it new," and although "new" and "modern" are not necessarily synonymous, by the mid-twentieth century, for all practical purposes, they were one and the same in Houston. In 1976, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable (in)famously labeled Houston as the "city of the second half of the Twentieth Century," a moniker that Houston never failed—or even attempted to fail—to live up to. Huxtable was, of course, largely referring to the important Postmodernist structures, such as the Pennzoil Building, that were being built around Houston at the time. Huxtable attributed much of this architecturally innovative spirit to Houston's lack of zoning regulations. Whether this was correct or not, the same failure to impose some form of genuine urban planning has resulted in the obliteration of much of the city's past and the rapid spread of horrific urban sprawl.


Houston's unfaltering adherence to modernity went hand in hand with a boundless faith in the future, along with the certainty that modernity cloaked the city with an aura of progressivism. The consequence of that crusade for modernity has been the destruction of the city's past, both distant and more recent. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, even many of the great Modernist buildings that had built Houston's nationwide reputation in the mid-century for being on the cutting edge of architectural innovation are in danger of being destroyed, scarcely five decades after their construction. It is the great paradox of modernity that progress is simultaneously accompanied by destruction. Many Houstonians are finally becoming aware of the consummate irony of modernity: that by the very definition of modernism, a newly completed building, freeway, subdivision, or mall is already outdated at the very moment of completion.


Advocating the new is not automatically accompanied by an improvement in the quality of life. In Houston, more often than not, this focus on the new has actually led to a notable decline in the quality of life. No matter how much criticism is levied against urban conditions in Los Angeles (the American city that is possibly the most comparable to Houston in its similarities and excesses), it is a real city. It has the features that provide a quality of life missing in Houston: a viable downtown, neighborhoods containing both the basic necessities and amenities for urban living, and a reasonably organic pattern of growth. And despite its own carelessness with the preservation of its past, Los Angeles most definitely has a history, apparent in the many historic buildings that remain a part of the city's daily fabric.


As the new century begins, more and more Houstonians are beginning to realize the consequences of their inaction over the years as, increasingly, beloved landmarks or neighborhoods are becoming endangered. The mere persistence of memory cannot begin to compensate for the loss of an actual structure. At some point, Houstonians must halt their fixation with newness and begin to hold on to some of their architectural memories, if not for themselves then at least for their descendants. Only then will Houston have even a chance of becoming a great city. The greatness of a city is not measured by the number of its sport venues or by attendance at public festivals. By sacrificing its architectural past, including the immediate past, Houston has placed itself in a historical void that makes the city neither comforting to longtime residents, nor particularly interesting to new arrivals.


I am not suggesting that Houstonians can overthrow modernity as away of life, but they should not be held hostage by it. Despite numerous pronouncements of the death of modernity, it is still the driving force that operates our national, and most of the world's, culture. Advocating the abandonment of modernity would not only be foolish and utopian, it would also be impossible. I am simply suggesting that in the very near future there must be some partial halt to Houston's quest for modernity, long enough to save what little is left of its past. The combination of futurism and a feverish desire to embrace technology has resulted in the massive destruction of every conceivable building type, leading to serious feelings of loss for many Houstonians who are already struggling to adapt to an ever-changing urban landscape as well as the daily stresses caused by ever-accelerating modernity.


While I was writing this introduction, Houston was abuzz with the news that three more of the city's historic Art Deco structures would soon face the possibility of destruction: the 1939 Alabama Theatre, partially preserved and still used as a bookstore; a portion of the pathbreaking 1937 River Oaks Shopping Center; and the River Oaks Theatre, also completed in 1939 and, amazingly, still operating as a movie house. The press, both local and national, was full of optimism that this time a nerve has been struck, and that at last Houstonians would not allow the demolitions to take place. Thousands of people signed petitions, spoke before the city council, wrote letters, and demonstrated their displeasure in a variety of ways. All of these actions were taken as proof that this time it would be different. And yet, with historical hindsight it all seems so familiar. It could be the 3,000-strong demonstration by preservationists who marched around the Shamrock Hotel in 1987 in a futile effort to save that historic structure. Or, it could be the thousands of people who protested the planned destruction of the Village Theatre, which was demolished in 1994. Each decade it seems, there are architectural causes to rally around, and often the results have been far from encouraging for preservationists. Despite my hope that this time would be different and that the developers would not win this go-around, by the time I completed my manuscript the River Oaks Shopping Center was partially demolished and the Alabama and River Oaks theaters remained in danger.


Many of the lost buildings highlighted in these photographs share one characteristic. They were "public" buildings, in the broadest sense of that word. While some of these lost structures were actually civic, and therefore built to be public buildings, others—theaters, hotels, and department stores, for example—were also used by hundreds of thousands of Houstonians. As a result, they became repositories of shared, public experiences and knowledge. The successors to these irreplaceable structures have generally failed to impart the same sense of communitas among Houston's populace, particularly when the successor turns out to be a parking garage or surface parking lot. Hopefully, this survey of lost buildings will also teach people to look at everyday structures with a different outlook and not to dismiss or take for granted so-called "mundane" commercial and industrial buildings. As one of the photos shows, even a building so seemingly banal as the local Pepsi-Cola bottling plant generates shared memories for thousands of people.


The illustrations that follow will give the reader some idea of the enormous losses that Houston's heritage has suffered in little more than a century. The buildings memorialized in this book represent only a small sample of what Houston has lost. Perhaps seeing these images will inspire some people not only to remember bits of their bygone past, but also to help prevent similar losses of our history in the future. Such an effort is not simply an exercise in shopworn nostalgia; we are talking about the preservation of structures that are actually extant and not fantastic, like Disneyland's Main Street. Houston, contrary to what many people believe, does have a history. This past is primarily present in an ever-shrinking number of endangered buildings. Only a massive collective effort by the public can save the remainder of Houston's architectural and historical past.


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