By Brandon Wolf
A uniquely designed park in the Montrose area has been proposed for a small commercial lot at 424 Westheimer, bearing the name Avondale Promenade Park. Houston City Council Member Ellen Cohen has been working since 2014 to make the park a reality.
A community request has been approved to provide the Montrose Remembrance Garden with a permanent home in the park. Dedicated in 2011, the small garden is a memorial to Houston’s victims of LGBT violence.
The Avondale Area’s Rich History
While the 9,988-square-foot plot is quite small, designers will utilize every square foot of land. Since the plot borders the Avondale Historical District, Craftsman-style architectural features made popular by Frank Lloyd Wright (and seen in many of the district’s homes) have been blended into the park’s design.
The Avondale area was developed from 1907 to 1928, to compete with the nearby Courtlandt and Westmoreland neighborhoods. Development took place in two stages—Avondale East and Avondale West. The homes were built by oil executives, bankers, and other businessmen. Avondale’s most famous resident was Ross Sterling, founder of the Humble Oil Company and governor of Texas from 1931 to 1932. His home still stands at 600 Avondale.
The historic subdivision was platted with 129 lots along three main streets. Alleys were cut through the middle of each block to accommodate utility poles, deliveries, and trash collection.
Homes in the area were built in the Craftsman, Prairie, American Four Square, and Tudor Revival styles. Avondale’s name is based on William Shakespeare’s home town in England, Stratford-upon-Avon. The three main streets reflect the Shakespearean theme—Avondale, Stratford, and Hathaway (recalling Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway).
After World War II, when many of the original residents moved away, some of the large homes were torn down to make way for apartment buildings. Businesses sprang up on Hathaway Street, which would later be renamed Westheimer Road.
The LGBT Community’s Area History
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Montrose area began to quietly attract members of the LGBT community. The distinctive architecture of the original homes was appealing, and the aging neighborhood offered home prices that middle-class singles could afford.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the area became very bohemian, and LGBTs streamed in. The boundaries of “gay Montrose” were approximately Richmond on the south, Shepherd on the west, West Gray on the north, and San Jacinto on the east. The proposed park’s location is close to many memories from that era, with Don’s La Patois restaurant (and then Michael’s bar) being two businesses located right on the park site.
Moving two blocks in either direction along Westheimer, several disco-era bars could be found: Silver Dollar, Roundtable, Bayou Landing, Second Sun, Midnite Sun, Chicken Coop, Twins, QT’s, Numbers, and Club L’Amour. Neighborhood businesses included Rough Cut jewelers, Tres Chic eyewear, Wilde-N-Stein bookstore, Infinite Records, Jim’s Gym, Byman’s Furnishings, Roman Hair Design, Leather Loft, Q-1 Leather, Tropic Tan, Sports Locker, and Black Boot. Lower Westheimer restaurants included the Happy Buddha, Tila’s, Spud-U-Like, Hour Glass, Padrino, Michelangelo’s, Jade Dragon, Lee Garden, Spirit Café, and Angelo’s Pizza. An LGBT Church of Christ also had a meeting place there.
Just north of Westheimer, still more bars have been located on Avondale over the years: Badlands, Truck Stop, Silver Bullet, Silver Phoenix, and Dirty Sally’s; as well as the Montrose Inn and the Fred Paez Community Center. Bars located one block south on Lovett Blvd. (just a short walk from the Lovett Inn and KPFT Radio) included Baja Sam’s, Bacchus, and Mother’s.
Jack Valinski, former head of Pride Houston, recalls that for years the annual Pride parade ended at Westheimer and Whitney, on the western edge of the proposed park.
Houston’s “Open Space” Initiative
Council Member Cohen advocated for purchase of the park land in 2014, at a cost of $1 million. City Council discussions buzzed about the cost, but Cohen took seriously the 2007 Open Space ordinance that was enacted to add green space to Houston neighborhoods.
The ordinance divides Houston into 21 park sectors and levies fees on residential developers who do not set aside enough green space. The fees generated within a sector must be spent in that sector within three years—and only for neighborhood parks.
Studies developed by the national Trust for Public Land shows a “high need” in the Lower Westheimer area. The Trust assesses need based on numerous factors: population density, number of youth and low-income residents, acreage, number of facilities, and accessibility. The rapidly increasing density of nearby Midtown was also considered in the scoring.
The city real-estate department proposed other locations for the park, but they were either harder to access and monitor, more expensive, or already slated for townhouse construction. The city finally agreed to purchase the Avondale corner lot in April 2015.
Cohen utilized her District C service fund to provide $25,000 for the design costs. In late summer of 2016, she hosted two community meetings for neighbors to express their thoughts about what amenities they’d like to see in the park.
Once the preliminary plans were crafted, Cohen asked the Council to authorize the Houston Parks & Recreation Department to apply for an Urban Outdoor Recreation Grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. That $1 million grant request (which will match the City’s $1 million land-purchase donation) is in the works, with a decision expected this spring. The parks department indicates that if the request is not successful, other funding sources will be sought.
