The historic district may boast the oldest blocks and buildings in Houston, but now one of those original blocks is the newest asset in the downtown area – the reinvented Market Square Park. Giving modern purpose to historic spaces has been a key preservation tactic for the entire Historic District’s renaissance over the past 20-plus years.
The conversion of historic buildings into lofts undoubtedly brought new momentum to preservation efforts that had stalled for years. When the Hogg Palace and Dakota Lofts opened in 1995, with 80 units and 54 units respectively, the general public and the business community were moderately intrigued by this novel concept in Houston. Next, the long-vacant Rice Hotel was converted into lofts (312 units), along with the Hermann Lofts (25 units), in 1998, followed by half a dozen more over the next several years.
The courage and determination of preservationists, real estate developers and entrepreneurs who have embraced the remaining historic buildings and blocks since the late 1980s have all played a role in bringing about a paradigm shift in the way historical buildings are treated in Houston.
Houston’s most historic blocks are within the designated Historic District, which contains the highly significant (yet longtime lackluster) Market Square Park. Thanks to an almost 50-year preservation relay race of sorts carried out in stalls and starts, the residents of Houston have been handed an astonishing baton pass. Though the status of the park was not in jeopardy, it simply wasn’t living up to its potential.
“What’s important about Market Square Park is that it is Houston’s first public space,” says Minnette Boesel, the mayor's assistant for cultural affairs. “Today it has evolved into an attribute to the neighborhood, anchoring the north part of downtown, bringing lots of activity and providing a lovely visual scene for the residents of the surrounding historic lofts.”
Today the Historic District alone is home to nearly 1,000 residents and an estimated 300 pets. Houston: we have a neighborhood.
Say Hello to Today’s Market Square Park
The goals for the newly opened, redesigned Market Square Park were to acknowledge the history of the site; to provide an active, urban green space; and to conserve its existing artwork and incorporate new artwork. At the center of the block is a rectangular lawn, which represents the footprint of the 19th- century City Hall, grounding the park in its history.
A crescent-shaped dog run on the Milam Street side now provides a place for the canine contingent to play. Behind the dog run, an illuminated crescent-shaped fence and walkway curves through the park from north to south and serves as a history walk. Niko Niko’s Greek & American Café is operating a small window-service cafe in the park with outdoor seating, trellis providing shade, and a dual plaza/performance area, all located on the Travis Street side. A double row of oak trees lines Preston on the block’s south end, extending to Sesquicentennial Park.
All of Market Square Park’s previous artwork remains. The artwork, coordinated by DiverseWorks in the late 1980s, is unified by the message of holding on to our city’s history. Those same artists – Richard Turner, Paul Hester, James Surls and Malou Flato – played a role in the redesign, along with newcomer Ketria Scott.
The park also includes Lauren’s Garden, a memorial effort from the foundation set up to honor Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas – a passenger on United Flight 93. This tribute garden, which makes up the Congress (north) end of the central lawn, includes a water feature, Ketria Scott’s sculpture, seasonal flowers, flowing trees, and a memorial to all victims of 9/11.
Lauren Griffith Associates created the design, while Ray + Hollington Architects (RHA) and Tribble & Stephens Constructors were also instrumental in the completion of the park project.
Niko Niko’s owner Dimitrios Fetokakis loves the idea of the new park. “I travel to Europe a lot and actually I’m writing this to you from Greece,” Fetokakis said via email. “Here, there are so many outdoor cafes and parks where you can sit with friends have coffee and enjoy a glass of wine under a grapevine trellis – even in New York they have places like that. I like the fact that in between all the big buildings you will find a treasure like Market Square Park where you are going to be able to relax for a while and unwind from the daily grind.”
Just across Travis Street, Treebeard’s founders Dan Tidwell and Jamie Mize are looking forward to this new era for Market Square.
“Our balcony overlooks the park, so the area feels safer with more people and activity,” says Mize.
We see opportunities to expand hours in connection with the music series at the park.” The Treebeard’s duo is also thrilled to see the new Houston Ballet Center for Dance under construction at the corner of Smith and Preston, which will bring stunning architecture and some 300 students to the area.
Maximizing the Potential
Our Historic District has matured into a multi-dimensional neighborhood, boasting close to 1,000 residents. It is no longer just a bar scene or just a restaurant row, or just the oldest part of Houston. The Historic District is a thriving neighborhood with residents of all ages and stages.
If you want to live in an authentic downtown loft, you’ll find the greatest concentration of them in the Historic District, where the residential population has helped fuel a broader vision for the area. Jaime Mize of Treebeard’s is also the chair of the board of directors of the Downtown Houston Redevelopment Authority. Mize said as the park project was announced, “With the renovation of Market Square Park, we will further our goal of helping create a true urban neighborhood in the north end of downtown and encourage property owners in the area to develop their properties, many of which are large tracts of parking lots.”
Those parking lots and vacant buildings are poised for development. Funding continues to be available to business owners through the Houston Downtown Management District’s (HDMD) Retail Grant Program. HDMD now offers a Storefront and Streetscape Grant open to existing businesses considering improvements for signage, exterior lighting and general curb appeal. This is big news, because grants have largely been available only to new businesses. The program rewards merchants who have already made the commitment and established a business downtown.
After decades of suburban spread, our city has finally started growing up instead of growing out. Today, historic preservation efforts are stronger than ever. The city of Houston has repeatedly improved its commitment to help owners of historic properties with tax relief and funding. And it shows.