Saving Houston's History, One Home at a Time

Of the 15 historic Houston homes in this River Oaks oasis originally spared the wrecking ball, 11 will soon be relocated to make room for a high-rise development.

By Marene Gustin October 27, 2016

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The antique glass conservatory which once belonged to the Gardens of River Oaks will soon have a new home.

For Dr. Carol Alvarado, the tucked-away block of historic buildings bound by Bammel Lane, Sackett, Philfal and Earl has become a bittersweet place. The tidy square near River Oaks has long been a little-known Garden of Eden in the midst of the city: Here, a verdant rose garden blooms, complete with a gazebo, antique English glass conservatory and fountains. It was once a premier wedding venue, surrounded by historic Houston homes that, over time, were converted into mom and pop shops, offices and even a restaurant.

“I have had my dentist practice here for almost 24 years,” Dr. Alvarado says. But last year, the entire block was sold to Giorgio Borlenghi’s The Interfin Cos. for a proposed 26-story luxury condo. Soon, all of the little homes, gardens and—yes—even that fabulous conservatory—will be gone.

“It’s just pretty sad,” says Mike Emerson of Nathans & Nathans PC, an accounting firm based in one of the homes. “It’s such a beautiful place and it would be a shame for these old houses to just be torn down.” 

Much of the sentiment from longtime occupants of the homes seems to be of the “we need another high-rise here like we need a hole in the head” kind, and many agree that the demolition of this oasis is a crying shame, the likes of which only a preservation-averse city like Houston could evoke.

But if there is a bright side in all of this doom and gloom, Dr. Alvarado has found it. She’s bought the 1930s-era home that’s been her office for almost a quarter of a century, with plans to have it moved to her Hilltop Lakes property in Central Texas.

“It will be a cute little getaway,” she says. “A weekend retreat. That has a special meaning for me.”

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Some of the historic homes on this River Oaks block date to the 1880s.

Charlie Thomas began the block in the 1980s, moving old bungalows and cottages he'd purchased to the property. A car sales kingpin who at one time amassed 40 dealerships, Thomas also owned the Houston Rockets between 1982 and 1993. Over the years, he collected historic Houston homes based on their unique architecture and character, an appreciation of the old which also extended to his massive collection of antique and rare cars; he sold his 175-car collection in 2012 for $7.4 million.

“There were a total of 15 homes he moved to the block,” says Alex Borlenghi of The Interfin Cos. “We’ve been able to sell 11 of them so far.”

Borlenghi says four of them have been sold to a nearby landowner, Matt Esfahani, who plans to move them to his block fronting Westheimer Street. Some of the other buildings will also be spared the wrecking ball, including the English conservatory. Home to hundreds of Houston weddings and anniversary parties, it glassy confines will be relocated to another wedding venue, The Gardens of Madeley Manor in Conroe.

Currently there are still two houses left for sale, while two others are not. Borlenghi says the city condemned them as not being structurally sound enough to be moved. Sadly, one of those is the 1880-era, 3,166-square-foot DeChamues Cottage, which most recently housed Phil & Derek’s Restaurant & Wine Bar but for several years was the home of French eatery Bistro Calais.  

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Sadly, the City of Houston condemned the old home that was once Phil & Derek's.

Image: Google Maps

“That’s just heartbreaking,” says jeweler Jan Forrester, who lived for years just across the street from the bistro in the Cabochon at River Oaks high-rise apartments. “That house has such wonderful memories for me, it was my dining room as we ate there almost every night and I married the love of my life there.”

Forrester married her late husband in the backroom at the bistro, where floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the rose garden, conservatory and fountain. “Most people never knew there was an oasis there,” she says. “And it’s a shame that it will be gone soon.”

While most of the businesses have been given a January 31 deadline to leave, several are already gone. Interfin, meanwhile, has already started pre-selling units in the Villa Borghese project, though the company has not announced a construction date.

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