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HOUSTON'S HISTORIC DISTRICTS Part II. Freedmen's Town Historic District



the shadow of downtown, the Fourth Ward and San Felipe Courts (better known as Allen Parkway Village) lie suspended路 in bureaucratic limbo. Their condition becomes more critical and their fate more precarious daily. The possibility of economic gain from sale-for-redevelopment inflates prices and undermines the motivation of landowners to maintain the existing building stock, and a curious municipal moratorium on wastewater and building permits constrains owners who might otherwise be inclined to renovate or redevelop in the present neighborhood context. Whatever the relative merits of the competing proposals for restoration of APV and infill construction in the Fourth Ward versus wholesale redevelopment involving the obliteration of the historic character of the neigh' borhood, the situation points up the crying need in Houston for coherent and predictable planning and land use regimes, including provisions for protection of historic resources. By default, the policy of City Hall and the community at large is neglect. The result is a neighborhood that is a wasting asset, hostage to expectations that are nothing more than expectations.


hen the Freedmen's Town Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, 580 structures were extant. Today, only five years later, as many as half of these are gone. With the proposed Founder's Park redevelopment plan under discussion, it is important to review what resources have been lost and what is being threatened in the Freedmen's Town Historic District. The original Freedmantown settlement was founded shortly after Emancipation on what is now the southwest side of downtown Houston. At its apogee the community extended approximately from Buffalo Bayou south to Sutton Street, and from Smith westward to Taft Street. The National Register district occupies 40 blocks between West Dallas, West Gray, Arthur, and Genesee. Although construction in the area predates the 1860s, most of the current buildings date from the period 1890 to

1935. Streets in the area appear on maps as early as 1866, with all of them apparently platted by 1880. Streetcar lines followed along West Dallas, Robin and Andrews Streets to the western edge of the district, which was the city limit. Several architectural styles are represented by residences in the district. Most are variations of simple wood frame houses, usually one story in height. The shotgun house is, however, the primary architectural image of the area. The shotgun house is usually a long, narrow, one-story house, one room wide with its front door in the gable end, almost always with a front porch attached. According to some cultural and architectural historians, shotgun houses are most often associated with black neighborhoods in the Southern United States, and the origins of this vernacular architectural Continued on page 2

What is there to support the supposition that the most recent proposal for wholesale rede' Ivelopment can be financed, realized, or absorbed? Indeed, who will eventually own American General? Will they have the same allegiance to the local community? As it is, we don't know who will roll the dice,

let along how they will turn up. And we've seen a lot of snake eyes in the past decade. In the meantime, the Fourth Ward continues its decline, its residents are forced by attrition to depart, and those who remain suffer the ignominy of blight and neglect. Charles D. Maynard, Ir.

The Rutherford Yates Home, 1316 Andrews Street, constructed ca. 1900. Historic photograph taken ca. 1950. (photograph courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library)

style have been traced to Haiti and the West Indies, with connections to both Africa and Europe. The shotgun house type may have first appeared in the United States sometime in the early to middle 1800s in New Orleans. From there it spread along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. The building type has been used throughout the South as tenant farmhouses, as urban rental houses, and as workers' houses in a wide variety of contexts. Aerial views of the city and other historic maps indicate that rebuilding, moving of structures, and infill has been a common practice in this area. After 1900, most new construction appears to have been of rental units. The increase in density along narrow streets, the omnipresence of porches, and predominance of wooden construction create a highly distinctive image of the neighborhood. Churches are important elements of the district, both as architectural features and as social institutions. Most famous is Antioch Baptist Church, which was founded in 1866 and constructed its present building in 1879. This National Register listed structure is on the eastern edge of what was once Freedmantown, now in the central business district. Among other churches of note in the historic district is Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Saulnier, a 1929 Gothic Revival structure by black architect J. J. Hawkins. The first black hospital in the city, Union Hospital, was founded in 1910 and located at the comer of Andrews and Genesee. Other important institutions in the area were Gregory

School, first known as Gregory Institute, Colored (later Booker T. Washington) High School at West Dallas and Frederick, the Carnegie Colored Library, a commercial district along West Dallas, and numerous comer businesses. With the exception of scattered comer business buildings and the 1976 Gregory Elementary School building, none of these institutions are extant. By 1920, this was a thriving urban community with many resident black property owners and tenants, and with a well-developed social, political and commercial infrastructure. Major change began in the 1920s. Development of new subdivisions for whites only left Freedmantown surrounded. During this decade of tremendous population growth, the neighborhood could no longer expand outward. So it expanded within its boundaries. By 1928, population densities were six times the average for Houston as a whole. As a result, more affluent residents began to move to black neighborhoods in Third Ward and Fifth Ward, closer to the edges of Houston, leaving Freedmantown increasingly a neighborhood of the poor. In 1940, the area north of West Dallas, site of the original Freedmantown, was cleared to make way for what is now the San Felipe Courts Historic District, a whites-only public housing complex. Another major public works project, construction of IH -45 around downtown in the mid-1950s, removed another large block of housing, West Park and the area's professional baseball park. Construction of the freeway led to the loss of all of the community east of Heiner Street, with the single exception of Antioch Baptist Church.

