Beauty, history demolished

A storm is brewing in River Oaks, centering on the possible demolition of two old theaters.

The River Oaks and Alabama theaters, masterpieces of the art deco era, are owned by Houston-based Weingarten Realty. They have been under threat of demolition for three years.

Weingarten has been criticized for its rapacious development of Houston’s commercial landscape.

UH has a significant dog in the historic preservation fight. The Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture is located within a building designed by Philip Johnson.

One of the preeminent American architects and the winner of the first Pritzker Architecture Prize, Johnson’s stamp is evident in the discipline and landscape.

Notable Johnson designs in Houston include the Williams Tower, a stunning art deco-era design glass tower in the Galleria; the Bank of America Center in downtown which features gothic points; and the Chapel of Saint Basil and academic mall at the University of St. Thomas.

These buildings are massive and iconic, making them hard to overlook or devalue. Yet, equally significant structures are in danger.

The latest insult to Houston’s history squats squarely on the intersection of West Gray and Shepherd Streets. The building, built in 1937, was a Houston historic landmark that is recognized as having national importance. It was recently demolished to make way for a square, bland shopping strip.

Weingarten has set the price of Houston’s history too low, but this may be consistent with the family’s new generation. Joseph Weingarten was responsible for the now-universal standard of business in grocery stores. His Weingarten’s stores pioneered the cash-and-carry shopping model, as well as the self-service grocery.

In the 1940s, the U.S. State Department used Weingarten’s design as an illustration of modern supermarkets to Europeans, hoping the marked differences in American and communist approaches would inhibit the European embrace of communism.

At the time of his death in 1967, the company owned more than 100 stores, and Weingarten was deeply active in humanitarian efforts in Houston and abroad.

Weingarten Realty’s numbers are languishing during these tough economic times. In a preferred stock offering in April, Weingarten, managed by the beleaguered J.P. Morgan, realized about 70 percent of its forecasted revenue in its second quarter report.

As the company focuses on growth to fuel portfolio development, a lull in growth has occurred. Still, preservationists are worried about the historic theaters.

Houston’s history is valuable enough to be a priority even during economic downturns. Joseph Weingarten helped transform Houston into a booming community. His efforts, as a Jewish immigrant from Poland, made Houston the type of place that would draw the attention of a world-renowned architect such as Johnson.

The community preservation debate is not the only one of its kind in the city. Spurred by debate on the two theaters’ fates, other Houstonians are standing up to what they perceive as overdevelopment and improper development.

Concerned residents are focusing on the Afton Oaks subdivision, which is scheduled for massive construction because of Metro’s light-rail extension. Attention has also turned to the fight against a residential skyscraper in the West University area.

Unlike the Weingarten’s of old, Weingarten Realty has become Houston’s standard for robber barons. The practice of trashing community responsibility for profit is more of an Enron trademark than that of the late Joseph Weingarten. His legacy and our beautiful buildings will be missed.

Shaista Mohammed is an anthropology and communication sophomore and may be reached at [email protected]

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