Woodland Heights

The Fine Line Between Art and Madness

Don't call Doug Dreher a hoarder.

By Michael Hardy Photography by Eric Kayne June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Around 3 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 2011, Doug Dreher was asleep in his Woodland Heights bungalow when he was awakened by the sounds of shattering glass and screaming. “Get your family!” a woman yelled. “Get out of the house!” Dreher, who lives alone, pulled on his pants and rushed to the front porch, where he found a group of strangers using a garden hose to douse a large fire that had spread from a candle Dreher had left burning on his porch to an outdoor rug, with flames already lapping against the roof. The group quickly put out the fire, told Dreher they had called the fire department, then got into their cars and drove off before he could get their names. 

Video: Newsfix

Doug Dreher, a barber shop owner in the Heights, represents the neighborhood’s vanishing artistic side.

Doug Dreher, a barber shop owner in the Heights, represents the neighborhood’s vanishing artistic side.

When the firefighters arrived, they told Dreher that if the fire had burned another five minutes it probably would have spread to the attic. If that had happened, the blaze would have made short work of his 1928 brick duplex, because the attic was packed with dozens of boxes containing the fruits of a lifetime of collecting. Indeed, the 62-year-old retired oil scout’s entire one-story home, where he’s lived since the late ’70s, is stuffed from floor to ceiling with thousands of highly inflammable objects, from stacks of old magazines to random pieces of driftwood. To traverse its 1,800 square feet is to wend your way through claustrophobic rooms filled to capacity and beyond with ratty furniture, ancient electronics, and towers of boxes. Scattered everywhere are dusty coffee table books with titles like Memories of Japan and boxes of 45s from ’50s-era Houston record labels. Every available surface is decorated with old photographs, bric-a-brac, and folk art, some of it by Dreher, some by others. Overhead, shelves are crammed with a 1,300-piece collection of McCoy pottery. The ceiling is covered in assembled jigsaw puzzles. 

Such is the baroque profusion of Dreher’s acquisitions that it overflows the confines of his house. The backyard is a combination junkyard and workshop, filled with bleached animal bones, imitation Greek columns, a table saw, and paint cans; Dreher has recently been painting his garage in multi-colored stripes as a silent protest against gentrification. In his front yard, bowling balls mounted on pieces of rebar sprout up like giant dandelions beneath a majestic southern magnolia.

“They saved my home for sure,” Dreher said of the anonymous Good Samaritans who’d put out his fire. “These old houses, they burn pretty quick.”

Dreher’s assessment of the incident—that the house itself would have been partly to blame if it had burned down—is notable for what it omits, namely that there was someone living there who had amassed an enormous number of combustible objects that he stacked and piled and packed into crates, unwittingly turning the house into a giant tinder box. To Dreher, his vast collections suggest a lifetime of aesthetic appreciation and love of preservation. They do not suggest that to everyone.

A few years prior to the fire, Dreher attended a concert at Fitzgerald’s with a married couple he later invited back to his house for a nightcap. As soon as the woman saw the clutter—the piles of driftwood, the puzzles on the ceiling, the towers of boxes—she was shocked. “The instant we got in the door she was like, ‘Oh, Doug, what’s wrong with you?’” Dreher remembered with a chuckle. As her husband looked on in silent embarrassment, Dreher gave her a tour of the house, the woman’s horror mounting with each new room. 

He was not a hoarder, he assured the woman, an assessment shared by Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistleblower and the daughter of Dreher’s late partner, with whom he shared the house for over thirty years. To her, Dreher has always been the definition of a passionate collector, a man so devoted to his métier that he made a career out of it. For years, Dreher worked as an oil scout for Amoco, a job that entailed traveling around the Gulf Coast acquiring information on where other oil companies were buying leases, as well as data on where Amoco itself might want to purchase land or mineral rights. “If you think about scouting, you’re collecting leases for your oil company,” said Watkins, who has remained close to Dreher in the years since her father’s death in 2010. “I guess he just likes hunting and gathering. It used to be leases, and now it’s McCoy pottery.” 

Increasingly, the question of what Doug Dreher likes—and whether those likes make him a collector or hoarder, eccentric or threat, law abider or law breaker—is being asked not just by Dreher’s friends and family but all of us. And how we answer it says as much about us as it does about Dreher.

Hoarding itself is nothing new. Dante reserves the fourth circle of hell for hoarders and wasters, and fictional hoarders appear in the works of Dickens, Balzac, and Gogol. These days, however, they are most often encountered on basic cable, in places like the A&E channel, whose Hoarders is now in its sixth season, the USA Network (Help! I’m a Hoarder), and Animal Planet (Confessions: Animal Hoarding). Last year, the American Psychiatric Association added Hoarding Disorder to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Hoarding appeared in earlier editions as well, but as a symptom of another illness, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.) It defines hoarding as “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” 

In April, the City Council passed a much-discussed anti-hoarding ordinance that makes it an offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500 a day, “to store or otherwise to accumulate in or on the dwelling unit objects or substances of a nature or in a quantity reasonably likely to create a hazard to the safety or health of an occupant of another dwelling unit.” 

