A place to share my many interests in Architecture, Art, Design, Travel, and Culture.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Houston Living: The Great Pumpkin!

Last week in the morning, I was driving back to my studio from a site visit in Houston's River Oaks neighborhood, when the sight of hundreds of pumpkins laying in a green field caught my eye.  Several little children played among the pumpkins:


It took me a moment to realize that the "green field" was actually the garden of Saint Luke's United Methodist Church (Westheimer Road), which has for the month of October, turned into a veritable pumpkin patch! 


Saint Luke's is one of those buildings in Houston that I just love; its noble facade transports me for a moment to another place and another time, and visions of the Saint Martin in the Fields come into my head.  Strangely, considering how much I like it, I had never stopped to visit Saint Luke's, that is until the sight of all those pumpkins made me u-turn in the middle of Westheimer road.  That day I was finally able to appreciate the serene beauty of this building, which I know share with all of you:

Saint Luke's United Methodist Church.  Houston, Texas.

Saint Luke's United Methodist Church was consecrated in December of 1951, and designed in the Georgian style by Dallas architect Mark Lemmon (who also created buildings for the Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas), its beautifully crafted classical elements bravely defied the modernist tendencies of its time:

The bell tower and pediment.

Nestled among the oaks that give this neighborhood its name, the main sanctuary of Saint Luke's follows a form that was first introduced in London in 1721 by architect James Gibbs in the Anglican Church of Saint Martin in the Fields: A classical pedimented portico crowned with a single bell tower above the main entrance to the church. 

The eastern windows of Saint Luke's main sanctuary.

The church complex contains several buildings for diverse functions, including classrooms and a theater.  During my visit the main sanctuary was closed to the public, but I was able to tour the small chapel on the eastern side of the church:

The chapel.

The exterior of the chapel is decorated with "Tower of the Winds" pilasters, broken and scrolled pediments above the doors, and a modillioned cornice, all characteristic of Georgian architecture.

The "Tower of the Winds" pilasters and scrolled pediment.

The long axis of the chapel is oriented in the east-west direction (with the entrance facing east and the choir on the west side), this allows the southern facade to be outfitted with large arched windows which flood the chapel with diaphanous light:

The interior of the chapel looking towards the choir.
The southern windows.

The interior of the chapel is very simple (as Georgian buildings go), the main decoration is provided by the Doric pilasters that separate the nave from the choir, and carved embellishments are reserved for a few special places like the organ and the doors; the beauty of the place is in its proportion, scale, volume, and use of natural light:

Doric Pilaster in the Chapel of Saint Luke's.

The main entrance seen from the interior from the interior of the chapel.

I wished I had had more time to sit in the chapel and loose myself in contemplation but alas, my drawing table called to me.  I left Saint Luke's feeling uplifted and hopeful, perhaps it was the light filtering through the windows, or the subtle curve of the vault, or the immaculate whiteness of the walls...one thing I knew, if God dwelled in buildings He would dwell in Saint Luke's.

The interior of the chapel looking towards the entrance.

Saint Luke's United Methodist Church.

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All images by NPL
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Houston Living: David and Goliath

Victorian house in Montrose.  Houston, Texas

Detail of the front porch.  Victorian house in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

A friend recently took me to an estate sale on Stratford street in Houston's Montrose neighborhood.  We arrived late in the morning and found the house empty of contents and visitors, most items having already been picked by the early risers.  Instead of being disappointed in our shopping luck, my friend and I took to wandering the rooms of the empty house, admiring its decaying grandeur.  I inquired about the property and was told that the house was under a sale contract already, for a surprisingly low price.  I dearly hope that whoever intends to buy this house restores it to its previous glory.  Sadly, this will not be the case, the price of the property suggests so; instead this lovely centenary home will be surely replaced by a towering town house, as seems to be the trend in Montrose.

Montrose, Westheimer Road.  Houston, Texas.

We find Montrose in the shadow of Houston's downtown.  It is known for its diversity, its restaurants, its vintage and antique shops:

A shop on Montrose's Westheimer Road.  Houston, Texas.

