Proposed Brunner-Harmonium Historic District moves forward after removal of corner property

The district, which is being called the Brunner-Harmonium Historic District, covers six properties mainly across nine lots along Blossom Street in an area that was founded as the small, independent community of Brunner in the late 1800s. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
The district, which is being called the Brunner-Harmonium Historic District, covers six properties mainly across nine lots along Blossom Street in an area that was founded as the small, independent community of Brunner in the late 1800s. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

The district, which is being called the Brunner-Harmonium Historic District, covers six properties mainly across nine lots along Blossom Street in an area that was founded as the small, independent community of Brunner in the late 1800s. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

A proposed new historical district is moving forward near the Rice Military area, but a battle over the removal of a key property has left some residents and city officials frustrated and the property owner claiming unfair treatment.

The district, which is being called the Brunner-Harmonium Historic District, covers six properties mainly across nine lots along Blossom Street in an area that was founded as the small, independent community of Brunner in the late 1800s. The houses there were built between 1911 and 1915 and include Folk Victorian, Queen Anne and early 20th century vernacular styles, according to information from the city of Houston Archaeological & Historical Commission.

The majority of the homes are owned by Houston-based artist Salle Werner Vaughn, who has turned them into an art installation called "Harmonium," Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.

An initial proposal to include seven houses in the district was altered at a July 29 historical commission meeting amid calls from the property's owner to be removed and prompted by an upcoming change in state law that raises the standards for approving a district when not all owners consent to be in it.

The property in question, a vernacular structure built in 1913, is owned by Mulberry Street Real Estate Ventures LLC, which is owned by Huw and Jennifer Pierce. In a phone interview, Huw Pierce said they purchased the property with the intention of using it for an expansion of the nearby Kipling School on Shepherd Drive, of which Jennifer Pierce is the founder.


"We are not against the Harmonium District," Huw Pierce said. "Our only request was the we not be included in it."

In a June ruling, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in part that the city of Houston's historic preservation ordinance falls under Chapter 211 of the Texas Local Government Code, which requires certain procedures be followed in designating historical properties, Kim Mickelson, an attorney with the city, told historical commissioners at the July 29 meeting.

That, combined with a new law that will go into effect Sept. 1, prompted Mickelson to recommend commissioners rethink the inclusion of the Pierces' property. The new law will require any proposed historical district where owner consent is not unanimous to receive 75% approval during the votes taken at both the commission level and the city council level, she said.

"The question is: Do you want to lose a battle over this district, adding that in over the owner’s objection?" Mickelson asked commissioners. "This one has been ongoing and a lengthy process, and given the owner’s strong objections ... and the surface of the new legislation, that’s where we are."

The historical commission would go on to approve the adjusted, smaller Brunner-Harmonium district in a 7-3 vote with several dissenters indicating they would rather have the district move forward in its original form.

Roman McAllen, the city's historic preservation officer, also expressed disappointment with the vote. He said he believed there was a chance the district would have still received 75% approval from the Houston City Council with its original boundaries, especially given what he said was unanimous support from the archaeological and historical commission.

"That was a loss," McAllen said in a phone interview. "I was very upset. The City Council should have made the decision."

Several commissioners who voted to approve the district said they did so reluctantly, including Commissioner Beth Wiedower-Jackson.

"It’s such a gem right in the middle of town the way it is, and it's already so depleted as a resource that it’s just really unfortunate to take one other property out of an already small grouping," she said in a phone interview.

Some area residents and representatives also spoke at the July 29 meeting, urging the commission to approve the original boundaries instead. Among them was Mike VanDusen, the president of the Washington Avenue Super Neighborhood, where the proposed district is located.

"While I understand the issue coming from the state, I would ask the commission move the application as [originally] submitted through so the voters of this city understand where the commission and the City Council stand on historical preservation," he said at the meeting.

Talks ongoing


Houston's preservation ordinances regulate exterior alterations, new construction, relocations and demolitiosn of historic structures within a district but do not regulate land use or interior alterations. As part of the process, the city holds a public meeting and mails out surveys to all property owners within the proposed district. At least 67% of all property owners must return cards in support of the district or else it cannot be established.

At the July 29 meeting, Huw Pierce told commissioners that his intention is to have his tract initially used as a gravel parking lot for construction workers to use while they work on another Kipling School expansion. After that, he said the land would be used for an arts center for Kipling students.

"It was never our intention to put some monster construction or building there to be in contrast to the neighborhood," he said.

Wiedower-Jackson urged Huw Pierce to consider using the existing structure for the arts facility instead of tearing it down and building something new. Huw Pierce said their planned use of the building rendered that idea unworkable because of city ordinances related to fire safety that limit how buildings of certain sizes can be used and how many people can be in them at once.

The next step for the district is a vote before the Houston City Council Committee on Quality of Life, set to take place at an Aug. 12 meeting at 10 a.m. In the meantime, Huw Pierce said he has kept the door open on several offers that would allow the building to be saved, including an offer to donate the building to be relocated elsewhere and an offer to swap ownership of both the land and the building with another property owner outside of the district he said may have an interest in preserving it.

Citing those offers, Huw Pierce said he feels as though he, his wife and the Kipling School have been unfairly disparaged throughout this process and objects to being called a "bad neighbor," an accusation he said is unfounded.

"I am willing to simply forego any expansion or any development or any property ownership in that neighborhood even though I have the right to," he said. "Nobody ever put their money where their mouth was. They were fine with me losing money to do what they wanted. They were fine with telling me my property rights are second to their wishes."

McAllen said his staff was checking with different parties to see if there was interest in the options that would allow the building to be preserved. However, Wiedower-Jackson said moving the home to another lot could defeat the purpose of the broader historical district.

"In many cases, once you strip a building of its context you lose the ability to tell its story," she said. "You need the context of the rest of that street to recognize the value and the role that house played in the growth of Houston as the small towns became absorbed into the bigger city."

Several of the buildings within the proposed district were relocated into it at points earlier on in their lifetimes, McAllen confirmed, though he said they were relocated from nearby within the Brunner historical area.

With the district moving on, both McAllen and Wiedower-Jackson said they were disappointed it was not advanced in its original form. Pierce said he has been more than generous in his offers to save the structure on his property.

"If that building gets demolished or gets moved, no one can say I didn’t do everything possible to protect it," he said.


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