When Hurricane Harvey sent a foot of water into Scott and Stacey Butler's midcentury modern home in Braeswood Place they were heartbroken.
The Houston Chronicle reports Scott is an architect and partner in a design-build firm — Butler Brothers — so he appreciated the deft touch of Lars Bang, who designed the home that was built in 1955, the post-war go-go years when he and a handful of other architects started building modern homes around the city.
But in fall 2017, the couple and their three kids found themselves up to their calves in Harvey's floodwaters. And when flood insurance couldn't cover all of the needed repairs, the Butlers faced a difficult decision: Should they pour even more money into this home or start completely over?
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Scott and Stacey ultimately decided to tear down their classic midcentury style home and build new. "My wife and I loved that house. We didn't plan to tear it down, our thoughts were that we'd stay in the original house. It was the economics of it," Scott said. "Our kids wanted us to renovate. They couldn't imagine living in another house."
It's been an emotional ride for the thousands of Houstonians whose homes have been torn down since Harvey, but the loss of the Butlers' architecturally significant midcentury-style house and another designed by the late architect Joseph Krakower on Glen Arbor Drive nearby were felt by everyone in the historic preservation community.
Developers and builders replace old bungalows, cottages and ranch-style homes with McMansions or three- and four-story townhomes year after year. Like it or not, it's the evolution of real estate in a city getting more densely populated by the month and in need of housing.
But it's the city's architectural history that's at stake, and the difficult decisions still being made since Hurricane Harvey are racking up losses even faster. Nice midcentury ranches become teardowns, replaced by two-story homes that eat up most of their lots. Others get repaired, but are elevated to stay out of harm's way in the future even though their slim profiles were meant to hug the ground.
Those midcentury-style homes represented America's entry into the new world of modern architecture, and the bravado that came with the dramatic cultural changes of the 1950s and `60s.
"It was an optimistic time, post-World War II, for lots of reasons. The housing market was off the charts and accelerating rapidly, and people wanted a new way to think about their lives, ways of living freely and more openly in the environment. It was part of the exuberance of living at the time," said Steven Curry, president of Houston Mod, a group that raises awareness and advocates for the protection of midcentury modern homes. "My feelings are not purely for nostalgia -- those (modern) concepts were new and radical. People touring these houses in the 1950s were seeing modern architecture for the first time."
Curry said that he and others in the architecture community have watched the stock of 1950s and `60s-era homes diminish after three consecutive years of flooding, with Harvey accelerating the loss in areas like Meyerland, Braeswood Place and Memorial Bend, where dozens of homes have been razed or sit vacant, waiting for a buyer. His own home was designed by Bang in 1953, and Hurricane Harvey was the only time it has flooded.
"The Butlers' home was a good example of a modernist project by Lars Bang," Curry said. "Their new house fills the lot and fills the market demand for contemporary modern the way what it replaced did in its day."
He recently finished post-hurricane repairs on his Braeswood Place home, and he's reflective about his broader neighborhood, a complicated patchwork of vacant lots, still-empty houses, homes elevated several feet off of the ground, and others that have either been repaired and are occupied again or somehow escaped flooding from Brays Bayou more than a year ago.
While no one keeps a list of architecturally significant midcentury modern homes in the Houston area, historic preservationists hope to tackle that soon.
David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston, said that he and Dwayne Jones of the Galveston Historical Foundation hope to cooperate in a project to survey midcentury architecture in the two counties. They're applying for grant money now, so the work won't begin until funding is in place.
The timing is perfect, Bush said. Devastating flooding hit many areas where the better midcentury-style homes were located: Meyerland, Bellaire, Memorial Bend and Braeswood Place, with homes by local architects such as Bang, Lucian Hood, Karl Kamrath, William Floyd and William Jenkins all affected. Even Tiel Way in River Oaks, which once was home to seven MacKie & Kamrath homes, now only has two left, and one of them flooded during the hurricane.
"It's a big part of the city's history," Bush said. "It was the first wave of development after World War II and that was when the boom years in Houston started as far as population growth went."
Bush said Preservation Houston has given 11 Good Brick Awards for restored homes built after World War II and just eight from that time frame -- spread throughout the city, including Glenbrook Valley, the city's largest historic district and one that did not flood -- have City of Houston landmark status. He said Preservation Houston is working with owners of two midcentury modern homes who are hoping to get landmark status.
Houston Mod gives out is own Preservation Awards, and of its 31 recipients, only the Butlers' home has been lost to flooding, Curry said.
Many homes that flooded during Hurricane Harvey had never flooded before, and many of those homeowners are working to repair their homes, still on the ground or elevated, a move to counter future flooding.
In Braeswood Place, Don Emmite, a retired interior designer, and his partner Jim Power repaired and moved back into their 1960 midcentury home. Their sleek home still has its original Terrazzo tile floors and pink double ovens in its time capsule of a kitchen. Harvey was the first flooding the men had dealt with since they bought their home in 1995, so they assessed their risk of future flooding as slim and decided to stay put.
In Meyerland, Gavin Gerondale dealt with flooding for the second time since he and his late wife bought their home, designed by Brooks and Brooks Architects in 1965. Gerondale, who bought the home in 1996, had two feet of water in his home, but got it cleaned up quickly with help from his son. Both Rosenbaum's and Gerondale's homes were given City of Houston landmark status in 2016 -- the only two midcentury homes in Meyerland with that designation.