Although the ordinance currently applies only to those living in buildings with at least two residential units and seems designed mainly to protect apartment-dwellers, there have been calls to extend its provisions to cover single-family homes like Dreher’s. And why not? After all, if Dreher’s house had gone up in flames it might easily have taken his neighbors’ houses with it. 

The media-driven fascination with hoarding, and the legislation it inspires, are the worst kind of overreaction, according to Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, whose 2010 book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, argues that hoarding is only pathological if the “clutter prevents the person from using his or her living space, and if acquiring and saving causes substantial distress or interference in everyday living.” In April, an editorial in the Chronicle coauthored by Frost, Steketee, and Harvard Medical School professor Jeff Szymanski criticized the city’s ordinance for effectively criminalizing mental illness. “The only result of such fines will be to impoverish those with little to begin with, while likely doing nothing to alleviate the underlying problems,” they wrote. 

Others are troubled in a different way by the new push toward legislating against hoarding. Susan Lepselter, a professor of American Studies at Indiana University who has written about hoarding reality shows, argues that society’s current fascination with hoarding stems from deep-seated worries about the ultimate consequences of 21st-century consumer culture. 

“It’s important to note that people do suffer, and can benefit from treatment,” Lepselter said. “But I think it’s also important to look at how and why we stigmatize certain behaviors, and the people who engage in those behaviors, and what that might tell us about larger social anxieties going on for everyone. The anti-hoarding scolder always says that the hoarders think these things are going to make them happy, and the hoarder is mistaken because things can’t make you happy. But that’s the whole premise of our economic system.”  

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Dreher first caught the collecting bug as a child growing up on a 100-acre dairy farm in eastern Ohio. After church on Sundays, he would roam the farm for hours with his father and grandfather, hunting for arrowheads and fossils. He still returns home three or four times a year to visit his mother, who has kept his childhood room exactly as it was when he left to attend college. “It looks just like my house,” Dreher told me. “The walls are full, the shelves are full.”

After graduating with a degree in geology from Capital University, a small Lutheran college across town from Ohio State University in Columbus, Dreher ended up in Houston, where he quickly got a job with Amoco. One afternoon while looking for a place to eat near his downtown office, he found himself in a neighborhood that reminded him of the small Ohio town where he’d grown up. It was Woodland Heights.

“It just felt like home,” Dreher remembered. “It was full of old ladies driving their early-1950s cars. You could have bought any of the houses for 10,000, 12,000 dollars.” Dreher moved into one half of a duplex on Michaux St. in 1977. His landlady, who occupied the other half, was an HISD principal who charged him $135 a month, which was still what he was paying when she died in 1997, leaving behind a will granting Dreher and his long-time partner, Danny Smith III, ownership of the entire house. 

Smith, a lawyer, was the scion of a wealthy old Houston family; the first Daniel Smith had been a one-term mayor in the 1880s. In 1979 he was just getting out of a marriage that had produced two daughters—one of them Sherron Watkins—when he and Dreher met. A few months later Smith moved in with Dreher, and they lived together until Smith’s death from a heart attack four years ago.

In 1998, BP bought Amoco, at which point Dreher decided to accept his new employer’s generous buyout package. The following year, while getting his hair cut at Don’s Barber Shop, on the corner of 11th and Cortlandt St. in the Heights, Dreher heard owner Don Willis mention that he was overworked and looking for a new barber. Dreher had never before cut hair, but decided to buy the barbershop anyway, for $4,000. Ten months later, barber college certificate in hand, he went to work, keeping Willis on as a barber.

Unsurprisingly, the old-fashioned men’s barbershop, which appeared in Wes Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore and has been in continuous operation for more than 80 years, quickly came to resemble an annex to Dreher’s house, its walls covered in memorabilia, its ceiling hung with model airplanes, its walls lined with old newspapers (“Rev. King Is Slain in Memphis”; “Nixon Resigns”). A hand-painted sheet-metal sign and PVC barber pole, both Dreher’s creations, mark the shop’s entrance. On the magazine rack by the front door, recent issues of Texas Highways and Bloomberg Businessweek share space with a 1922 National Geographic and a 1936 Time with General Franco on the cover. Dreher likes to present new customers with a copy of Life magazine from the month and year of their births. When boys come in, he points to a spot on a world map hanging on a wall. If the boy guesses the country’s name, Dreher gives him a coin from that country. Once, a child left the shop with 80 different coins. 

