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Ride Over for Houston’s Carousel House

January 24, 2008

By Elizabeth Lunday

In the early 1960s, as NASA opened its Spacecraft Center and the Astros constructed the Astrodome, Houston experienced a building boom with Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson producing rigorously Modern structures. But innovative design wasn’t the exclusive purview of world-famous architects. A store designer and shipbuilder created the Carousel House, which combined the era’s exuberance with the aesthetic of Modernism.

Houston’s Carousel House
Houston’s Carousel House
Houston’s Carousel House
Photos © Ben Hill
The Houston residence built by Bob and Jean Cohen in 1963 (top). After the Cohens sold it in 2003, the house sat vacant for several years and filled with mold (middle). Known as the Carousel House, due to its circular living room, the property was demolished last year (above).
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“It was his dream,” says Jean Cohen of the 1963 residence designed by her husband, Bob. Its most distinctive feature was a circular living room with a pleated roof and round central skylight, furnished with a curving custom-made sofa and raw-silk wall coverings. Although it became known as a Mod marvel, the house no longer exists: a new owner began demolishing it in November.

The fate of the Carousel House is hardly unique in Houston. Historic preservationists contend that Modern masterpieces are at risk in a town more concerned with land values than legacy, while developers claim the city is championing individual property rights. Houston is the largest city in the U.S. without any zoning. It has repeatedly voted down such measures, most recently in 1993, in the belief they might stifle growth. Houstonians are accustomed to finding rock-crushing operations sprouting up in residential neighborhoods and rent-by-the-hour motels next door to Baptist churches, although occasionally the city will regulate land use through deed restrictions and ordinances created in response to high-profile cases.

The Carousel House seemed immune to Houston’s land use controversies, positioned on its quiet street in a wooded neighborhood known as Meyerland. After living there for 40 years, the Cohens, coping with ill-health, moved to an apartment in 2003. Attorney John O’Quinn purchased the property to be inhabited by Zev Isgur, an ex-con who had worked his way into O’Quinn’s confidence and was in charge of managing his classic car collection. But Isgur began playing fast and loose with his boss’s money. Ultimately, 29 cars and $1.3 million went missing, and in 2005 Isgur was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The Carousel House, meanwhile, sat vacant. The Gulf Coast climate took over and the property became so full of mold and mildew that it was unsafe to enter without wearing a breathing mask.

Enter Marvin Granit, who purchased the residence in September 2007. Word quickly circulated that he intended to demolish it. The house’s admirers, including members of Houston Mod, a group founded in 2003 to preserve the city’s Modern architecture, were horrified. Granit’s company, Granit Builders, produces the type of oversized custom residences that participants on the Houston Architecture online forum decry as “McMansions.” One posting describes these houses as “poorly conceived, poorly designed” and with a “total lack of substance or meaning.”

But there was little that opponents could do because the Carousel House was not a designated landmark, nor was it located in a historic district. Besides, many preservationists consider the city’s preservation ordinance to be weak because it rarely prevents demolition. “It’s the state of mind in Houston: people don’t respect anything that’s there,” observes Stephen Fox, a local architectural historian.

For his part, Granit found the uproar outrageous. “This is not a socialist country where someone can come in and say, this is what you do with your house,” he says, adding that if preservationists wanted to save they house they could have offered to buy it. “Put up or shut up, but no one has come forward and said, here’s the money.”

The critical attention given to the house also baffled Granit. “I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he says, adding that he considered renovating the property but decided against it because despite hundreds of thousands of dollars of repairs the house still would have had small bedrooms, a “tiny” kitchen, and a “horrible, horrible layout.” Moreover, because the house sits in a floodplain, city regulations would have required the structure to be elevated, a costly and difficult procedure. Only listed historic properties are exempt from this regulation, but Granit refused to seek landmark designation for the house and went ahead with demolition. Salisbury Design Group is now working with him to design a new residence, where he intends to live with his fiancée.

Preservationists are saddened but resigned. Although they can point to some successes—a 1950 house designed by Hugo Neuhaus was recently purchased and restored by former U.S. secretary of energy Robert Mosbacher and his wife—more common is the fate of the Carousel House, which is “just one in a parade of houses that have been destroyed,” says Houston Mod president Ben Koush.

But Granit notes that most of Houston’s Modern residences are generally located in central Houston neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly valuable. “From a builder’s point of view, by buying these expensive lots and building new, you’re improving the tax base,” he says.

At the end of the day, it seems that the argument reflects the character of the city. Houston was focused on the future in 1963 and it maintains that focus today.

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