Photo by Ryan Holeywell.

Houston's Astrodome is the largest landmark in the Space City, but what other structures are iconic enough to preserve? 

The Astrodome, which was designed by architect Arthur Jones, has largely remained out of use for nearly two decades. Since it's listed as a State Antiquities Landmark, it's protected from demolition, but the county and city aren't obligated to use any funds to maintain the building from slipping into decay. 

"I'm worried the Astrodome, if the new county judge decided not to allocate funds to do something, is going to just sit there and decay," said Ben Koush, Houston-based author and architect. A recent Houston Chronicle story revealed the plans for the Astrodome are on the backburner for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo due to focusing on "transformational actions that will improve the daily lives of our residents," like flooding and bail reform.

"Preservation culture in Houston is still in it's infancy," said Koush. "In 2010, Annise Parker changed the rules for the historic districts and you can't tear down buildings and that's been a big change. But that's not even 10 years ago."

The debate of what to do with the Astrodome raises the concern of other Houston-area buildings that should be preserved for historical reasons.

There are other smaller-scale examples of developers repurposing an existing building into a new, modernly-designed concept, like the retail storefront off of West Gray and Montrose and dry-cleaner-turned-restaurant Vibrant. "I say we have more people trying to restore, rebuild and repurpose buildings," said Minette Boesel, a local preservation activist. "I'm not sure if there's a 180-degree shift in attitude, but people understand that historic buildings are important to the fabric of a city, they're important to be cared for, and they're important for tourism. They're also important from an educational standpoint about the history of our city."

What makes a building worth preserving? It goes past age (which is generally 50 years old or more) and it also taps into the history behind the structure. "50 years ago, which of course is 1969—There are an unmanageable number of structures that fall under that right now," said Stephen Fox, architecture historian and Rice University professor. "I think that it's wise to plan to focus on areas that will become historically significant, even though right now, they may not be. Their historical significance may not seem that compelling, but they could become so."

Conversations with Koush, Fox and Boesel reveal what Houston buildings and neighborhoods should be better preserved in the coming years. 

 

Kirby Mansion at 2001 Smith St. in Houston. Photo by Heather Leighton

The Kirby Mansion at 2001 Smith Street

The large brick mansion that can be seen in its entirety from the Pierce Elevated of I-45 South known as the Kirby Mansion has changed owners over the years, but Boesel believes it is among the buildings that Houston must preserve for history's sake. The first owner of the 1920s home was John Henry Kirby, who has been labeled as "Houston's first tycoon."

Since being sold in 2018, the building has been owned by a group connected with a Cadillac dealership. The building has never been designated as a city, state or federal landmark, according to a deed record in the Harris County Clerk's office, and there is no guarantee that the owners (current or future) won't decide to tear the building down.

"We're hopeful that this building and its new owner will preserve it," Boesel said.

Houston's Humble Oil/ExxonMobile Building at 800 Bell St. Photo by Heather Leighton

Humble Oil/ExxonMobil Building

"There's all the downtown buildings that were built in the 1960s," Koush said. "Like the Humble Oil Building (800 Bell)." Koush believes this particular building, which opened in 1963, should be preserved because of the unique sun-shades that protrude from the sides of the building, which are distinct features of the period. "There is a scheme to reskim that and take all of the sun-shades off of it, which would make it lose all of its architectural character." 

Other buildings built in the 1960s that could potentially be preserved include the Houston House Apartments at 1617 Fannin, the Alley Theatre, Jones Hall, the Kinder Morgan Building at 1010 Milam, the city's Public Works Building, and others

Fannin State Bank Building in Houston.

Fannin State Bank Building

In contrast, there is the Fannin State Bank Building, which had similar sun-shades on the side, but recent construction removed them. 

"That's another Arthur Jones building," Koush said. "They're re-skinning it and kind of changing its appearance from what it was originally."

"At least it's not being knocked down, but they are drastically changing its original character," he said. 

River Oaks, Meyerland and other unique neighborhoods

"There's also sort of a neighborhood environment that needs to be preserved," Koush said. "River Oaks, of course, Meyerland, all those places that flooded really badly that have great 1950s ranch houses. Additionally, the working-class communities, like Near Northside. That neighborhood is just waiting for what happened to Eado where everything got scraped away and replaced with townhouses."

Koush, Boesel and Fox all agree that certain neighborhoods have unique charm that should be preserved. Regrettably, residents don't know about preservation strategies and many are lost to high-paying developers that want the land for townhomes, especially in lower-income areas. 

"It's hard to get a historic district active because it's permanent and people are more wary about it," Koush said. "How do you show people in minority and poorer neighborhoods that preservation can help them resist gentrification? That is something that has yet to be done very well."

Houston's been known for the developers' perspective of out with the old, in with the new. While this isn't necessarily good for preservation culture within the Bayou City, it's generally a positive sign that the economy is solid. "Usually when they don't knock things down, that can mean that the economy in the city is bad and nothing happens," Koush said. "But when the economy's good, and there's no preservation culture, then they knock them down and a lot of times what they build is not as good in an architecturally significant way. If they knock something down and just build a cheap builder house or an ugly strip mall or vacant lot, then that's a loss for the city."

According to Koush, Boesel and Fox, that's what Houston needs to work on more; allowing well-made, potentially historic structures to remain intact rather than being replaced with poorly-made and poorly designed buildings or homes.