More than a decade ago, when Mark Lardas first started researching Vanished Houston Landmarks, his book about the city's constantly disappearing history, he was certain the West Mansion—a storied pile on the edge of NASA’s Johnson Space Center built by lumber magnate, rancher, and oil tycoon James M. West shortly before the Great Depression—would soon join countless other Bayou City landmarks bulldozed into oblivion, making it the perfect subject to include.
But then something unexpected happened. In 2006 legendary Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon bought the place, renovated it, and used it as the headquarters of his clothing line, DR34M. Naturally Lardas—a Michigan transplant who spent decades as an engineer working on NASA’s space shuttle program while moonlighting as a self-described “amateur historian”—dedicated the final chapter of his recently released work to this exciting turn of events, citing it as a rare example of successful preservation.
And then, to the League City–based author’s horror, last November Houston did what Houston so often does: “No sooner did the book go off to the publisher and it was too late to change things, they bulldozed the thing,” says Lardas. “I think God played a joke on me, but I’ll never be sure.”
Of course, that lesson on the impermanence of things, even mansions, is exactly what makes Lardas’s new book—documenting 15 bygone Houston landmarks—so relevant. Here’s what we learned from our chat with the man on a mission to understand our city’s future by documenting its elusive past.
How would you describe Houston’s relationship to its own history?
Houston ends up so involved in making history that we tend to forget the history we’ve already made—unless it can be marketed. Generally the big things that happen in Houston eventually fade away, and then they get forgotten. And a lot of the things that are famous, they end up getting remembered wrong or becoming famous for strange reasons.
How do you go about researching these topics when so much of Houston’s history is constantly being removed?
You do a lot of digging. Digging into old files, and old magazines, and old books. I spent a lot of time going through back issues of the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle. For the chapter about NASA’s first headquarters, I actually got ahold of all the NASA “Space News Roundups” and was able to pick through those; they tell a story if you go through them. There are also bits and pieces you can pick up from the local history rooms at the various libraries. It’s like being a detective, only there aren’t any dead bodies.
The landmarks you explore range from train stations to sports arenas. Was that intentional?
That was deliberate. Houston’s a big transportation city, and we were one of the first cargo container terminals in the world. I wanted transportation, I wanted entertainment, I wanted business. I did throw in the story about the Twin Sisters cannons because I wanted to include a little bit of Houston’s military history as well. I picked out things that I felt were fairly representative of what made Houston, Houston.
What’s the most interesting thing you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?
The Light Guard Armory, which is now the Buffalo Soldiers Museum. That's part of the reason that it was such an interesting story: The Light Armory was Houston's first reserve unit that was allowed to form after the Civil War, so in a sense it marked Texas's acceptance back into the Union. This would have been in the 1870s, and it was one of the social centers of Houston through at least the 1920s. It ends up getting forgotten after the 1940s, and probably would have been torn down, even though it was a historic structure, except here comes the Buffalo Soldiers Museum looking for a home. The thing is, the people who founded that building would have probably been horrified at the idea of a museum for black soldiers. I think that story ends up showing some of the growth that we’ve had in Houston over the last century and a half.
Why is it so important for a city like Houston to remember its history?
Unless you know where you are and where you’re going, you can’t get to where you want to be. And if you don’t know your history, you really don’t know where you are and why you got here.