In 2009, Evan Michaelides and his wife Laura purchased a late-19th-century Queen Anne cottage for $137,500 near the corner of Summer Street and Silver Street in Houston’s First Ward, a working-class neighborhood just west of downtown that was originally established in 1840 as one of the city’s original four political wards. Although the house was in poor repair, the couple decided not to tear it down, instead taking the house down to its studs and starting over, restoring and replacing the original wainscoting and pine floors, and installing new, historically authentic windows and trim. The house is now the office for the Michaelides’s company, Four Square Design Studio, which, appropriately enough, specializes in creating the construction drawings and providing the design work necessary for faithful renovations. The couple is currently renovating a separate house to live in; until then, they’re living in Woodland Heights.
Although they had bought during the Great Recession, the economy soon began to perk up, as did land-hungry developers with their eyes on the First Ward’s prime location. “The area had been depressed for some time, but then a few years ago it started to bounce back from the recession and a lot of old homes were razed to build townhomes,” Evan Michaelides said. “Some of the homes were in bad shape, but many were in really good condition and were capable of being restored. They were built well, out of really good materials.”
In 2013, the couple started a campaign to have the neighborhood designated a historic district by the city, which would prevent homes from being demolished and limit the changes that could be made to existing structures. Although they found substantial support from some of their neighbors, others worried that the designation would hurt property values and limit renovation options. Historic districts have preservation manuals that regulate everything from the height of buildings to the permissible building materials.
“They don’t have to be oppressive, but there do have to be rules,” said developer and prominent preservationist Bob Fretz. “How else do you enforce the whole premise of a historic district?”
One of the people who fought the Michaelides’s plan was Alexandra Orzeck, who owns three properties in the First Ward, including the four-plex in which she’s lived since 2011. “I definitely believe the integrity of the neighborhood should be maintained,” she said. “But it reaches a point where it’s impractical—in historic districts now, some people can’t even replace their windows because that interferes with the integrity of the house. I maintain the integrity of my house, but I like doing it on my own terms, without it being dictated by a historic society.”
Orzeck knows the downside to being in a historic district first-hand: she owned 10 properties in the Heights when the neighborhood was declared a historic district in 2010, and said she had difficulty selling them because of restrictions. “Who is going to want to buy into these neighborhoods in 20 years? Who’s going to want to buy a house where they can’t make changes?”—at least changes that aren’t allowed by the historic district guidelines.
Last May, the City Council voted to grant historic status to the so-called High First Ward—an oddly shaped area comprising 55 single-family homes and duplexes built between 1890 and 1930. The city’s 22nd historic district isn’t as large or as contiguous as the Michaelides had hoped, but they viewed it as a good start. None of Orzeck’s properties were included in the district. As for the naysayers’ prediction that property values would be depressed, well…
“It’s quite the opposite,” said Michaelides. “People have been attracted to the fact that it’s a historic district, and we’ve seen a lot of homes restored. The pace has really picked up, which is not a surprise, because if you look at other neighborhoods that are historic districts, they’ve done very well. Go to Woodland Heights or the Sixth Ward, and tell me if those look like depressed areas.”