Montrose is also known for its culture, and for being home to some of Houston's finest institutions, like the Museum of Fine Arts and the University of Saint Thomas:

The University of Saint Thomas Administration Building.  Image by The University of Saint Thomas.

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston.  Image by Peggy W.

Planned as a streetcar suburb for the city of Houston, Montrose was platted in 1911.  According to the guidelines of the City Beautiful Movement, Montrose was laid out with wide boulevards, handsome Beaux Arts buildings, and urban parks.

The Woodrow Wilson Montessori School.  Houston, Texas.

Cherryhurst Park.  Houston, Texas.

Lanier Middle School.  Houston, Texas.

When Montrose was planned land in Houston was abundant, therefore the prevalent residential typology became the single family house with surrounding garden, and small apartment buildings located on the principal streets:

Montrose apartment building.  Houston, Texas.  Image by Loopnet.

House in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

House in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

House in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

Montrose's founder J.W. Link once said "Houston has to grow.  Montrose is going to lead the procession."  And grow it did, to sprawling proportions; but in Montrose's quiet streets, under the shadow of the oaks, civility still fights for survival, which is why the thought of loosing yet another beautiful building, only to be replaced by a structure of much lesser quality saddens me immensely.

Now, I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea: I am not prejudiced against town houses (row houses, terraced houses, brownstones), on the contrary, I adore townhouses!  When they look like this:

Row houses in Chicago's Lincoln Park.


Or, even better, like this:

The Royal Crescent in Holland Park.  London, England.  Image by Wikimedia.

The row house provides all the comforts of a detached home on a narrow site, the main circulation is centered on the stair along which all rooms are laid out.  In most American cities the scale of the row house mediates between the monumentality of the Public Realm (museums, schools, churches), and the modesty of the Private (single family houses), which historically have been located on the edges of the neighborhood. 

Row houses in the Upper West Side.  New York City, New York.

Because of their privileged position on the principal avenues of a city, much care and quality was applied to the design of a row house; some European examples from the 17th and 18th century were even given unified palace like facades:

Place des Vogues.  Paris, France.  Image by Wikimedia.
 
The care and quality of design that prevails in the examples above is certainly not the current trend in Houston's building landscape, where developers have sacrificed beauty and endurance on the altars of cheap building materials, walk-in closets and whirlpool tubs; where total disregard for scale and proportion is the order of the day, and where humble cottages are dwarfed in the shadow of pseudo Mediterranean towers:

David and Goliath.
"Mediterranean" Revival.
Tower of Babel syndrome: let's see who can build the tallest one!

In Houston we have exchanged the inviting porch (with its swings and hammocks, ripe for impromptu conversations), for the hostile garage door whence we are ejected every morning and swallowed every evening into our self-imposed isolation:

Faux Mediterranean.  Notice the main entrance is through the garage door.

In contrast, a hammock and chairs await family and friends on the porch.

In Houston we have destroyed our "Painted Ladies" and replaced with sad imitations which mock the memory of our past achievements:

Houston's Main Street at the turn of the 20th Century.  Image by Houston History.
San Francisco's "Painted Ladies".  San Francisco, California.  Image by Brufiki.
The sad replacement, just completed.  Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

A developer's "Painted Lady".  Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

The recent approval of three new historic districts (which protects historic structures from destruction) in Houston's Heights neighborhood, has halted many a developer's interest and stirred much criticism from those who say that preservation gets in the way of the future by assuming that old structures will be replaced with bad new buildings.  Well, it is evident to me that nothing currently being built in the area can replace what is being destroyed, and until I am shown convincing evidence of the contrary, I will mourn the loss of every historic building.

Sidewalk view of the new townhouse on Commonwealth Ave.  Houston, Texas.
Ah yes, we are exchanging this:

Victorian house near Cherryhurst Park in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.

For a shapeless stucco extravaganza.  But at least we'll have granite counter tops, walk-in closets, whirlpool tubs, and if we are lucky the developer will throw us a "bonus room", which is just fancy speak for the left over dead space they don't know how to integrate into the rest of the house.

May the lovely house on Stratford street rest in peace, and let's hope that this time its replacement is a worthy one.
A lovely autumn afternoon in Montrose.  Houston, Texas.


All images by NPL unless otherwise noted.


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