Attorney Glen Rosenbaum's home on South Braeswood was hit by the Memorial Day flood in 2015, Tax Day flood in 2016 and then suffered more than 3 feet of flooding from Harvey in 2017. Committed to keeping his parents' homestead standing, he's now working to waterproof its base. Rosenbaum's parents built their home in 1964, a midcentury gem designed by architect Arthur D. Steinberg.
Jason and Vanessa Smith felt the same way about their home in Willow Bend. It was built in 1955, designed by William R. Jenkins, an architect who was dean of the University of Houston's architecture school from 1968 to 1988. Jenkins designed five homes on the Smiths' cul-de-sac, and all of them flooded during Harvey.
The Smiths -- he's a music teacher and she works in mutual fund servicing -- fell in love with midcentury architecture when they started looking for a home more than a decade ago. They bought their home in 2005 and did interior restoration and then replaced its roof, earning a Preservation Houston Good Brick Award in 2007.
Harvey's flooding prompted a third phase of restoration of their 2,000-square-foot home after 18 inches of water sat in and around it for about 12 hours.
Emmite, Power and the Smiths saw Hurricane Harvey's massive rainfall as an unusual weather event never seen before and -- fingers crossed -- not likely to happen again. They put their money in their homes and are living in them again.
"When we decided to buy a house we talked about the features we wanted. Our vision was old but futuristic, and I didn't know what that was then," Jason Smith said. "I did some research and I figured it out."
He became so enamored with the genre and the good examples of it on his own street that he wrote a book to document Jenkins' legacy in Houston: "High Style in the Suburbs: The Houses of William R. Jenkins," published in 2009. Of the 11 homes featured in the book, only one has since been torn down.
Their interest goes beyond their own homes, to their neighborhoods at large. Already they and many others felt the need to light a candle every time they saw another historic structure being demolished -- in their neighborhoods or elsewhere -- but they are more distressed about the new architectural landscape.
Neighborhoods like Bellaire, Meyerland and Braeswood Place already had many modest ranches -- some architecturally significant and some not -- being demolished to make way for 5,000-square-foot two-stories that tower over their smaller neighbors.
Now, dozens of homes are being raised 4 feet or more in efforts to save existing homes and protect them from future flooding. It can be an odd sight, with low-slung midcentury homes now looking more like a beach house on stilts.
Gerondale, an optometrist who is director of the University of Houston's Mobile Eye Institute, lives on Braesvalley and said the neighborhood feels like a ghost town, with only about 30 percent of his neighbors back in their homes.
"I'm hoping a significant portion of them will be preserved, but it's still an unknown. It's housing purgatory over here. It gets down to dollars and cents. If someone can purchase a home inexpensively, repair it and lease it, that's one option we're beginning to see -- substantial homes that are now rental property," Gerondale said. "It's exciting because there's a lot of activity there, but is it a strange sight? How would you feel if you had a beach home next to you?"
Rosenbaum was less forgiving.
"All of your midcentury homes, they're all essentially single-story horizontal structures. Then come houses that are raised -- that totally clash with the rest of the area. Even worse, they demolish the house and build a McMansion in the air. That is really obnoxious," he said. "On north side of the bayou there are a couple of large gaudy McMansions that I classify as Vincent Price Gothic."
Rosenbaum, an attorney, said he worries that many people just want newer and bigger homes and simply don't care about preservation or good architecture.
"I have no idea where it's going, but I am not optimistic. Some homes being torn down aren't architecturally significant, but some being saved and elevated aren't either," Rosenbaum said. "Some of the nice ones get raised, and they preserve the house, but it just doesn't look the same sitting up in the air."
Curry and Bush both said that encouraging owners of good quality midcentury modern homes to seek landmark or protected landmark status is one way to save more homes. Not only do those homes get individual protection, but the status reminds people that those homes are important.
Bush noted that many people don't realize that for a home to be considered historic, it needs to be just 50 years old. So instead of looking at Queen Anne bungalows or ornate Victorian homes and recognizing their historic nature, Baby Boomers can look at homes like those they grew up in and see something important too.
"There's room for both, the new homes that are inevitable and the original stock that lets people see what was here and understand the history of the neighborhood in ways they won't if those things are all gone," Curry said.
Scott and Stacey Butler stumbled onto their snug, 2,300-square-foot, four-bedroom home when its previous owner had slated it for demolition. Their real estate agent convinced the owner to sell to the couple, and over several years they spent about $250,000 renovating the home.
"Our home hadn't flooded before, and I didn't realize how emotional it would be. We went in and tore out everything in the house to be able to keep it so we could renovate. Insurance only covers what the water touched, so if you have mahogany paneling, they'll only give you money for the first foot it touched, maybe a foot above," said Scott, who with his brother, Bo, are partners in the Butler Brothers design-build firm.
Their new house is larger, but not a McMansion you'd find in so many other blocks. It's a 1.5 story 3,900-square-foot home meant to accommodate a family of five, including three kids, ages 16, 13 and 10, who used to share a single bathroom.
Scott who earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of Houston hopes the home he designed for his family pays tribute to his neighborhood and the home that once sat on their lot.
"The new house is reminiscent (of the original) and has the same complexities that the Lars Bang house had," he said. "It's elevated but has the same materials that were in the old house, the same color of brick inside and out. The old house had vaulted ceilings with beams reaching outside, and I designed the new one to have the same."