This passion for giving away what he’s collected, a generosity that’s at least as strong as his need to collect, makes Dreher an unusual hoarder, and perhaps not a hoarder at all. For his part, he prefers to be known as a “super-collector.” Hoarders are people like his former neighbor, Dreher said, who rummaged through strangers’ trashcans in search of scraps of paper, which she then proceeded to stack in her house from floor to ceiling, leaving only a narrow corridor from the front door to her bedroom. Because of people like that, he actually finds himself supporting the anti-hoarding ordinance, observing that “some people need to be saved from themselves.” 

“I really don’t like junk or trash,” said Dreher, who holds a massive garage sale on his front lawn several times a year. “I stay engaged with my collection. The room may be full, but I have plans for everything—this has all been combed through several times.” 

After listening to a description of Dreher’s home and collecting habits, Harvard’s Szymanski immediately announced that he was in agreement with Dreher: he isn’t a hoarder.

“Hoarding isn’t just about the accumulation of stuff,” Szymanski told me. “Can he live in his house in the way he wants to live in it? Is he displaying his collection in some sort of organized fashion? A hoarder puts things in piles—they don’t really display things. A collector might have too much of a collection, but they’re going out of their way to display the collection. A hoarder wouldn’t have a yard sale.”

Dreher himself declined to offer any psychological explanation for his super-collecting, saying only that it’s “probably rooted deep, beyond where I know,” and that he’s always been this way, ever since he was a kid hunting for arrowheads on the family farm. For my part, after multiple interviews with Dreher, I came to realize that Dreher’s collections weren’t a barricade against the outside world—which is how many hoarders treat their possessions—but rather his way of engaging with it. Sherron Watkins told me about the unique homemade gifts Dreher presents at birthdays and weddings, which are themselves wrapped in unusual materials like fabric or dollar bills. Years after Watkins listed a collection of Neiman Marcus housewares on her wedding registry, she told me, Dreher spotted a piece from the same collection at a garage sale and bought it for her. I got a small taste of that generosity when Dreher, after learning that I’d attended Rice, presented me with a 1954 school yearbook.

“There’s something noble about Doug—he tries to value or honor someone’s life,” Watkins said. “That’s what’s at the heart of the Rice yearbooks or the Life magazines. He’s not trying to tell you about himself, he’s asking questions about you. If he’s in your life, he’s plugged into what you like.”

The Heights used to be full of expressions like this,” Dreher said, gesturing towards his house, “Now there’s not so many.” 

Dreher and I were sitting in his junk-strewn backyard on a recent morning. Surrounded by road signs, animal bones, and random pieces of scrap metal, I felt like I was in the last bastion of the old Heights, an island of eccentricity holding on against the waves of gentrification sweeping through the formerly middle-class community.

Seemingly every other house on Dreher’s block is undergoing a major renovation, if not being torn down entirely to make room for a larger, lot-devouring house whose perfectly manicured yard almost certainly won’t display bowling ball sculptures. Dreher knows that when he dies his own home will likely be demolished to make room for just such a house. The fire hazard will be gone, but so will a piece of history. 

One can’t help but wonder: If the anti-hoarding ordinance had been in place when John Milkovisch was alive, would his house, adorned with its approximately 50,000 aluminum cans, have been in violation? Would Jeff McKissack’s Orange Show installation? Today the Orange Show and the Beer Can House are listed in tour guides and visited by thousands of people each year, but when they were being built many Houstonians undoubtedly considered them eyesores, the crazy schemes of starry-eyed dreamers.  

Along with the Orange Show and the Beer Can House, Dreher’s home is the kind of weird gesamtkunstwerk that seems totally idiosyncratic and yet also, somehow, characteristically Houston. And although it nearly cost him his life—the candle that started the fire was part of one of his homemade artworks—Dreher can no more leave his house than a snail can leave behind its shell. “Everywhere I inhabit ends up looking like this,” he said. “It just fills up with things.” 

One of Dreher’s few neighbors who aren’t engaging in Extreme Makeover: Heights Edition is Martin Kopacz, who moved into his 1925 Woodland Heights bungalow in the 1970s. Kopacz said that Dreher is a throwback to a neighborhood more accepting of eccentricity, where a house painted bright yellow, or someone displaying a hand-carved wooden alligator in the front yard, wouldn’t get a second glance. Despite the fact that his own house might well have been endangered by the 2011 fire on Dreher’s porch, Kopacz said the neighborhood wouldn’t be the same without people like him.

“I think a lot of people moving in now wouldn’t appreciate a garage where every board is painted a different color,” Kopacz said. “I think that’s art. A funky, painted house is art.” 

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