Don’t Mess With River Oaks

Houston has always prided itself as a city that barrels forward into the future, and operates without memory, regret or nostalgia. But when developers began messing with the historic River Oaks Shopping Center, Houstonians raised their hackles.
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Photo by Matt Rutledge

Houston is one of the few cities in America where the possible obliteration of a strip center can produce howls of grief and rending of garments. That’s close to what happens when preservation-minded locals cruise the westerly blocks of West Gray Street and spot the squat turrets and sand-colored “bricks” that now obscure the River Oaks Shopping Center, an architectural gem that dates back to 1937.

The conversion of this center from Art Deco classic to forgettable generic has occurred just as Houston, a city that once prided itself on its passion for moving forward without memory or regret, has begun preserving a tiny fraction of its historic structures.

Thanks to Mayor Annise Parker—who has expended a hefty share of political capital on what some consider a kamikaze attack on beloved property rights—the city last year passed a historic preservation ordinance with a few teeth. (Some restoration projects that have been in the works for years have finally come to fruition: the recently completed

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