Now a Locally Protected Landmark, the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse Looks to the Future
Empty for eight years, it was easy to overlook another derelict building once called a “dog of a site.” But this modest two-story stucco building in Houston's bustling Midtown reflects the city's burgeoning Mexican American social and political movement in the Jim Crow era, specifically through challenging discrimination and exercising political rights and power for Latinx individuals in Houston and beyond.
In the early 20th century, Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans began to organize to challenge persistent discrimination and white supremacist policies, and to discuss political tactics against social and institutional oppression. In 1929, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was created in response to decades of anti-Mexican violence, at a time when "No Mexicans Allowed" signs and brutal lynchings of persons of Mexican descent were commonplace in the Southwest. In addition, systemic racial, social, and political actions such as redlining, discriminatory mortgage lending practices, and lynchings especially impacted Mexican Americans living in the Southwest.
For nearly 60 years, the Council 60 Clubhouse served as a meeting house for the movement. It was a political hub of activity championing justice and equity—particularly in the 1950s and '60s, some of the most active years of the Latinx Civil Rights Movement.
Today the site is a locally protected landmark, with advocates working to further preserve the site for the future.
A Tireless Advocate for Civil Rights
Houston’s Mexican community surged in numbers in the early 20th century following the 1910 Mexican Revolution. In response to local needs, just five years after its national inception, Council 60 was established as the first LULAC chapter in the city. This arose at a time of widespread discrimination, like when companies would not hire Mexican Americans because of their ethnicity. Council 60’s goal was to improve the lives of the Mexican American community in Houston. Early concerns included fair housing, equal hiring practices, access to education, and advancing constituent voting rights for those unable to pay the poll taxes. During the '30s and '40s, this Council quickly became the city’s leading advocate for the rights of Mexican Americans in Houston.
Council 60’s original meeting location was in an old filling station located on the corner of Navigation Boulevard and 74th Street. As its influence began to grow and LULAC became more prominent in the community, the Council realized it needed to find a permanent home, and, in turn, that funds would need to be raised for that purpose. In 1955, LULAC Council 60 purchased what would become known as the Council 60 Clubhouse.
As LULAC’s national office in Washington, D.C., was not established until 1996, the Clubhouse became the de facto national headquarters for most of the '50s and '60s. This modest two-story stucco building located at 3004 Bagby St. was the epicenter of Latinx political organizing in the 1950s and ‘60s, both in Houston and nationwide. During that time, Council 60 created national programs that have helped Latinx Americans to this day. Gatherings in the headquarters inspired a lasting legacy of national programs that continue to flourish:
1960, Project Head Start: Felix Tijerina, national president and chairman of LULAC’s Educational Fund, conceptualized “Little School of the 400,” a preschool program dedicated to educational advancement by teaching 400 basic English words to Spanish-speaking children in the late 1950s. In 1960, LULAC worked to transform the “Little School of the 400” program into Project Head Start under the Johnson Administration.
1966, SER Jobs for Progress: Along with the American GI Forum, Council 60 piloted a job training and placement center located at the Clubhouse in 1965. It led to the federally-funded work advancement program SER (Service, Employment, Redevelopment) Jobs for Progress. In 1966, SER was initiated nationwide and is now the largest work placement program in the nation.
1968, LULAC Housing: To increase affordable housing opportunities for the Mexican American population, national LULAC president Roberto Ornelas created the National LULAC Housing Commission, which partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide homebuyer training and housing opportunities for seniors and low-income families. This program is still in place and is a key priority for LULAC nationally.
Council 60 and national LULAC president John J. Herrera also helped win a United States Supreme Court case in 1954 to give Mexican Americans the right to serve on juries with a ruling making it unconstitutional to exclude Mexican Americans. The landmark case Pete Hernandez v. Texas was the first Latinx civil rights case argued before the United States Supreme Court.
President John F. Kennedy visited with Council 60 at a gala it hosted at the Rice Hotel in Houston, on the day before he was assassinated in November 1963. The event was attended by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy, who the president unexpectedly asked to address their hosts in Spanish. This was the first time that a sitting president had appeared at a Latinx event and recognized the important voting potential of the Latinx population.
Despite Latinxs being the largest ethnic group within the country, less than 1 percent of Latinx sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Council 60 and national LULAC president Judge Alfred Hernandez helped lead the Albuquerque Walkout in 1966 to oppose discriminatory hiring practices, leading to the creation of a seven-man committee, which included Hernandez, who met with President Johnson that same year, a meeting seen as a momentous milestone for the Latinx Civil Rights Movement.
Today, LULAC’s mission "is to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health, and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States.” LULAC is the oldest and largest Latinx civil rights organization operating in the United States with over 1,000 councils, including 23 active councils in the greater Houston area.
