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Preservation Magazine, Summer 2019

How One Houston Midcentury House Fared After Hurricane Harvey

Steve and Martha Curry restored their 1953 house after Harvey flooded it. Will other Houstonians be able to do the same?

On the morning of August 27, 2017, Steve and Martha Curry grabbed their wallets, keys, and cellphones and stashed them in a portable ice chest. They lashed two pool noodles together with duct tape to create a makeshift raft, placing the ice chest on top. Then they waded out of the Houston house they’ve lived in since 1992. The couple had finished restoring it in 2014, and now it was flooded with a foot of water, courtesy of Hurricane Harvey.

The Currys waded about a half mile north to higher ground. Their cellphones were still working, so they were able to reach local family and friends and make sure they were okay. Not everyone was as lucky—at least 68 people died as a direct result of Harvey, and more than 30,000 had to be rescued. An estimated 154,170 houses in Harris County, which contains Houston, were flooded, and many people were permanently displaced. Over a period of four days, the storm dumped almost 50 inches of rain on parts of Houston. “I’m from Louisiana, so I’ve seen a lot of violent hurricanes,” says Steve Curry, a principal at Curry Boudreaux Architects and president of the Midcentury Modern advocacy group Houston Mod. “This wasn’t violent. It was just incessant.”

The waters receded from the Currys’ street near southwest Houston’s Braeswood Place neighborhood within a day, and they were able to get back into the house to assess the damage. The 1953 residence, designed by noted local Modernist Lars Bang and known as the Bendit House, had held up relatively well. The terrazzo floors in the main rooms were intact. The same went for the exposed-brick walls.

But much of the house’s woodwork and all of its cork floors were destroyed. Some of the Midcentury Modern furniture the couple had spent years accumulating was lost. Though far from catastrophic, it was still hard to accept. The house had never flooded before, so they didn’t expect it to flood during Harvey. They waited until the last minute to move smaller items off the floor and believe they could have saved more if they had allowed more time. Like their neighbors on a quiet cul-de-sac, the Currys had to remove ruined mattresses, clothing, and books in the days after the storm and pile them out on the lawn for pickup by the city.

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The Currys' living room, restored for the second time, contains a wall of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that connect it to the rear terrace and pool area.

While the Bendit House has uncommon architectural significance—architect Ben Koush calls it “one of the 10 to 15 really outstanding Midcentury Modern houses” in Houston—its era produced thousands of houses in the region. After World War II, Houston’s oil and gas economy boomed, and developers pounced on the land that surrounded the city’s core of prewar buildings. They filled newly built cul-de-sacs with low-slung brick ranch houses, placing some of the choicest streets along the bayous that meander through the area.

During the 1960s, people continued to flock to Harris County (which contains Houston), and they all needed a place to live. NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) opened in 1963. The Astrodome—the country’s first enclosed, multipurpose stadium, now a National Treasure of the National Trust—followed in 1965. The rapidly expanding city epitomized the sunny attitude that fueled the transparency and openness of Midcentury Modern design. “It was like, ‘We can do anything! We’re modern and we’re going to space,’” says Anna Mod, a Houston native and a preservation consultant at MacRostie Historic Advisors.

The city’s midcentury housing stock varies, which is part of what makes it interesting. Zoomy “builder specials” with steeply angled rooflines cozy up next to conservative hipped-roof ranches. Highbrow architect-designed versions, including Philip Johnson’s 1950 Menil House in the exclusive River Oaks neighborhood, are sprinkled in. Most houses of the period were built on a slab-on-grade foundation, rather than with basements. While Houston’s freeways are built low to contain flooding, in a situation (like Harvey) when the bayous overflow, the water only has so many places to go before it breaches the thresholds.

There’s more of that water than there used to be. In September of 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study that revised Harris County’s 100-year storm estimate from 13 inches of rain per day to 18 inches per day. So every year there is a 1 percent chance of a storm of that magnitude. A 500-year storm unleashes even more water and is even less likely to occur. But Harvey was estimated to be a 500-year and even a 1,000-year storm in parts of the city. And it caused Houston’s third major flood in three years, after the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016. “I grew up in Houston, so I grew up with floods,” says Mod. “It’s getting worse, though.”

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Newly built houses in the area dwarf midcentury ranches.

