Historic Homes in Houston Decimated by Harvey Floods

On a recent Friday morning Sam Scott walked through his Texas house for the last time.

The Houston Chronicle reports he grabbed a dust mask from his car and entered through the open garage. The door had buckled during Hurricane Harvey and had to be ripped off to remove the car trapped inside.

“Bad things happened here during the flood,” Scott said, walking through each mold-infested room in a business suit and pink tie.

Within hours, the home he and his wife raised three children in – the space they’d painstakingly renovated over two decades, one of the neighborhood’s remaining examples of midcentury architecture – would be just a memory. An excavator’s claw would take its first swipe at the home’s low-pitched roof. The machine would not stop until every red brick, every clerestory window and every wood beam was a pile of rubble left to be hauled to the dump.

That same claw has torn through many other midcentury moderns in Memorial Bend, a west Houston neighborhood of about 350 homes.

“Y’all have the contract on that one?” Scott asked a technician from the demolition company, pointing to a mod nearby.

“I’m not sure. I got like 30 of `em,” came the response.

In the months since Harvey, the city has issued at least 19 residential demolition permits in this family-oriented neighborhood where the street names are all taken from operas. Four on Figaro. Four on Faust. Two on Tosca.

Not all of the homes have architectural significance, but historians, preservationists and homeowners are grieving over Memorial Bend and other postwar neighborhoods that are rapidly losing their traditional character. The process started years before the storm as land got more valuable and teardowns more common, but the flooding speeded the process along.

Memorial Bend, which spans both sides of Beltway 8 between Memorial Drive and Buffalo Bayou, had one of the largest concentrations of 1950s-modern houses in Houston, according to a website documenting the area’s modern structures. Many were designed by pre-eminent architects of the era.

“These neighborhoods took about a decade to build. Now we’re seeing many of them lost in months,” said local architect Steven Curry, who runs Houston Mod, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of modern architecture.

Braeswood Place and Meyerland, Curry said, are facing similar losses to their postwar structures whose designs represent a time of innovation and optimism, when people were asking: “How can we do more with less? How can we do things differently, but better?”

Even many owners of midcentury mods who would like to repair their properties can’t get permits to repair because the city wants them to elevate their homes, said Robert Searcy, a real estate agent who specializes in selling 1950s-era properties.

“The reality is, I don’t think people are going to do that,” Searcy said. “As much as it pains me and anybody else that appreciates that style, the grim reaper has come calling.”

Scott and his family moved into Memorial Bend in 1996 when his wife, Leanne, was pregnant with their third child. They moved from a bungalow in the Heights because their oldest was about to start kindergarten and they liked the schools out west.

The couple renovated. They added on twice.

When they became empty-nesters a few years ago, the Scotts bought a house in Willow Meadows to be closer to Leanne Scott’s job in the Texas Medical Center.

They put the 1957 house in Memorial Bend on the market and spent about $75,000 making it move-in ready. They listed it at close to $800,000.

But as the oil slump took hold, the market softened and the Scotts dropped their price to $700,000.

“The only ones calling on us wanted to buy the lot,” Scott said.

So they decided to find a renter. A family with four young boys moved in.

The Scotts were planning to try to sell their home again just before Harvey. Over the summer, they spent $17,000 on a new roof.

As the storm bore down, the renters evacuated. When the water finally receded, Scott returned to the home. He removed the furniture, sprayed the walls and floors with fungicide and opened all the windows. It was hard to imagine putting the house back together.

“The floors weren’t just ruined but they had bubbled up with odd mounds sticking 2 feet up from the floor,” Scott said.

He spoke to a contractor who told him it would cost about $30,000 to remediate. The house had flood insurance, but the cost to repair it would have been far more than what the structure would be worth.

Harvey accelerated the demise of Memorial Bend’s mods, but it wasn’t the cause.

The neighborhood had already started transforming as land prices shot up and longtime homeowners sold out to builders with generous offers.

A blog dedicated to the history and architecture of the neighborhood was last updated in January 2007 with a warning about McMansions replacing the one-story ranches: “Fortunately, not all news is bad news. In fact, several houses are in the process of being restored or appear to be saved.”

David Reid, who lives around the corner from Scott, was standing outside with his next-door neighbor Phillip Chin. They were off work that Friday, checking on the progress of the renovations to their flooded homes, which were both built in 2013.

Aside from a few older homes that appear to be in the process of being fixed up, “there are just razed houses everywhere,” Reid said.

“You know what’s going to happen,” he said over the din of saws and work trucks. “It’s zoned to Memorial High School. It’s going to be all new builds.”

As bad as Harvey was, memories are short, Chin said.

“In three years, none of these dumpsters are here, you don’t have any of these trucks. There are new houses, kids running around, and things get fairly back to parity in terms of home values hopefully,” he said.

About 15 properties are currently for sale in Memorial Bend. Builders are purchasing lots and so are some families who couldn’t afford to move to the neighborhood pre-Harvey, said Marie Dupres, a real estate agent who also lives there.

The average price for an older house that flooded is down about $100,000, she said. Many of them are listed at around $550,000 but the sales prices are coming in at around $530,000.

As more new homes are built, Dupres said, the local homeowners association has been tightening restrictions on new construction.

There are now rules around preserving green space and trees, as well as how much of the lot a new structure can fill.

“That’s how I believe they’re trying to preserve some of the integrity of the neighborhood,” she said.

Last October, a house on Faust was featured as part of an ongoing Houston Mod event called “Mod of the Month.”

The chosen homes are typically listed for sale and the events help draw potential new preservation-minded owners.

The house recently sold, but the city has issued a plumbing permit to disconnect the sewer line, the step that precedes demolition.

Dupres, who had the listing, said the new owner is planning to build a home on the lot with a midcentury modern style.

Scott’s house on Figaro is described on the Memorial Bend architecture website.

William Norman Floyd, a prominent architect of the era, designed the home. It had the classic midcentury design elements: a sloped, beamed ceiling, clerestory windows and low-pitched roof.

An “out of this world house,” boasted a January 1958 newspaper advertisement: “A $30,000 home for $25,496.”

Scott says what he’ll miss most about the house are the rectangular windows that ran across the top of the wall.

He loved how the afternoon light came in and that instead of looking out at neighbors and cars in the street, the views were of blue skies and the tops of pine trees.

That Friday morning, Scott had taken a break from a conference at a nearby business center to visit his old home. His wife didn’t want to be there. She wanted to remember the house how it was.

“We kind of gave it every shot we had as far as trying to take care of it and fix it up,” he said. “In the end, nature has much more powerful forces that certainly lay your plans to waste.”

That afternoon, Scott would be going to Glenwood Cemetery for a funeral of a longtime friend.

He was planning to swap his pink tie with a dark one he had brought along that day – one that was beginning and ending with goodbyes.

“There is a certain dirge-like feeling to the day,” Scott said. “At the same time a tremendous sense of relief. This is an obstacle to be overcome and there’s no way I can get to where I need to be with this house still here.”