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Saving the Tin Houses
by Lisa Gray
Houston Chronicle, June 9, 2011
Preservationists were recently appalled to realize that Houston's first "tin house"- the house that launched the most important architectural movement ever born in Houston had been razed before they even realized it was endangered. In a way, that quiet disappearance was the perfect ending for the house at 507 Roy - a house that never took itself too seriously, a house that launched a movement in spite of itself.
And it wasn't supposed to be, says Fredricka Hunter, the art dealer who lived there. In 1974, nobody expected the odd warehouselike duplex, in the ratty West End, to someday be significant in Houston's architectural and cultural history. They expected it to be cheap and to provide lots of wall space for hanging art.
Hunter was part of the fizzy crowd who orbited art patrons John and Dominique de Menil in the '70s - as was her brother-in-law, the architect Eugene Aubry, a partner in the firm S.I. Morris Associates. The de Menils chipped in to buy the land, and Aubry and Hossein Oskouie, another member of the firm, designed for her a plain, two-story metal box, corrugated iron over a wooden frame - a box akin to the Rice Art Barn and Media Center that, in 1969, had scandalized the university's brick-house neighbors.
But in the West End, nobody minded the "tin houses," as Fredricka dubbed the plain-jane duplex. They even sort of fit in: They resembled the warehouses that dotted the blue-collar neighborhood. But it wasn't as though Hunter's neighbors cared much about things such as the neighborhood's architectural fabric. At the time, the neighborhood was a place where chickens roamed free and where it was possible to raise goats behind your bungalow. In the West End, you could do what you liked.
What was important about that tin house, mostly, was what happened inside. Fredricka and her partner, Ian Glennie (a Rice architecture graduate) designed a soaring white interior space, and they filled it with art and artists. Philip Glass, a friend of Hunter's, played his first Houston concert there. Actress Debra Winger, in town to film Urban Cowboy, showed up at a party for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. At another party, Andy Warhol talked with the world's top-ranked rodeo cowboy, who was standing dangerously close to a wood-and-felt "scatter piece" by Robert Morris. Careful, Warhol told the cowboy. Don't step on the art.
It was that kind of place.
In 1984, Hunter moved out - and into the second-ever tin house, a Glennie-designed pair of townhouses just around the corner, on Blossom. The original tin house became a crash pad for people in the de Menils' orbit. Curator Walter Hopps lived there; Brice Marden painted TheSeasons.
no wonder, says architectural historian Stephen Fox, that young architects
got the idea that corrugated metal and an artful life naturally went together.
Because at that first tin house, they did.
More than 15 years after that first tin house was built, what had been a West End oddity started to seem like a West End movement. In 1990, architect Frank Zeni built for himself the astounding Tempietto Zeni (5420 Floyd) - basically, a 31/2-story galvanized-metal shed with an open front and giant whacked-out Ionic columns. Inside that wild shed, he built his actual house and studio.
A couple of years later, the elegant tin houses began to appear. Val Glitsch designed a house/studio combo at 802 Knox; Natalye Appel, 5421 Dickson . Like many of the tin houses that would follow, these ambitious ones created a sense of luxury not through expensive materials but through wide-open interior spaces filled with light.
Cameron Armstrong built a particularly gorgeous tin house for himself and his abstract-artist wife, Terrell James (5423 Gibson) - and followed with seven more in the same neighborhood. Armstrong fell in love with metal sheathing and continues to work with it. He rhapsodizes about its practicality: its ability to lower air-conditioning bills, its ability to last much, much longer than wood. "But it's not just the practical stuff that makes architects love metal," he admits. "It's the shiny, exotic beauty. It's the way you can get stoned just looking at it."
Armstrong also builds tin houses outside the West End - sometimes infuriating residents of neighborhoods that have no love for the silver and shiny. In one case, preservationists complained about Armstrong's designs in a city council meeting, calling him "a stake through the heart of the Old Sixth Ward." Unabashed, the architect adopted the phrase as a badge of honor. Since then, other Armstrong projects have alarmed residents of River Oaks and West U.
By the end of the '90s, Houston had hundreds of tin houses, and the phenomenon had attracted world-wide attention, from the New York Times to HGTV. Most of the tin houses were concentrated in the West End - but the West End, their natural habitat, was changing fast. Property values were shooting up, out of artists' price range, and the warehouses whose metal sides the tin houses echoed were disappearing. Non-tin townhouses began to dominate the landscape, and what had been a mixed-race, blue-collar neighborhood was growing steadily whiter and richer. Little by little, the West End lost its funk.
In the last decade, new tin houses grew less common there, and more common in artists' new stomping grounds, places such as Acres Homes. But, occasionally, something shiny and new still pops up in the West End. In 2009, architect Nonya Grenader completed a particularly lovely pair of tin houses for a mother and her grown daughter (5011 and 5015 Blossom) - next door to yet another tin house (5019 Blossom) that Grenader had designed for sculptor Jim Love five years before.
Does the razing of Fredricka Hunter's first tin house - the first of all the tin houses - mean that the West End is losing its shine? That soon, tin houses will disappear faster than they're built? Tin-house lovers hope not.
The painter William Betts lives in a tin house that architect Rob Civitello originally designed for his own family (619 Asbury). Betts says that sometimes he gets together with Armstrong, who lives a couple of blocks away, to drink beer and rail about the creeping crap destroying their neighborhood's architectural integrity. And sometimes, Betts says, he looks wistfully at those three-houses-in-a-row on Blossom Street, all designed by Grenader, all of which show how much energy is left in the genre.
"They're beautiful," Betts says. "Right there, you see what the West End could have become."
Read more: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ent/arts/gray/7603612.html#ixzz1UXwBKb9K