Landmark status gives historic structures commercial appeal

Jul. 22, 2015Houston Chronicle

The Heights Theater anchors a strip of vintage buildings converted into restaurants and small shops on buzzing 19th Street, its red-and-white Art Moderne sign a beacon to the neighborhood since the theater opened its doors nearly 90 years ago and screened a silent Western for 20 cents a ticket. Today, it’s a home for art exhibits and special events and soon could be hosting concerts.

In downtown Houston, the three-story building at 308 Main blends in on its block of colorful and thriving Victorian commercial buildings, the last vestiges of Main Street’s 19th century past. Evenings these days, its balcony and downstairs bar draw young professionals to the nightlife offerings along the street.

Both the downtown and Heights buildings survived fires over the decades and have seen many businesses and concepts come and go, as interest waxed and waned in their respective neighborhoods. Both survive as destinations, thanks in part to their historic feel.

On Wednesday, a unanimous Houston City Council granted both structures the strongest form of historic protection in free-wheeling, tear-down Houston. Members voted to make the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th, and the Victorian at 308 Main protected landmarks. Two houses built by famed architects also were granted landmark status.

The commercial buildings are the latest examples in Houston, a place that has historically allowed historic buildings to give way to new construction, of a movement to include preservation as part of redevelopment. As Rice University architectural historian Stephen Fox puts it, the two buildings and their neighborhoods show history can be a sound business investment.

“In these particular areas, property owners and merchants have found out that historic preservation can be a positive factor, rather than a weight on their shoulders,” Fox said.

The commercial buildings on Main and on 19th received the highest level of protection in the city with “protected landmark” designation. This means the facade of the structures cannot be altered without approval and they cannot be torn down, except in cases of extreme hardship for the property owner.

Highest protected level

The protected status is more sweeping than historic landmark, in which owners can tear down or alter their properties after a 90-day waiting period to allow time for negotiations with preservationists.

Built in 1929 with a Mission-style stucco façade, and updated in 1935 with an Art Moderne-style exterior, the Heights Theater was heavily damaged by arson in 1969 and sat vacant until the late 1980s. It since has gone through a series of uses, including an antique store.

The property soon will be sold and become a music venue, said current owner Gus Kopriva, a Heights resident who, with his wife Sharron, has owned the property for 25 years.

The couple sought the landmark status to make sure the property was protected before it was sold to another owner. It currently serves as an art gallery and event space. Preservation was a stipulation in the sale of the building.

“The theater has always been an icon of the Heights,” Kopriva said. “It was important to us to make sure it was preserved.”

The building at 308 Main was built in 1880 following a July 1879 fire that destroyed half the block. Designed in the Italianate style, it is one of downtown’s last remaining Victorian commercial buildings. It features a heavy ornate sheet metal cornice and iron window hoods and sills.

The building lies within the boundaries of the Main Street Market Square National Register Historic District and a city of Houston historic district. Currently, Nightingale and Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar occupy it.

Building owner Ira Aghai lives in the third-floor loft and works as an attorney in an office in the building.

‘Totally different here’

Aghai, who graduated from the University of Houston Downtown with a history degree, said the protected status was the next natural step for him as a building owner. He loves the way historic architecture is preserved in cities like New York City.

“It’s totally different here in Houston,” he said. “I want to make sure this will never go away.”

The list of restoration and reuse projects is growing in Houston. It includes Harold’s clothing store, also on 19th Street, which was converted into a restaurant space; the downtown Rice Hotel, which was converted to apartments in the mid-1990s; another historic downtown building that recently opened as a J.W. Marriott; and Fire Station No. 6 on Washington Avenue, restored as office space.

Underway now is an effort to rehabilitate the 100-year-old Sunset Coffee building at Allen’s Landing and convert it into an activity center and outdoor venue.

“It’s important to find a new use for it that keeps (a historic property) viable, keeps it on the tax rolls and makes it something that is useful to the community,” said David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston. “What we’ve found when a building is between 30 and 50 years old, people say, ‘Oh that’s old-fashioned, get rid of it.’ A few years beyond that, we say, ‘Why did we get rid of that?’ ”

Bush agreed that finding new uses for historic structures can pay off for business owners, but he said the challenge is finding enough property owners willing to renovate the buildings and secure unique tenants to justify the projects. As with the two commercial properties recognized Wednesday, it can take time for an area to reach a critical mass of viability.

Likewise, homeowners in an increasing number of neighborhoods have banded together to try to preserve traditional character. From just north of Loop 610 in Independence Heights to Glenbrook Valley near Hobby Airport, clusters of Houstonians have successfully worked with the city to create historic districts that restrict the types of development and renovations allowed.

The two homes now protected as landmarks are rich in history. The James A. & Margaret Wiess Elkins house at Meadow Lake Lane was designed by John F. Staub and John Thomas Rather Jr. and completed in 1948. Elkins’ father founded Vinson & Elkins law firm and his wife was the daughter of the founder of Humble Oil. Their home, in River Oaks, was notable in part because of its few windows, a sign it had central air conditioning.

Noted architect

The other landmark house, at 1807 Wroxton in Southampton, was designed by the noted architect Charles Tapley for Grace and Henry David in 1971. City documents describe Grace as a “discriminating art collector, astute business woman, outstanding hostess and owner of Bookman bookstore and the David Art Gallery.” The character Aurora Greenway in Larry McMurty’s novel “Terms of Endearment” was based on her personality. Her husband was a “drilling-mud pioneer and self-made tycoon.”

The house is designed in a series of pods along a central spine with small gardens in between. The design intent was to maximize day-lighting and provide views to the sky and courtyard from every room. Local preservationists hail it as “an exceptional example of contemporary Houston architecture of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, influenced by modern architecture and modern forms.”