Editor’s Note

Unnatural History

Preserving the most venerable of all Houston’s institutions.

By Scott Vogel July 9, 2015 Published in the July 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

Someday, when scholars pen histories of life in early 21st-century Houston, August 2013 will prove to have been a  watershed moment. It was then that a sea change in the Bayou City’s attitude toward its own past—from utter callousness to pretend friendship—was first observed. “News of the impending demolition of the Macy’s née Foley’s downtown building flooded newspapers, internet and television,” wrote a breathless Teresa Tomkins-Walsh in something called Houston History magazine. “Many Houstonians fondly remembered the Christmas windows, the basement sales, the escalators, and the enveloping consumer experience.”

That the demise of a department store’s escalators would spark wailing and lamentations seemed to say less about the store itself than its starved-for-fun patrons. Furthermore, in the Encyclopedia of Healthy Living, “enveloping consumer experiences” fall somewhere between bloodletting and frontal lobotomies.

Still, it was impossible to deny the sudden, if subtle, mood shift. Formerly, the loss of a cultural touchstone had inspired little more than a collective shoulder-shrug. Now, pitchforks were being grabbed, now an army of irate preservationists was descending en masse onto the comments sections of various websites.

“My mom went into labor with me in this building!” shouted one virtual protester on the Bayou City History Facebook page. “We got Easter outfits there!” bleated another. “I took pictures with Santa at Foley’s!” yelled a third. (Exclamation points added for purposes of exaggeration.)

To me, any one of these adorable recollections seemed reason enough to save a building from the wrecking ball, or rather the explosive charges that ultimately reduced Macy’s née Foley’s to rubble over a few seconds last September. After all, why shouldn’t our descendants be able to see where Barbara, a member of the commentariat, had purchased a “going-away outfit” for her wedding in 1972? Wouldn’t their lives be somehow diminished for not beholding, as John C. did, the “tight corkscrew ramps leading up and out” of the Foley’s parking garage? Would they ever forgive our insanity for demolishing the place where Cody “actually bought our living room furniture”?

The last two plaintive cries were uttered over at that other Bayou City Book of the Dead, Swamplot.com, where there is an inverse relationship, science tells us, between an agitator’s outrage over a proposed bulldozing and the number of times he has actually visited/shopped at the spot during the last decade. A club open to only the most radical, militantly preservationist of internet do-nothings, Swamplot is a place where the closing of the Barbara Jordan Post Office downtown occasions the tearing of hair and rending of garments. (“We got our passports renewed there one Saturday—no line, in and out in 15 minutes!” “I’ve been going there every year for decades to send off my Christmas cards!”)

Amid all the hand-wringing, I found myself growing nostalgic too, for the negligent, squandering, unsentimental, destructive Houston of old. Our forefathers would not have issued referenda on the Astrodome’s fate. They would have gathered to say their goodbyes, danced Bacchic revels as the stadium was torched Burning Man–style in a ceremonial bonfire, and then begun building a Whataburger atop the still-smoldering embers.

While I am all for protecting and preserving Houston’s oldest, most venerable institutions, let us not forget that there is none older or more venerable than our urge for demolition. Some will no doubt chide me for advocating the preservation of mankind’s ugliest impulse, but these are people who have clearly never seen the downtown post office.

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