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That’s Soooo Houston

That quintessential Houston look? What is it?




We know it when we see it – “Oh, yes, that’s soooo Houston!” But how to define it in terms of how we live, what we cherish about our particular – some would say peculiar – residential style is not so easy to pin down. But hey, this is Houston, so in keeping with that can-do, leap-into-the-unknown spirit, we decided to give it a shot. Freelance journalist

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Gabrielle Cosgriff asked several perceptive, engaged Houstonians to share their thoughts on what it is about this urban, homey, car-choked, leafy, contrary kaleidoscope of a city that makes it home.

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That’s Soooo Houston


Carrie Shoemake, Houston architect: It’s hard to talk about Houston architecturally. It was formed with a wildcatter, I-can-do-this mentality, so there’s a broad mix of vernaculars. The things that move the senses here are the green – that soothing aspect of shade trees and green hues and how that affects our buildings and the quality of the light – and the sky, the fragrances, the seasonal aspect, like in the spring, the first sight of those beautiful tulip magnolia trees. Our humidity also affects the light and the sky, especially our sunsets – such a theater of colors, light and refraction. Because we’re in air-conditioning so much, we need to be able to access the outside – screened porches and ways to balance the light. We can have it come into a room from more than one direction to reduce the glare – a result of the moisture in our air. We can place windows so the light moves seasonally around the room. It reminds us that we’re part of the solar system, it’s free and we can all experience it. And in Houston, it helps make up for our lack of seasons.

Dave Thompson of ttweak, co-author of HIWI (Houston. It’s Worth It): Everybody talks about Houston’s diversity, its lack of zoning, but I prefer to call it permissiveness – the idea that it’s okay to do what you want regardless of your neighbors. You don’t have that keeping-up-with-theJoneses so much here. If I want to put pink flamingoes on my lawn or cover my house with beer cans that’s okay. My accountant painted her house bright orange with a purple trim and that was fine with her homeowners’ association. It’s the aggregation of these things that make it so Houston. Take that stretch of Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet and Holcombe: You’ve got all kinds of architecture there – ranch-style houses, cottages, Tudor, faux chateaux, that crazy “Darth Vader” house with the big black triangle. Will I see a Colonial? Yes! A bungalow? Yes! A contemporary? Yes! It’s bizarre. I love it. It’s just an extraordinary freedom of expression.

Above: Houston residence designed by Glassman Shoemake Maldonado Architects

Residential architecture styles...


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mix freely along Buffalo Speedway

A John Staub-designed Tudor manor house

Scott Ballard, Houston residential architect: The best of Houston architecture goes back to John Staub, mostly his pre-World War II houses. Drive up and down North and South Boulevards, through River Oaks – they’re beautifully composed, striking, an East Coast vocabulary but with glorious views of Houston’s oaks. Now you see a lot of Staub wannabees, big West U and River Oaks McMansions, lots of pillars. Houston’s such an entrepreneurial place, some people have made a lot of money and they try to duplicate that look. But for people with less money, who want to do something different, their own taste and their own art can complement anything a designer can do. In Houston, if you have a good idea, people are willing to let you do it, to sit back and see what happens. It has allowed me to do some off-the wall things, to be an artist as well as an architect.


Rick Lowe, founder of Houston’s Project Row Houses: I just came back from a trip, and was reminded how great it is to get back to Houston. My Third Ward neighbors still sit out on the porch and you get that friendly wave and that nod. Houston’s a big city but it’s gifted with these small-town touches. Conversely, it always puzzles me how we develop neighborhoods, nice houses, trees, and then – boom! out of nowhere here’s this big, threestory townhouse that’s just plugged itself in there. We have this extreme juxtaposition that always makes me cringe. And there’s a great folk art atmosphere here – not just publicly, but in how people live. People make things all the time. I know a guy who covers tables with matchsticks. It’s just something he does. Another guy had a room full of masks that he would make for fun and give away. It’s a renegade, kind of outsider, attitude, but it’s not strange. In fact in Houston it’s a compliment.