Much of the importance of the Freedmen's Town Historic District is tied to its role in the social and political history of Houston's black community. Its name clearly indicates its significance to former slaves. Many prominent leaders lived and worked within the district, but their influence was citywide. Among these was the Reverend Jack Yates, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, who provided leadership in establishing early black educational institutions in Houston and Texas. His son, Rutherford Yates, was a teacher and owner of the first black press in Houston, used to publish the Texas Freedman, Houston Informer, and Houston Defender. The Reverend Jeremiah Smith was instrumental in founding Union HospitaL It is said that his congregation laid the original bricks along Andrews Street when the City refused to in the early part of the century. These brick streets are one of the key design elements of the district. The pivotal role of the Freedmen's Town Historic District in the Founders Park issue is perhaps best summed up in this description from its National Register nomination, written by Kenneth Breisch in 1984: "Because of its proximity to downtown Houston and the constantly rising value of land, what is left of the western section of this neighborhood is now also being threatened on all sides. Even more so today than in the early part of this century, when it was locked in by unbending segregation, what remains of the Freedmen's Town community stands like an island set apart. In both reality and spirit, however, it still represents all that survives of Houston's oldest free black settlement."

CALENDAR june 9-16

Archeological Field School of the Texas Archeological SoCiety, Utopia, Texas. For infonnation, contact TAS, do Center lor Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, 1X 78285. Call 512/ 691-4462

june 13-16

Sacred Trusts III, 3rd national conference on the care and stewardship of religious properties, Boston. Call

617!lll-4679. june 17

GHPA Walking Tour, Main StreetlMarket Sq. Historic District, 2:00 p.m., call 236-5000.

june 20

GHPA Walking Tour, Main StreetlMarket Sq. Historic District, 12:00 noon, call 236-5000.

july 9-11

Houston Economic Summit

july 15

GHPA Walking Tour, Main StreetlMarket Sq. Historic District, 2:00 p.m., call 236-5000.

july 14

Charlotte B. Allen's Birthday

july 18

GHPA Walking Tour, Main StreetIMarket Sq. Historic District, 2:00 p.m., call 236-5000.

If you have not seen the Freedmen's Town Historic District, we urge you to do so. Each week the historic architecture of this neighborhood is literally disappearing to demolition and fire. How this district can survive--be it in situ, reconfigured with the remaining structures, or only as a token museum of shotgun houses--should be of concern to every preservationist. What happens there may well influence how other historic neighborhoods fare in Houston.

TEXAS HERITAGE TOURISM PROGRAM OUTLINED AT AWARDS LUNCHEON opportunities; (3) program design and administration; (4) product development; (5) marketing and communications; (6) research and evaluation. Each of the four regional projects that will participate in Texas's program will be asked to (1) uphold five preservation principles: authenticity and quality; (2) education and interpretation; (3) preservation and protection; (4) local priorities and capability; (5) partnership.

GHPA Vice President Minnette Boesel presents Preservation Award to Mrs. Faith Bybee. N~ Do.. to !>rinur trTOf', ~ photo c.p<Wns ...... ",;,..,w~ ~ 011 thU poge.

Approximately 125 people attended the Preservation Alliance's May 18 Preservation Week luncheon at the Wyndham Warwick. Mrs. Faith Bybee was honored for her longstanding leadership and service to preservation in Houston and other areas in Texas. Texas First Lady Rita Clements, introduced to the luncheon guests by Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau Chairman Robert Sakowitz, discussed the new Texas Heritage Tourism Program, being developed jointly with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Mrs. Clements chaired the state committee that developed the 1989 application to the National Trust outlining Texas's proposal for participation in this program. Mrs. Clements explained the six路point approach that will be used to accomplish the goal of developing the historic resources in an area to attract and please the traveling pUblic: (1) resource identification; (2) investigation of

Texas Frrst Lady Rita Clements describes Texas Heritage Tourism Program at May 18 luncheon.

