Houston’s first homes were so meager that an early traveler, navigating his way up Buffalo Bayou in 1837, didn’t even notice them, or the town, for that matter. “Just before reaching our destination a party of us, becoming weary of the steamer, took a yawl and concluded we would hunt for the city,” wrote Dr. John Washington Lockhart. “So little evidence could we see of a landing that we passed by the site and [ran] into White Oak Bayou, realizing that we must have passed the city when we struck the brush.”
When he finally backtracked, Lubbock discovered that the first Houstonians lived in rudimentary shacks; others, too poor to afford lumber, had erected tents. By the end of the year, however, the city had made astonishing progress, according to Sam Houston: “On the 20th of January,” wrote the Republic of Texas president, “a small log cabin and 12 persons were all that distinguished it from the adjacent forests, and now there are upwards of 100 houses finished, and going up rapidly (some of them fine frame buildings).” Over the years, those “fine frame buildings” have given way to mansions, manors, and modernist showpieces, and yet there are some constants—the housing market is still booming, and people are still flabbergasted by the city’s capacity for growth.
But what makes a great home? Is it cutting-edge architecture? Size and expense? Livability? Those are the questions Houstonia recently posed to a panel of four local architecture experts, whom we assembled to help choose the 10 greatest homes that exist in Houston. Prior to that, we asked each panelist to submit a personal top 10 list, which we then compiled into a single long list of candidates—you can see the entire thing on our website, at houstoniamag.com—which we asked our jury, led by architectural historian and professor Stephen Fox, to discuss one by one. Some were quickly rejected; others received near-universal praise; still others provoked heated debate. By evening’s end, however, we had achieved rough unanimity.
The 10 houses on our final list were built between 1847 and 2012 by architects both obscure and world-famous. Some are massive; some are modest. Some are still inhabited; some are now museums. There are Houston icons and hidden gems. The only thing these houses have in common, it seems, is their greatness according to one panel of experts. And while there’s surely no Platonic Form of housing greatness, we like to think that, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, all of us know greatness when we see it. —Michael Hardy