As the country grapples with historical representation, equity, and inclusion, monumental Latinx historic sites like the Clubhouse have been historically excluded at the federal, state, and local levels of historic preservation. When writing my 2014 thesis, I found that “despite Latinxs being the largest ethnic group within the country, less than 1 percent of Latinx sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Being such a significant historic place that advanced American civil rights, it’s hard to believe that the site had been overlooked. More importantly, it was not designated as a protected landmark and safeguarded from erasure in a demolition-friendly city like Houston.
Preserving LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse
The 1,837-square-foot house-turned-Clubhouse was constructed in 1907 as a wood-framed American Foursquare home located just 1 mile from downtown Houston. The Clubhouse is a modest building, vernacular in style, and is covered in white stucco. It physically evolved over time to fit the needs of Council 60 after the organization purchased it in 1955.
As Alfonso "Al" Maldonado, LULAC District VIII Director, said, "As a 35-year member of Council 60, I was fortunate to have personally known the members and unsung heroes who took part in the historic programs and events of national significance. They were ordinary men who accomplished extraordinary feats. The Clubhouse will always remind me of these members and of their stories told to me as a young member.”
Over the following decades, the building suffered from neglect and lack of funding and grew a backlog of maintenance issues. It was finally shuttered in 2013 with plans to sell the house or relocate it to another location. However, through the help of passionate LULAC-ers, Council 60 members, and community leaders like Ray Valdez, the dilapidated structure began to gain community support to help save it.
“In 2013, the year that I joined LULAC, the Clubhouse was shuttered because it was deemed to be too unsafe to continue meeting there," said Valdez, former Council 60 president and chair of C. 60 Inc., a nonprofit established to restore the building. "My wife, The Honorable Lydia G. Tamez, convinced me and has kept me on task to restore the Clubhouse. It was both our wishes to bring the Clubhouse to its original condition that it was in when LULAC Council 60 purchased it in 1955.”
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The building had fallen into steep, visible disrepair, most dramatically illustrated by a falling roof, making it especially vulnerable when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017. While the building envelope was already failing and there was a large hole in the roof, further damage was incurred when massive rainwaters penetrated the Clubhouse on both floors.
On Jan. 30, 2018, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse as its newest Texas project. This designation came with a $140,000 American Express Disaster Recovery Grant to support the Clubhouse’s emergency stabilization efforts. To begin understanding the general condition of the building, consultants were hired to produce documents to prioritize repair work. An Existing Conditions Assessment Report by Kerry Goelzer Associates, Structural Evaluation Report by Sparks Engineering, Hazardous Materials Report by QC Laboratories, and a Determination of Eligibility by SWCA were completed in 2018. Based on the recommendations and with funding in place, in January 2019, the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse underwent much-needed emergency stabilization from 2018-19.
Along with elevating the site’s historical and cultural significance, the National Trust team, made up of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, partnered with Council 60 partners to develop a reuse plan to ensure long-term sustainability for the historic LULAC Clubhouse.
The National Trust worked feverishly to convince Council 60 to preserve the building and historically designate it as a Houston Protected Landmark to protect the building and deter the site from being demolished. Like many historically marginalized organizations, the Council had apprehensions about outsiders and historic designation. Eventually, trust was built and a partnership formed, and the Council supported local historic designation to protect and support revitalization efforts.
A Question of Integrity and Next Steps
Early on, preservationists questioned whether the site had sufficient architectural integrity to qualify for historic designation, a common concern among traditional preservation and architecture practitioners working with underrepresented historical and cultural sites that are vernacular in building type. Historic designation is about history, people, culture, and community understanding, not just architecture. It’s through local designations that sites like the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse can be protected from the wrecking ball. The building, modest in appearance, encapsulated a history and culture worthy of a landmark designation.
In 2020, as the National Trust project manager, I wrote and led efforts for a local Protected Landmark Application. Jointly, Council 60 and the National Trust submitted the nomination, and in the fall of 2020, during Hispanic Heritage Month, Houston’s city council unanimously voted to designate the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse as a Protected Landmark. The Council will use the recent designation to seek tax exemption from Harris County. Abbie Kamin, the representative from District C of the Houston City Council said, “…thanks to the work of LULAC Council 60 we have better civil rights programs and protections today.”
For the Clubhouse, its continued presence is a reminder of our country’s journey toward a more equitable society. There are hundreds of sites like the Clubhouse that embody the rich heritage and legacy of the Latinx community nationwide yet fall by the wayside because of their exterior conditions or marginalized and misunderstood histories.
Today, LULAC Council 60 and C. 60 Inc., the organization’s preservation nonprofit, are actively fundraising to complete necessary restoration work. As Maldonado describes, “The designation will preserve the history of the Council’s national accomplishments and the legacy of the members who made it happen. The Clubhouse will forever stand as an iconic symbol of the Mexican American experience and the belief that Si se Puede." Valdez echoes that sentiment, but looks to the future, "We are still working to add the LULAC Council 60 Clubhouse to the National Register of Historic Places. We can all rest a little easier when that task has been complete."
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