Houston’s runaway sprawl since the midcentury era hasn’t helped, either. Every time a building goes up on a plot of land, another piece of permeable surface disappears, and the entire region feels it when a heavy rain happens. “This is about regional planning, which we’re not particularly good at [here],” says Kerry Goelzer, a Houston architect and board member of Houston Mod. She mentions the Katy Prairie west of Houston, which contains natural shallow wetlands, rice fields, and grasslands that hold water during storms. “As more of that land gets developed, it begins to fill up faster than it used to. So it’s a regional challenge for us.”

The recent floods have accelerated the pace of teardowns in desirable neighborhoods such as Braeswood Place, Meyerland, and Memorial Bend. (Glenbrook Valley, Houston’s only Midcentury Modern neighborhood that is a designated local historic district, is more intact.) These areas had already been turning over in the past couple of decades, with the streetscape evolving into a mix of house styles and sizes. But especially since Harvey, many locals feel that the disparity between one-story Midcentury Modern houses and towering new construction has become more glaring. In keeping with city regulations, any new development in the 500-year floodplain must be raised at least 2 feet above the base flood elevation for that property.

Combine these two extremes with a mix of vacant lots, empty houses with owners who still haven’t moved back in after Harvey, and existing houses that have been elevated to avoid flooding, and you get a neighborhood fabric that looks much different than before the storms. Owners of houses that flooded have four choices: They can repair their houses, elevate them, sell them, or demolish them.

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Martha Curry heads out to the 1950 Chevy in the carport of her house.

For the Currys, there was no question what their next move would be: They would repair the house and re-restore the elements that were damaged in the storm. The water wasn’t in their house for long, and they removed or dried wet items as quickly as possible, so they didn’t have to deal with mold issues the way many others did. They had the resources to re-restore it and, not incidentally, they love their home. “It’s a pleasure to live there,” says Martha, who discovered the 2,100-square-foot house in the first place, back in the early 1990s. The couple had two young children at the time and weren’t looking to move, but they saw past the added layers of drywall and paint to the midcentury gem lying underneath. Martha, a pediatric nurse practitioner, wasn’t even a fan of Midcentury Modern yet. But, as Steve says, “she liked that when she stood at the kitchen sink, she could look out at the backyard and pool through a set of glass doors that were 8 feet tall and 32 feet long.”

For their first decade in the Bendit House, the Currys were occupied with raising their family and building their careers. Steve sought out architect Lars Bang, who was in his 80s and getting ready to retire. Bang loaned him the original plans to copy so that when it was time to restore, there would be no doubt as to what went where. “The house really rooted us in this neighborhood and rooted me in midcentury,” says Steve. “It was a time of curiosity and discovery for me.”

They finally embarked on a restoration in 2003 and worked on it, off and on, for the next 11 years. Good Housekeeping magazine had published a story on the property in 1954, so they had a visual record of exactly what it had looked like then. Steve dove into the work, appreciating even more about the original architecture as he went along.

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Steve and Martha Curry enjoy their open living and dining area, which is typical of Midcentury Modern houses.

Bang had cleverly used materials and proportions to erase the line between indoors and outdoors. A built-in planter box next to the bright-red front door continues inside the entryway. “The garden seems to enter with you,” marveled Good Housekeeping. The main living space’s terrazzo floors are repeated on the rear terrace, with a matte finish to prevent poolside slips. And the big glass sliding doors that Martha had admired form the entire rear wall of the house.

The oversize pink brick used inside and outside had been painted over in some rooms, so during the first restoration, Steve used a baking-soda blast to gently remove the paint. “It’s handmade brick—you can see handprints in it,” he says. “There’s even a heelprint outside.” The steel sliding glass door frames had been painted, too, and the same technique was used to strip them. (The original glass was replaced with tempered glass for safety reasons.) Steve found original wood walls and ceilings under drywall and saved as much of it as he could. Where the wood was too far gone, he found similar species, such as the sapele in the master bedroom that replaced the original walnut wall paneling.

The bathrooms were missing much of their original fixtures and hardware, but Steve managed to salvage some from a nearby Lars Bang–designed house that the owners were gutting. Though the original kitchen was completely gone, he resurrected its general form and spirit—making a few modern-day adjustments, such as adding more counter space and using Corian instead of Formica. The 1950s ceiling lights in the kitchen and entryway—neon strip lights under milk glass—were retained. Solid birch master bedroom furniture, by midcentury furniture manufacturer Conant Ball, came from a neighbor’s estate sale. “It’s the same age as the house; that’s why it looks right,” Steve says.