Elouise (Ouisie) Jones, owner of Ouisie’s Table: I’ve lived in all kinds of houses and loved them all because you can express yourself, it’s a creative outlet. My husband Harry and I chose every plant in our garden – I told him we had to call it a garden because we’d spent far too much money on it to keep calling it a yard. We have a plethora of bamboo because I think it’s so gorgeous that a grass can grow to 65 feet tall. In early summer, the shoots come up like asparagus.

nes Ouisie and Harry Jo chose every plant in en. their tropical gard

Project Row Houses

My grandmother was very conscious of that creativity, not anything pretentious, just graceful and livable. She passed that down to my mother and to us. I still have the big conch shells she used as doorstops, before air-conditioning, to catch the breezes. I love them. But I also adore air-conditioning. It’s my favorite invention, and I love ceiling fans in the house, on the porch. I like the activity they create. But air-conditioning has a lot to do with why many of us live in boxes. You need vistas and views to enjoy interiors. I believe in bringing the outside in – people did that naturally before air-conditioning. Now, we build for air-conditioning first, then it goes out and we don’t know how to act.

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That’s Soooo Houston Carlos Jimenez, architect: Houston is either maligned or celebrated for its lack of zoning. This driven city has become a vast yet often wasteful and unmitigated field where everything grows or sprouts. The city’s elusive context and frontier spirit do not automatically mean an indifference to place. In fact, Houston becomes ever more interesting once we understand the singularity of its physical determinants – its agile infrastructure or abundant treescape. Thus a marvelous live oak, a particular view, a distinct quality of light, a porous wall, or a shaded garden acquires greater significance as it profits the project’s life. In this regard a work such as Discovery Green, our downtown park, is exemplary in its many contributions to the city’s betterment. It encapsulates the enlightened merger of business and public space. It is an enterprise that transcends many times over the myopic rules of profit for profit’s sake.

Discovery Green park is playful Candice Schiller, design director, Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group: The nature of the city sets the tone for its architecture, and that’s what we’ve tried to express in our new place – Houston’s great fashion and art and design and its rich, environment. Plus, we are all products of our past, and RDG + Bar Annie is the evolution of Café Annie. We have floral, happy fabrics downstairs, then gold and red, for a rich saloon aspect, in the bar, and the grill room is done in brown leathers and fabrics, all epitomizing different facets of the city. You can see the outside, views of our great architecture, from just about anywhere inside. There’s a welcoming, communal green granite table in the bar, and we have a lovely encaustic tile floor with an old Cuban design, a little reference to Houston’s past, like you’d find in 1920s and ’30s houses. Medically and in business and energy Houston is second to none, but in that sense of freedom and openness we’re still like the old west. Chances are always good that innovation will be well received.

The new Bar Annie references Houston’s past and present

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Richard Holley, interior designer: There is a tradition here of individuals and families who have made it big and give back big. So many of our arts institutions have been founded by, funded by and supported by Houstonians. We’re blessed with people who aren’t afraid to step up to the plate, if not with money, then with time and talent. It’s enormously democratic – anybody can participate. This exuberance, this vibrancy, that Houstonians bring to the arts reflects itself in our homes. Houston used to have a really conservative mindset. Georgian furniture was a religion. Then people came along like [designer] Herbert Wells, who was so unafraid of color and mixing things up, and the Menils, who showed people there was a different, more relaxed way to live. Now, people are less afraid of contemporary or abstract art, of photography as art. Our institutions, large and small, our galleries, have opened our eyes. Local talent flourishes.

Suzanne Theis, Discovery Green program director, longtime Orange Show Art Car Parade executive director: To me, it’s the mix of people that makes for those great Houston moments: I always think of the Art Car Ball – rich people, poor people, artists, bankers –all kinds celebrating together, people become performers, with their costumes and instruments. That’s what’s lovable about our city, unlike other cities, where it can take generations to become established. Here, you have a good idea, energy, chutzpah, you can make it. I remember an Eye-Opener tour when I took a bunch of folks, some from River Oaks, to the Third Ward to see the Flower Man’s place. Then I’d see these River Oaks gardens begin to reflect that – putting different flowers together, a riot of color. The downside of a city that constantly reinvents itself is the loss of so many historical landmarks. But the upside is that it’s consistently fresh, always moving forward. I’m a preservationist, but I’ve come to appreciate that forwardthinking energy, that always looking to tomorrow that makes Houston Houston.


