PaperCity Magazine

March 2015 - Houston

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FROM THE ASTRODOME TO THE RIVER OAKS THEATRE: SAVING HOUSTON'S PAST, ONE TWEET AT A TIME C ivic historian James Glassman brandishes Twitter like a sword. His fight? Preserving Houston's historic and significant architecture. "Houston has history, but we have a lousy record for preserving or celebrating it like we should," says Glassman, a fifth-generation Houstonian who, like his grandfather before him, grew up in the Montrose area. In response to what he calls the city's "amnesia" for remembering its past, Glassman founded the historic preservation group Houstorian in 2006. Ever since, he's been battling the city's teardown mentality one tweet at a time. His Twitter feed (@Houstorian) has more than 13,000 followers. "I like to say we are the loudest preservation group in Houston, if not the largest," he says. His fascinating "Today in History" tweets reacquaint us with Houston's bygone past — but don't dare call him a history buff. "I hate that term," laments Glassman, whose trivia on the Bayou City is disseminated with a mission in mind. "My goal is to change the way Houstonians view themselves and their city," he says. Daily tweets range from civic milestones ("Today in 1956, Memorial Drive opens from Downtown all the way to Shepherd, with no stoplights") to sports trivia ("Today in 1973, the 5th Ward's George Foreman is World Heavyweight Champion after KO-ing Joe Frazier") and things we'd just as soon forget ("Today in 1958, Time magazine dubs Houston 'Murdertown, USA'"). In 2013, Glassman won Tweet of the Year at the Houston Press' Web Awards for the snarky but all in fun "Houstonians use HOU. Newstonians use HTX." Of course, Twitter is also an immediate way to break news and rally the troops when a favorite old building is about to become dust. "If you are reading about something online or in the paper that's about to be torn down, it's really too late to do anything about it," he says. Glassman's been trying to save the Astrodome from the wrecking ball since 2008 when it closed. It's been languishing behind construction fencing ever since. "At 18 stories tall and with a nine- acre footprint, it became the most important, distinctive and influential stadium ever built," he told me. "They've been talking about demolishing it to provide parking for the 2017 Super Bowl." He's tweeted so furiously over the years about the Astrodome, his Twitter feed is still smoking. In mid- February, a stay of execution: "It'll take $60 million to knock it down and another $20 million to fill in the hole," he says. "Harris County doesn't have the money, and County Judge Ed Emmett has said on the record he doesn't want to be the one to knock it down. I think it's safe for now." G lassman's website,, is a hub for all things preservation, including maps of protected Houston landmarks and neighborhoods, an informative Astrodome Q&A, opinion pieces and — just for fun — a revealing Take the Houstorian Quiz and a ribald post on Houston's Dirtiest-Sounding Street Names, for which he's turned the comments off. Residents of Dickey Place, Woodhead Street, and Purple Ridge, you've been outed. In 2013, he started designing T-shirts with insider Houston images and blurbs, which he sells online. His best-selling one has a simple line drawing of the Loop — instantly recognizable to residents, but often a mystery to outsiders. Another is emblazoned with "Mattress Mack is My Spirit Animal." If you have to ask who Mattress Mack is, well, you'd better go back to Dallas where you came from. Glassman might just have the perfect credentials to be Houston's de facto spokesman. Like many of the city's founding families, his roots include colorful characters. "My great, great grandfather was a traveling salesman in the 1890s, and family lore has it that one of the things he sold was liquor," Glassman says. "Houston is a funky town. We all have those stories no matter how long you've lived here." Mattress Mack, he says, is a great example of Houston's passion for quirky people. The in- your-face owner of Gallery Furniture with loud TV commercials, Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale has become a beloved city icon and philanthropist. Four generations after Glassman's ancestors settled, and Glassman himself is a model Houstonian, prepping at — trivia break — St. John's, the school fellow grad Wes Anderson based his movie Rushmore on. Glassman decamped Houston long enough to get an history degree from Kenyon College in Ohio, then returned for his master's in architecture at the University of Houston. As a child, he occupied himself building things with Lego bricks, rearranging his bedroom and finding projects around the house. "I was an architect before I even knew what one was," he says. Now he works as an architectural project manager at STG Design. He didn't set out to become a preservationist. In 2006, when there were rumblings that the shopping center that housed the historic 1939 River Oaks Theatre might be razed, "I had reached a tipping point. I felt compelled to act," he says, launching Houstorian as a way to connect with others who were just as passionate. The theater still stands, but its fate remains in the hands of developers. In 2010, the Alabama Theater in Upper Kirby was "rendered into a joyless box," its Art Deco features erased, he says. "I'm still outraged by that one." B eing loud and noisy on the airwaves gets attention. Four years ago, when H-E-B tore down a building and announced plans to open a grocery store on a quiet residential street in Montrose, Glassman and his neighbors "complained so much" that H-E-B hired renowned architectural firm Lake|Flato to build it. "It's a stunning design that could easily be a museum. We're all delighted," Glassman says. Wins and losses are inevitable in a city with no zoning rules. "Houston is used to seeing a high- rise next to a single-family residence," he says. "That's what makes our city so funky. We turn our basketball arena into a church." He's doing his part to perpetuate that quirkiness. For the Astrodome's 50th anniversary in April, he's designed cuff links and lapel pins to sell on his website. To celebrate the city's 179th birthday in August, he's hosting the Houstorian Gala, where guests will dress as their favorite Houstonian from history. In November, his first book — an irreverent guidebook to Houston — will be released under The History Press imprint. "The idea is to fix our history problem, our teardown culture," he says. "Being in architecture, I love that we look forward — cranes mean future. But we can do both. The T-shirts, the Astrodome advocacy, the tweets … All are part of the mission of appreciating what we have. It's how we fix our identity problem." PORTRAIT MAX BURKHALTER. ART DIRECTION MICHELLE AVIÑA. WRITTEN BY REBECCA SHERMAN. THE WRECK ING BALL eyond "MATTRESS MACK IS MY SPIRIT ANIMAL." IF YOU HAVE TO ASK WHO MATTRESS MACK IS, WELL, YOU'D BETTER GO BACK TO DALLAS WHERE YOU CAME FROM. James Glassman James Glassman at Camerata at Paulie's Glassman sketchbook James Glassman at Camerata at Paulie's

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