Houston's Endangered Art Deco

One by one, Houston's Art Deco buildings and homes are disappearing almost every day. One preservation group is doing its best to make people aware of what the city is losing, in the hope of saving some of the old structures. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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Art Deco was the architectural and interior design style popular for several decades after 1920. It was stylish and colorful, and it was the Roaring 20s' rejection of the dark pessimism of World War I, and the neoclassical emperial architecture of the 19th century. Between the world wars, countless buildings, museums, airports, apartment buildings, private homes and movie theaters were built in Art Deco style. Only one Houston theater from that period -- the River Oaks -- is still in use. Standing in front of the River Oaks, David Bush of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance said Art Deco is everywhere you look in this town.

"Houston City Hall is a really good example. Joseph Finger designed that, and it's been restoered and maintained very well over the years."

The old 1940 Houston Municipal Airport terminal on Telephone Road is classic Art Deco. It sat empty and abandoned for many years, but preservationists are restoring it and turning it into a flight museum. Other examples:

"San Jacinto Monument by Alflred Finn, the biggest example probably. The Jeff Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway. Sam Houston Coliseum and the Music Hall downtown."

All those but monument are gone now. The Hobby Center and parking garage have replaced the Coliseum and the Music Hall. Bush says it's tragic but many other Art Deco buildings and homes are also disappearing fast in Houston's freewheeling rush to tear down the old and build the new, because:

"Houston's laws don't prevent the demolition of designated city landmarks. That's one of the myths where people think it's a city land mark so it won't be torn down. Or it'll be listed on the National Register of Historic places, so it won't be torn down. And that's not true. Neither one of those offer any protection from demolition."

While the GHPA and other groups campaign constantly for a preservation ordinance with real teeth, Bush and web designer Jim Parsons have created a website catalogue of Houston's Art Deco structures, those still in use, those still standing but not in use anymore, and those that are gone. Parsons says he had no idea how big a job that would be.

"At first when we were just brainstorming we thought there might have been fifty Art Deco buildings standing in the city. And, you know, we tracked down those fifty, and then as we drove around and walked around we kept noticing them popping up more and more, and now I think the website is close to 130, and that's not nearly all of them."

Parsons urges anyone who knows of an Art Deco house or building that's not on the website to let them know so it can be included. Along with the website, Bush and Parsons have produced a book about the city's Art Deco architecture, and it's due out in the fall. Take a tour of Houston's Art Deco on our website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.