Interior design by Richard Holley

Interior design by David Stone David Stone, longtime Houston interior designer: Houston is so cosmopolitan, with so many different influences. The way people live -- you get off an elevator in a condo and all of a sudden you think you’re in Venice or Florence, not vulgar, but with great style. Or you could just as easily walk into a contemporary home and it has three pieces of furniture. It’s my job to do what’s appropriate for Houston: for example, I’m not going to upholster a lot of furniture in mohair plush. Houstonians tend to be more eclectic, and to take themselves less seriously. Many of them have interesting homes, whereas if they lived in New York or on the West Coast they might not be so individualistic. Someone with a very formal living room might still have a throw tossed casually on a couch. That Houston air-conditioning can get a bit chilly.

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That’s Soooo Houston Teresa O’Connor, installation artist, owner Hello-Lucky boutique: Houston has many affordable artists’ spaces and that just breeds the artistic spirit that pumps through this city. We’re fearless, unapologetic. We mix ideas, colors, fabrics and ethnicities. This was a table leg, now it’s a shelf bracket. But we’re also nostalgic. Even if we don’t know an object’s history we respect the n fact that it has a history. rt Housto a e h o t y It’s oka The cultural part of the city is Teresa wears a T-shirt not obvious – like, say, New Elm in Dallas. My friend Dean Haddock designed by her friend, designed a T-shirt that says “It’s okay to ‘heart’ Houston.” I like that underDean Haddock. Proceeds from shirt sales benefit statement. (So do New Yorkers. He moved there and is always being asked Houston’s Spacetaker where he got his shirt.) It’s like people who tell me they love seeing that little Artist Resource Center, which helped Haddock repiñata place right next to the Glass Wall restaurant. That’s why people fight establish his career after when developers come in and want to homogenize everything. he fled Hurricane Katrina.

Lisa Gray, Houston Chronicle columnist: Houston robs you of your longterm memory. “What used to be there?” you ask all the time. What was there before that new skyscraper? Before that block of townhouses? Driving down a street you used to know, you can't find your old landmarks – the fourplex where your friend used to live, the bungalow where you played poker, the building where that great Jewish bakery was. The first time you miss something, you wonder: “Am I remembering that right?” But over time, the old place fades from your memory; there's nothing to remind you of the friend, of the poker games, of those macaroons. The effect is like having Alzheimer's, only in reverse: You live in the present. Your past disappears.

ner hwest cor t r o n e h t n of ter. Demolitio pping Cen o h S s k a of River O

Houston gardens are becoming wilder, more colorful and informal Suzanne Longley, landscaping business owner, former Houston Ballet prima ballerina. Houston used to be mostly green, with not much color, but that’s changed in the past 30 years. Our gardens have become a lot more sophisticated. You don’t have so many of those little “moustache” landscapes – those symmetrical plantings on either side of the front door. We’re getting into native plants and a wilder landscape, more informal. And of course, our trees – we have an amazing variety of colors, shapes and blooms, not just live oaks and pines. Two things I’ve been noticing: Right now, with our water situation, and with global warming looming, I see a big push to native plants. We need to use these plants. We have all these marvelous colors and shapes to pick from. And Houstonians are embracing water features, which go well in almost any garden – not anything ornate, necessarily, maybe a small urn or trickling fountain. And one thing we Houstonians do well to remember: it’s about 10 degrees cooler in the shade of a tree.

house& home | S e p t e m b e r 2 0 0 9 | h o u s e a n d h o m e o n l i n e . com

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That's Soooo Houston  

What makes a house look and feel distinctly like it's in Houston? Some perceptive locals tell us.

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