The 10 historic buildings of Sam Houston Park have long seemed exceptional in a town that has never shown respect for its past.
The Houston Chronicle reports including homes of various styles and a charming church, all restored and furnished in the styles of their eras, they serve as the primary exhibition spaces for a collection of more than 23,000 historic artifacts.
But their future is now in jeopardy because the nonprofit charged with their upkeep is struggling to stay afloat.
The Heritage Society manages the 19th and early 20th century treasures, which are owned by the city, and also maintains five other city-owned buildings in the park, including its museum.
The Society's leaders say that in the near term, the organization must scale back radically to continue operating. Beginning Friday, all 15 of its full-time employees, including executive director Alison Bell, will work only part time. General park hours will remain the same, open dawn-to-dusk daily, but the organization will need to lean more than ever on its volunteers.
"It would be horrific if they had to close," said Randy Tibbits, a co-founder of the Houston Early Texas Art Group, which often stages exhibitions in the Society's museum. "They provide things to Houston that no one else is providing."
The Society recently completed the first phase of a $2 million renovation of the Kellum-Noble House, a big-ticket capital improvement. Built in 1848, the home is Houston's oldest surviving building -- and in fact, the Society was founded in 1954 to save it from demolition. But the homes' annual maintenance averages $300,000 to $350,000, and the organization's annual operating budget of about $1 million does not adequately cover those expenses.
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Even before Hurricane Harvey in 2017 inundated the park and flooded the 1868 Pillot House, the Society was borrowing heavily to finance building upkeep.
Financial documents show it spent more than $557,000 from mid-2012 to mid-2017 (before Harvey) on the structures, with no city funding for the cost of roofs, HVAC systems, paint, carpentry, alarm monitoring, insurance, pest control and preservation planning.
Efforts to renegotiate the Society's maintenance contract have led nowhere, said board vice president Minnette Boesel. Andy Icken, the mayor's chief development officer, confirmed that while they will have "continuing conversations," the city hasn't agreed to provide more funding, and there is no proposal right now to do so.
Nor does the Society receive any funds when the city stages festivals at the park. Boesel has once proposed adding a fee to those events to benefit the Society, when access to the museum and tours is cut off or difficult -- a step that wouldn't cost the city anything, she said.
"Unfortunately, the Heritage Society has reached an impasse," Boesel said.
The Society also has met multiple times with Houston First, which operates nearby Theater District facilities and the George R. Brown convention center. Houston First has not been in a position to help financially since Hurricane Harvey, still saddled with $170 million in repairs to the district's flooded facilities, Boesel said.
Before the storm, however, Houston First paid for a strategic plan for the park. Delivered last summer, the plan recommended that the Society seek partnerships, initiate place-making projects, program more activities, explore governance options and expand its marketing efforts.
Heritage Society board president Jim Furr said a task force that includes officials from the city, Houston First and other potential partners will explore options for saving the buildings by creating a revenue stream that could also make the park more lively. Slightly more than 15,000 people toured the buildings and gallery in 2016-17 -- a lackluster number by most standards.
Furr envisions "mixed-use in the broad sense," including a cafe or a retail operation with a commercial partner. He noted that major improvements are coming to downtown's western side in the next few years that will improve walkability and bike access to the park.
"It's an exciting opportunity -- and scary," Boesel said.
She, too, believes the park can thrive. "It's at the nexus point linking Buffalo Bayou Park and hike-and-bike trails. It's an entryway to downtown," Boesel said. "And we have all this heritage. This was the home of Houston's first zoo, and the city's first municipal park."
A lot of people gave time and goodwill decades ago to make the park what it is today, Furr said. As a retired architect, he has a special fondness for the Kellum-Noble House, built by Nathaniel Kelly Kellum next to his brickyard. It was included when the city bought the land in 1899.
Houstonian Christine Sigman often brings out-of-town visitors to see the park. She was there on a recent Wednesday, in spite of the drizzly weather, with her friend Lisa Mosley, of Boston. "Compared to some of the other parks in Houston," Sigman said, "the houses really make this a destination."