The sun shone down as a blue jay flitted past a German church dating all the way back to 1891 and a young woman posed for her quinceañera pictures next to the Kellum-Noble House, the oldest building in Houston. We tried to stay out of the photographer’s way as we headed to the Heritage Society headquarters to visit the old-timey General Store before our tour of Sam Houston Park, the city’s oldest municipal park.
“We had a bit of a slow morning,” a volunteer at the desk informed us. Our tour, we learned, would be late. A light flashed on a little card reader beside her that collects donations on top of the tour fee—please, the machine seemed to bleep, help us!
The Heritage Society was founded in 1954 by a group of Houstonians including legendary philanthropist Ima Hogg, in an effort to save the Kellum-Noble House from demolition. Since then it has saved nine other historic buildings and some 23,000 artifacts, moving them to the park’s downtown property and restoring them.
But now both park and society are … well … kind of in trouble. Only about 15,000 people visited between 2016 and 2017, not great for a city of 6.8 million, and the nonprofit is facing a budget crisis. Its annual annual operating budget of about $1 million can no longer cover its expenses, which have grown thanks to increased renovation costs. And even though the city owns the park, it’s too budget-crunched to help. Fifteen Heritage Society employees had to go from full-time to part-time in January.
The nonprofit recently formed a task force with city officials, Houston First, and other partners in hopes of finding more ways to generate revenue and fund this vital link to Houston’s past, but the best place to start might be with residents themselves. After all, the society does make some money off its museum and tours.
“Anybody from Houston?” our guide asked as we ventured out. She was delighted when our companion raised her hand.
“No, no, no,” we apologized. “We’re just transplants.”
There was a couple from San Antonio, and a few visitors from Michigan and Hawaii, but on that day, as we entered a log cabin built on the early, unsettled Houston prairie, we were all pioneers learning how the phrase sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite originated. Wouldn’t you like to know?