For many people, I suppose, Houston brings to mind tall glass towers sitting cheek by jowl with small gas stations and grandfathered (if not exactly grandfatherly) shops. Its historic character was submerged long before Hurricane Harvey. Zoning is a free-for-all there, with few rules, let alone protections for historic buildings. Nothing is permitted to hinder the hurly-burly of the market for development.
But Houston does have a laudable collection of historic buildings. The largest is the Main Street Market Square District north of downtown, the city’s only commercial historic district. All of its other 18 historic districts are residential – and tiny, compared with most of those in Providence. Houston’s remaining set of fine early commercial buildings was designated a historic district in 1997. About half are considered “noncontributing,” which is to say they do not really add to the feeling of history that historic districts are intended to foster. Compare that to Providence’s downtown financial and commercial districts, which I’d say they are only about 10 percent noncontributing. Thus, our downtown is only slightly eroded by modern buildings. Granted, some of the noncontributing structures here are big office towers, and, lest we forget, downtown has had some experience of historic flooding.
No doubt there are nice buildings scattered around Houston. Here are some, starting with Main Street Market Square. I wish I had more information about how well or poorly Houston’s historic districts have fared in the wake of Harvey. I have heard zilch. Hopefully, those which have been inundated can be saved. The city’s residents have shown a remarkable resilience, and here’s hoping the death toll remains low.