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Everything That's Old Is What's New in Houston

In city whose self-image revolves around the future, retro now reigns. Unlike in other places, it is the developers, and not the preservationists, fueling the trend.


HOUSTON — Until recently, Houston's interest in architectural landmarks could basically be summed up by the Witch Hat.

A spooky, 20-foot cupola built in the 1900s, the Witch Hat for generations was a local icon. The house it perched on was, as well, a lone remnant of the grand Victorians that lined once-stylish Main Street.

So when the house's owners planned to raze it in the 1990s, preservationists leaped to combat. For four years, they lobbied and they pleaded, even hatching plans to roll the house to safety on a truck.

But in this city founded on big business and big space, old buildings rated little notice. The Witch Hat house fell in 1997. When the rubble cleared, the activists' lone victory glared from a local salvage yard. The only thing they had rescued was the hat.

What a difference a few years make. In the span of about 30 months, the nation's fourth-largest city has plunged into a major downtown revival--and its leitmotif is all things retro.

Entrepreneurs now jostle to convert once-scorned vintage buildings into lofts. Public funds have helped, partly financing an old-style baseball park and a Main Street face-lift, complete with fountains and old-time lampposts. The stadium, which opened last week, embraces the city's long-disused train station as a entrance. Drawn by all this movement, merchants and residents are moving into addresses passe for 40 years.

For the first time in Space City's history, the look of what they want is Old.

The idea of yuppies, retirees and vexed commuters moving back to city centers isn't new. By the 1990s, it was a U.S. trend: downtowns once synonymous with despair, remade and marketed as smart and livable.

In older cities such as New York, respect for historic buildings goes back further. With memories dating to the Revolution, these cities sustained strong, shrewd preservation groups for generations. In fact, a few architecture critics now argue that these groups wield too much power, bullying cities into a kind of physical conservatism.

But in youthful Houston, the lure of age surfaced later than in almost any other place. Typical for Houston, it was developers--not preservationists--who catapulted vintage into vogue. And when they did, they fueled nothing less than a rethinking of the city's identity.

"Suddenly, the physical environment, the built environment, the public spaces matter here," says Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociologist. "This is wholly new."

Altogether, more than $1.7 billion has coursed into downtown redevelopment; $250 million more will go into projects in surrounding neighborhoods. By 2002, some 2,500 new residents are expected to live in the city center, many in smartened-up prewar buildings.

Less clear, architecture experts say, is if the taste for gracious spaces reaches past downtown--and if Houstonians truly grasp the breadth of Houston's heritage.

Astrodome Debut Was Proud Moment for City

Perhaps more than that of any other city, Houston's self-image has revolved around the future. It was here, in the Clear Lake area that NASA prospered in the early 1960s. Not coincidentally, one of the city's proudest moments was the opening of the Astrodome in 1965. The first permanently air-conditioned sports dome, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, testified to Houston's love of growth--if necessary, at the cost of grace.

"The whole thing far surpasses all current definitions of kitsch, obscenity and bad taste," Italian architectural critic Vicky Alliata sniped about the Dome in 1974. But Houstonians adored it for its size, its cosmic optimism, its very groundskeepers who in early years bustled through their tasks in spaceman costumes.

Minutes from the generous East Texas oil fields, Houston for much of its history had little use, otherwise, for self-definition. The jobs that doubled the population every 20 years, sometimes every decade, defined it automatically.

"The essential nature of Houston during the 20th century was riding the oil boom," says Klineberg. "It was totally impervious to any concept of history. There was a perception in Houston that people came to this city to make money, with very little interest in the long-term past or long-term future."

Physically and politically, it was a city sculpted not only by rich oilmen but by developers entranced by vast flat sketchboards of space. Decade after decade, voters have rejected zoning, making Houston the only major U.S. city without that planning tool. Inspired by cheap labor and low taxes, lusty developers built hosts of downtown skyscrapers and suburbs crawling boundlessly across the prairie.

The building-happy climate made for famous contrasts. Today, shadows of those skyscrapers brush clapboard houses built by descendants of freed slaves. In the close-in Montrose neighborhood, elephantine new townhouses line whole streets, their carports dwarfing humble bungalows below them.

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