Overall, Houston is making great efforts to raise its attractiveness quotient. The Trust for Public Land park score for Houston is currently only 41 out of a possible 100. Houston’s initiatives with its major public parks are impressive, but raising the score will require much more investment in small neighborhood parks. Construction of the Avondale Promenade Park is a prime example of what is needed to increase Houston’s livability.
Neighborhood Input Guides the Final Design
On August 16 and September 13, 2016, Cohen held a neighborhood meeting to gather public comment at The Women’s Home, just a few blocks west of the proposed park site. Two design proposals were presented, and the final design is a blend of the two that incorporates a multitude of popular features. The distinctive promenade—which bisects the park diagonally—is 12 feet wide. The promenade’s red-brick pavers will be engraved with historical references to Avondale’s history. The pavers are a nod to Avondale East’s original sidewalks that were tinted red to complement green lawns and trees, and to help reduce glare.
Two Craftsman-style stone columns with vintage light fixtures will stand at the entryway off Westheimer. The current Metro bus shelter will be redesigned to match the Craftsman theme. Running parallel on both sides of the promenade are avenues of shade trees and vintage light poles.
A Craftsman-style shade shelter with benches will be in the west portion of the park, surrounded by two open play areas and an open plaza. Benches, porch swings, and picnic/game tables will be placed randomly throughout the park.
In the east portion of the park will be a children’s playground with a solid-rubber fall zone, music play panels, talk tubes, a chalk-art board, and a low platform performance area. The playground equipment will be accessible by children of all abilities.
The northern section of the park will have a fenced off-leash dog area. The southern section will house a pollination garden and nature path. Interpretive signage will be placed at key points.
Of special interest is a chimney swift tower. Chimney swifts are small birds that use abandoned chimneys to make their nests after being forced out of their natural habitats by urbanization. The cheerful, chirping flocks are now fond of the chimney-like structures built to attract them.
A metal fence at one edge of the park will provide a wall of vining plants. Existing cypress trees on the lot will be retained. Strategic placement of these features will maximize safety and year-round enjoyment, and the park will be fully accessible.
The Montrose Remembrance Garden
In December 2010, 28-year-old Houstonian Aaron Scheerhoorn was stabbed to death just a few yards from the entrance to Blur Bar on a busy Montrose weekend night. Scheerhoorn’s friends wanted to memorialize him by planting a tree nearby. They approached bar owner Charles Armstrong, who offered the landscaped corner of his parking lot at Grant and California.
The garden soon evolved into a memorial to all Houston LGBT victims of violence. In 2011, an engraved memorial marker was placed in the garden during a formal dedication ceremony. In 2013, a second marker was added by Houston’s transgender community to emphasize the high degree of violence against transgender individuals.
In 2014, Armstrong sold the parking lot and moved the garden to a small plot on the corner of Converse and Hyde Park.
The garden has been used for anti-violence vigils three times since its creation—to honor a lesbian couple in Corpus Christi, a young Hispanic man in Houston, and the 49 victims of Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting.
Activist Tim Bacon was among those who first worked to establish the garden. At an initial Avondale Park meeting, he suggested that the proposed park should provide a permanent home for the Montrose Remembrance Garden. The recommendation passed unanimously.
It is not yet known which historical references will be placed on the promenade’s red-brick pavers—or if a reference to the LGBT community’s “home” in the Montrose area will be included. However, the inclusion of the memorial garden will provide a way to permanently anchor our community into the “Old Montrose” area.
Doug Anderson, a close friend of Scheerhoorn’s and a founder of the Remembrance Garden, commented: “I always feel humbled when I visit the Garden and see tributes to lost loved ones placed there. I am extremely grateful to the City and our community for providing it a permanent home.”
Nancy McGinnis-Roberts, another close friend and Garden founder, remarked: “What a giant step forward for all who have lost a loved one violently, senselessly, and tragically. To have a place to mourn our loss, celebrate the lives of those who are gone, and remember their stories gives a voice to those we have lost.”
Activist Lou Weaver, who worked to make the transgender memorial a reality, reflects: “I’m very excited to hear that the Remembrance Garden will be finding a permanent home. It’s very important for the community to be able to honor those that we have lost due to anti-trans hate—and to remember where we have come from.”
In a statement for OutSmart, Cohen summed up the proposed park: “As the council member for District C, which includes the future park at 424 Westheimer, as Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Houston, and as chair of Houston’s Quality of Life Committee, I know how critical it is that we maintain and increase our green spaces in Houston, particularly in rapidly densifying neighborhoods like Montrose.
“This is why I have been so pleased to advocate for the creation of a park on Lower Westheimer, which has been identified by the Parks Department as a ‘high-need’ area for quality green space. The plans crafted by the neighboring community are particularly fantastic because they are so unique to the neighborhood—they highlight the historic nature of Avondale and include the relocation of the LGBT Remembrance Garden to the park to ensure it has a permanent home. This will be a true community park, and I look forward to its implementation.”
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Special appreciation to houstonlgbthistory.org for its collection of This Week in Texas, which aided in the research for this article.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.