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A private terrace and midcentury furniture (which tends to have smaller proportions) make the master bedroom feel larger.

When Harvey hit in 2017—three years after the first restoration was completed—the flooding wrecked the bed’s frame, as well as much of the other low-lying exposed wood in the house. “Nearly all the original built-in millwork was solid lumber, and it was fine,” Steve says. “It didn’t warp or bend.” But about half the house had newer wood paneling or shelving, which didn’t hold up as well. After Steve set about re-restoring the house post-Harvey, he had all the damaged woodwork refurbished or replaced. The ruined cork floors in the study and guest bath were pulled out and redone. Rusted galvanized steel flashing was replaced with stainless steel in case the house ever floods again.

The re-restoration took a while. Contractors and subs were booked solid after Harvey, and Steve is a perfectionist about details. He waited until the same craftspeople who had worked on the previous restoration became available, so he could collaborate with people who really knew the house. The Currys moved back into their second restoration of the Bendit House in January of 2019. And it is perfect, down to the period thermostat, the cherry red front door, and the mint green 1950 Chevrolet in the carport.

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Steve and Martha Curry in their backyard. The house's oversize pink brick, terrazzo floors, built-in planter box, and painted plywood ceilings all continue from inside to outside.

The big question now is, when will the next major storm happen? And what can homeowners do about it when it does? The Harris County Flood Control District is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to widen the bayous so they can hold more water, but even Brays Bayou, the one slated for the earliest completion, won’t be done until sometime after the 2019 hurricane season. The rest of the bayou expansion projects will take up to five years. Some Houstonians have faith in this work, but others are skeptical that it will protect their houses in the long term.

The approach of elevating existing houses offers what some see as a middle ground and what others view as an aesthetic travesty. David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston, believes elevation can be considered on a case-by-case basis. “We’re talking to homeowners who are flooded out of their homes,” he says. “I used to be a strict preservationist, but you can’t be in Houston. The choice [for many] is to elevate and save the house, or just demolish.” He acknowledges that “some have been more sensitive in elevating their homes than others.” FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program provides funding for elevating to its standards, so this option often ends up making financial sense.

Companies throughout the area specialize in the process, which entails lifting the house up with jacks and adding piers or a new foundation underneath. The exposed area is usually covered with a “skirt” of brick, stone, or other masonry material. Adding more soil is discouraged in the floodplain because it could increase flooding on neighboring properties, so elevated houses—especially midcentury ranch houses designed to hug the ground—can look jarringly out of place, with their entrances high in the air.

Architect Kerry Goelzer believes there are acceptable ways to elevate, even for ranch houses. “People have started exploring how to do it in a way that softens the look from the front,” she says. “They’re using terraces and landings. They’re getting better at how to make the skirt, and how to work with the rest of the house to make the proportions look reasonable.”

Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, is also open to elevating houses, or even moving them to higher ground. Galveston, just 50 miles southeast of Houston, faces many of the same flooding issues with its smaller stock of midcentury houses. “We need to look more openly at these options,” he says. “Coastal communities aren’t like an inland town or city.” He is also intrigued by the idea of keeping a house in place but replacing some of its components with materials that can handle water, the way the Currys’ terrazzo floors did. Jones, Bush, and other area preservation leaders (including the National Trust’s Houston field office) agree about the need to document the region’s Midcentury Modern housing and are looking for ways to fund that work.

It’s still too soon for many homeowners who were flooded during Harvey to know what they should do long-term, no matter what their house’s architectural style. Some houses remain empty while their owners make agonizing financial decisions or wait for insurance money to come in. For the Currys, re-restoring their home was the right choice, and they saved an important piece of Houston’s cultural heritage in the process.

But everyone’s situation is different, and right now, no one knows the answer to the overall question of what will happen to Houston’s trove of midcentury housing. “I think it’s really changed since the storm,” Mod says. “It’s kind of like, all bets are off. You have to respect each person’s need to do what they need to do. There’s no easy solution.”

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Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.

@mdrueding

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