As we explained in the last issue of For Preservation, the four regions to be targeted initially by this program are the Cotton Industry Region, the LBJ Heartland, the Missions of EI Paso, and the Galveston Bay region. At present, the Texas Heritage Tourism Program is a three路year demonstration project. At the end of three years, the Tourism DiVision of the Texas Department of Commerce and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will determine if the program should be expanded to other areas of Texas.



get many similar calls about possible building demolitions in Houston. Is such路 and-such building a protected landmark? Callers are almost always shocked to learn that Houston has no landmark ordinance, no provision for establishing protected historic districts, and that friendly persuasion is usually the only tool available to preservationists. Our community's cultural and architectural history is one of the issues at stake in the current discussions about planning and zoning in Houston. Historic preservation in Houston desperately needs historic overlay zoning, which presupposes basic plain vanilla comprehensive planning and zoning. Period. Here's another outrageous idea. Houston is more than old enough to have historic preservation. Have you heard anyone say that historic preservation is okay for older Eastern cities such as Boston and New York, but doesn't apply to young cities like Houston? Unless my ears were playing tricks, I heard this absurdity again at one of the recent zoning forums. Believe me, there are many cities in this country that are less than 154 years old that have strong, vital programs of local historic preservation, and those cities are often deriving very significant economic benefits through tourism and increased tax revenues as a direct result of preservation. Houston's chronological age is not an impediment to a valid preservation program. Thanks to all who responded to our recent membership renewal letters. If you received a notice but haven't sent in your check, we hope you will do so right away. In return, you'll receive one of our spiffy new membership cards and an opportunity to take part in members-only events, such as our annual December Holiday Party. You'll also share in the satisfaction of working with other Houstonians to improve the quality of life in our community through the preservation of its cultural and architectural history.

Margie Elliott


D.~~~~;~: Jr., '~~~lni

Charles Graham Luhn. President::::eleet Barthel Truxillo. 1st Vice President , Minriette Boesel, 2nd Vice President , ViCki List. Secretary John T. Hanriah; Treasurer Barrie sCardIno, Past President J.Stev~ri : Brooks Roberta F. Burroughs Allyson P.G'ook ,< Algenita ScottDavi$ MorgimHill ,:' Susan Keeton ::c, Rafael Longoria Clark Martinson , Barry Moore lOis Morris Patl;c;iaMWheat


BOARD OF ADVISORS , Jeff Baioutine RaysaiT BnanBeard ,Nia BOCnel Jane Ellen Cable

' J~bn~Cl~ay

Mrs. John KCro6ker. Jr. MikeDavis ,','. ,.'. Mrs. Lee M. EII,wOOd 路 Edwin A. Eubanks Will FiSher Stephen Fox Susan Hill Truett Latimer The Reverend John A. Logan O. Jack Mitchell Martha Murphree The Honorable Vince Ryan The Honorable Eleanor Tinsley GarY Warwick Michael WilsOn

Houston now has a great new information source on local architecture. The Houston Chapter of A.LA. and Herring Press have just published Houston Architectural. Guide. text by Stephen Fox, written from a historical perspective "in the conviction that Houstonians. as well as visitors. can better understand the present and take responsibility for the future by learning about the past." Congratulations and thank you, Stephen.

*** Preservation Texas Alliance (PTA) elected new officers and board members at its annual meeting. held in Abilene April 27-29, held in conjunction with this year's State Historic Preservation Conference. Officers for 1990-91 are President Jill Souter (San Antonio); Vice President Margie Elliott (Houston); Secretary Bob Bowman (Lufkin); Treasurer Paula Peters (Dallas). Minnette Boesel. Houston, was elected to the board, together with Betty Massey from Galveston and Janet Francis from San Antonio. Other members of the PTA board are Richard Dillard (Abilene), Mary Ann Dodson (El Paso), Richard Meyer (Austin), Marty Craddock (Fort Worth), Sandy Pickett (Liberty), Roy Graham (Austin), Jim Rome (Corpus Christi), Bessie Chisum (Beaumont), Mark Lund (Brownsville), Betty Howell (Amarillo), and Lunelle Anderson (San Marcos).

PRES~RVATI6~iS : Publishe~

Margie C. Ellioti;Exocutive Director

A CORRECTION The last issue of the newsletter contained an error in the reported distribution of the houses slated for repair in the Houston Committee for Private Sector Initiatives spring program. This spring's program has repaired 25 houses in Fifth Ward/Frenchtown, 18 in West End/Heights, 16 in Denver Harbor, 15 in Near Northside, 11 in the First Ward, and 4 in the East End. Work in the First Ward was accidentally omitted.

The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance 712 Main Street, Suite 110 Houston, Texas 77002-3207 Address Correction Requested Return Postage Guaranteed

FOR bimonthly by the Greater Houston Preservation Alliahce, : J:' SteVen Brooks, Chairman, p!:Jbiications Committee. Contrib\jtor: Stephen Fox.

PTA members from all over the state will meet in Austin on October 3 for a workshop on preservation issues that will come before the Texas State Legislature in the 1991 session. Some of these issues have already been identified. Another attempt will be made to get a human remains bill passed and signed into law. Preservationists throughout the state want to get a bill passed to repeal sales tax on rehabilitation, restoration, and remodeling. Consideration is being given to development of a state-level review and mitigation process for historic resources that could resemble the federal-level Section 106 process.


May 1990 GHPA Newsletter  

"For Preservation," the newsletter of Greater Houston Preservation Alliance