Our History is Becoming History

Houston doesn’t have much patience for memories. The only permanent thing here is change. Houston tears down, Houston starts over. And then Houston tears down again. Remembering the Houston that used to be is a cherished community tradition, like compulsively bragging about diversity, or pretending you frequent Discovery Green.

Once in awhile, a building evades the wrecking ball and suffers the indignity of gradual decline, turned into a pawn shop or storefront church, or just left for dead with vandals and varmints and the relentless weather orchestrating a slow demolition by neglect. It sits, sun bleached and forlorn, like the President For Life of some obscure tropical nation. In 2014, the end came for the Shudde Brothers Hat Factory on Trinity Street near Washington. Since 1907, five Shudde brothers provided men’s clothing and hats in an age when everybody wore hats. In 1914 a factory was built next to the family home at Trinity and Bismark. With a staff of 40 craftsmen, Shudde Brothers became the epicenter of western wear and hats in America. The Houston Fat Stock Show would bring Roy Rogers and Jimmy Dean and Dennis Weaver over to get hats and belts. A cowboy hat was made for John F. Kennedy for his trip through Texas in November 1963, but he never had a chance to wear it.

The business moved in 2007, and the historic building sat idle for seven years as Neal Shudde attempted but became less able to save it. Preserving it or moving it became impossible.

Shudde Brothers Hat Factory is a parking lot now, swept clean of the history it could have provided for generations curious about how Houston used to be. The people and the building were a legend decades before the bulldozers came.

Some of us feel the sting of such losses. Some of us understand that history is flesh and blood and sweat. It is songs and stories and shouts, and soft whispered words of couples in love. History is bricks and stones, nails and mortar, rooms where people developed, words were voiced, rooms that long ago would hum with the energy of events long passed to the ages. What did people see out that 130-year-old window that might exist today? What did people look forward to, then, as they daydreamed through that wavy glass? They saw a different Houston than we see today, and while the outside of a place is changing, can’t we suspend the ages for what was inside a place? Can’t an old place be like a book, full of pages and chapters, and the reason for putting it here, because every place was a dream to somebody once? That’s the Why of how it’s here. Apparently, others don’t have time for any of that.

It is difficult to hold on to history in a city that doesn’t have much patience for memories. Houston is a sports car that has no rearview mirrors. You can’t look back, so you might as well floor it and hope for the best.

Gary Elkins represents Jersey Village in the Texas Legislature. Elkins is one of those who doesn’t have much patience for memories. This session, Elkins proposed legislation, HB 3418, that would make it even easier for corporations and individuals to level historic sites across the state. Elkins bill carries three primary features: first, in yet another example of Texas legislative hegemony, the bill overrides significant portions of the historic preservation laws or zoning regulations enacted by municipal governments, unless they meet state imposed criteria, including the requirement that the site must be associated with an incident “widely recognized as a historical event.” Secondly, any “historical” designation approved by any zoning board, planning commission, or City Council must pass by a three-fourths margin, or the designation is invalid. Third, local governments have a thirty-day window to approve or reject requests to construct, reconstruct, alter, or raze a building or other structure in a designated place or area of historical, cultural, or architectural significance. If the government hasn’t issued an official decision within 30 days, the request is automatically approved.

Historic preservation is a contentious issue. In 2002 Houston City Council established the Germantown Historic District, a charming knot of Craftsman style homes and tree canopied streets just north of Downtown. The measure passed on an 11 to 5 vote, 68 per cent, after meeting the City’s requirement that at least 67 per cent of the community’s homeowners support the ordinance. Under the Elkins standard, there would be no Germantown Historic District.

When Germantown received its designation, several residents expressed opposition, arguing that their property rights were being impeded. Councilman Ed Gonzales suggested that a more modern city like Houston lacked the civic will to spend much time on historic preservation. City Council was deeply divided over the vote. Passing a Historic Preservation Ordinance with 67 per cent of the vote is a staggering achievement. Passing one with 75 per cent of the vote is a virtual impossibility.

Supporters of the Elkins bill argue that it’s a matter of personal freedom. Historic Preservation Designations put heavy restrictions on homeowners ability to improve or alter their property and impose design standards that add knee-buckling expenses to the cost of renovations.

Detractors counter that local boards are geared to work with homeowners. In 2013, 84 per cent of the renovation proposals submitted to the Houston Historic Renovation Office were approved with no revisions, and that imposing a state mandated “one size fits all” standard undermines the efforts of local agencies to preserve history and heritage of their communities.

Even in Houston, a city with no patience for memories, a city that loves its bulldozers, historic preservation has gained a toehold. Twenty-two neighborhoods enjoy “Historic District” status. Granted, most of them are either in the Heights or the Midtown areas, with the exception of Glenbrook Valley to the south, but it’s still 22 neighborhoods. The City Of Houston Office Of Historic Preservation keeps a list of the buildings, homes, and landmarks designated by the city as such. There are hundreds of locations on the list, everywhere from the 1940 Air Terminal at Hobby Airport to the Hirzel Von Huxthausen house in the First Ward.

Under the Elkins bill, local communities would not have the authority to protect buildings like these. No one famous lived there. Nothing famous happened there. There is no way that charming little home fits the “Widely recognized as historical” standard. If some developer wanted to breeze in and buy the place and build another row of hideous townhomes, no one could stop him.

HR 3418 is a boon to developers anxious to bypass pesky local agencies. It’s designed to overwhelm already drowning planning commissions, zoning boards, and municipal governments. It isn’t about making communities greater, it isn’t even about being sensitive to property rights, it’s a blow to the solar plexus of neighborhoods like Germantown and places that understand that our heritage is trapped in the bricks and mortar and hand cut wood of old buildings.

The danger of the Elkins bill is that it makes forgetting easy. It makes it easy to turn almost any place, no matter its beauty, no matter its story, into another pile of rubble.

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