Homes along University Avenue have stood for centuries and may get recognition for it if they are designated historical landmarks.
Huntsville City Council tabled a vote until the next council meeting on an ordinance that would create procedures to designate historic properties.
The homes’ owner George Russell has pushed for the addition of a historical preservation section in the Huntsville Development Code.
Several of the homes he owns along the strip, which sit adjacent to two Sam Houston State University dorms Estill and Belvin-Buchanan, were built in the 19th Century. Some of the homes have begun to deteriorate due to both vandalism – two occurrences in the last week – and lack of preservation efforts when the properties changed owners.
“We have over the last 30 years purchased all historic buildings between 14th and 16th Streets - there are 11 of them,” Russell said. “The goal is to make that part of University Avenue pedestrian friendly, have less cars and open three maybe four museums.”
His ultimate goal is to get the entire area listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which would give the buildings added assurance of getting preservation aide.
Russell originally purchased a house to be given to Sam Houston State University as the president’s house, he said. However, after he said his offer was rejected, his hope is to display original Texas art pieces and bring tourists to town.
“(The museum) would be for Texas decorative arts,” Russell said. “We have the largest collection of slave-made and free-slave-made stoneware”
The house Russell refers to is historically known as the Josey-King House that Russell has been renovating for several years. The home was built in 1894 - at where is now 1425 University Avenue – by William C. Josey on the site of Henderson Yoakum’s home. The Josey family moved to Huntsville in 1854 and William’s sister Mollye Josey-King and her husband J. Robert King moved into the home. The family owned the home until Russell bought the property in the 1970s.
Across the street is another one of the buildings Russell hopes to have designated as historical.
“It’s a huge mansion we hope to convert into a museum of eclectic art,” he said.
The Ashford Home was built in 1905 by James G. Ashford, a Huntsville business man who served two terms as mayor from 1897-1899. He was also the president of the Huntsville State Bank, which he helped to organize.
The fourteen-room building was not only Ashford’s home, but also a place of business. He operated a funeral home at the site, located a few blocks away from the furniture store he owned on the square.
However, one of the more important sites is the Bowman Cedar Log House, one of the last remaining houses from “the old 300.” Russell has funded the restoration of the property.
“It was one of the first 300 Texas colonist houses,” Russell said. “Every stone in the fireplace had to be taken out and numbered. Every log had to be taken out and numbered. Every individual floorboard...the place had to be reassembled. Way back 30 years ago it cost about $100,000.”
John Bowman was one of the first settler’s who colonized the area when Stephen F. Austin brought roughly 300 people. It was originally built as a single-pen cedar log home in Grimes County before it was relocated to Huntsville.
Three of the four homes from the 1840s are a part of Russell’s proposal: the Rogers-Russell Home (1844), the Dr. John Branch Home (1847) and the Royal-Stanley House (1848).
The Rogers-Russell Home is so-called because of the home’s builder Col. George Washington Rogers – Huntsville’s first treasurer and financial coordinator of the Walker County courthouse construction. He served in the 1846 War with Mexico.
“That will be a museum that goes back to the 1840s,” he said.
Rogers donated the original site of the home – where the current Austin Hall building stands – before moving it to the current location.
Russell said he’s been buying land in Huntsville for more than 40 years to preserve the historical nature of the city.
“My interest was generated in 1950 when my father got a job in college and we moved onto Sam Houston’s homestead,” he said. “My favorite book as a child was a biography of Sam Houston. I made it one of my life’s work to protect (historical neighborhoods and properties associated with Houston).”
Speaking specifically of the Rogers-Russell Home, he said the building’s original owners have direct ties to the Texas president and governor.
“It was George Washington Rogers that brought Houston to Huntsville and sold him his first two-and-a-half acres of land,” he said. “In 1846, (Rogers) had contracted tuberculosis or malaria and his health failed him, but there was a referendum to see where the Texas capitol would be. He donated five acres of land for the site of the Texas capitol if Huntsville was selected, which it wasn’t.”
Aside from the University Avenue corridor, the area surrounding Sam Houston Park will be another designated historical area if Russell had his way.
“The other historic district that took me 25 years to purchase - they call it ‘Russellville,’” he said. “I want to protect the land around Sam Houston Park starting at 19th and Sam Houston Avenue and going past Avenue O. I’ve now purchased 100 percent of the property that faces (the park).”
Russell has pushed for the city to begin historical designation for more than 40 years. During that time he perceived the city to be hostile towards his efforts.
“Until recently, the city hated my restoration efforts and did everything they could to thwart me,” he said. “They seem to be on the right track.”
Russell and Woodward have both spoken about the potential of tourism dollars that increased historic preservation efforts could bring.
“There’s no reason for it not to pass,” Russell said. “It’s for the net benefit of the citizens of Huntsville. They attract people from all over the world. A certain number will stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and buy gas. Tourists dollars are the cleanest there are.”
Mayor Mac Woodward was supportive of the ordinance and credited Russell for his constant efforts to help the city establish a preservation identity - both for heritage and economic reasons.
Adopting the ordinance would allow the city to seek status as a Certified Local Government community, an advantage that could eventually help provide federal assistance in developing the historic preservation program.
“This is another tool or another mechanism that’s available to the city to enhance and develop our city for the benefit of everyone in this community,” Woodward said. “I think (Russell) was exactly right in saying this is an economic benefit. A lot of things we have in this community that are historical and have been preserved are part of why people come to this community. So this gives an opportunity for land owners and property owners to preserve their property.”
Woodward is the curator at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum that is operated by SHSU.
The ordinance allows property owners to submit applications for a designation, or City Council could vote to direct the historic preservation officer to initiate the process.
An individual property can receive designation as a landmark, according to the ordinance, if it “substantially complies” with two or more criteria: significance in history, architecture, archeology, or culture; associates with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of local, regional, state, or national history; associates with events that made a significant impact in the past; represents the work of a master designer, builder, or craftsman; embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction; or represents an established and familiar visual feature of the city.
A district can be designated by containing properties and an environmental setting which meets two or more of the same criteria for landmark designations, or constitutes a distinct section of the city.
Applications for designated districts or landmarks would have to be initiated by the affected property owners, or the City Council could direct the historic preservation officer to initiate a designation on behalf of the city.
Requests would go from the seven-member Historic Preservation Commission appointed by City Council, to Planning & Zoning, and council would make the final decision.
Russell not only supports historical preservation, but praises the language of the current ordinance.
“I very meticulously reviewed the ordinance and it is as benign and as positive as if I had written it myself,” Russell said. “Although Woodward hasn’t done anything to fix the (Margret Lea Houston house that Russell says has been ‘butchered’), Woodward has an economic and historical conscious. With him promoting historical preservation, hopefully we’ll be entering a new era.”
The next council meeting will be on Nov. 5.