Newsletter | May/Jun 2014

Preservation + Disaster Recovery Housing - Galveston
by Jean Nilsson

Jean Nilsson Architect, Asilomar Conference, California Preservation Foundation photo.

As a preface to Alex’s scholarly work in learning from urban disasters (article above), I shared a brief personal story of my recent experience in disaster recovery work on the Gulf Coast of Texas, based on a slideshow I had given at California Preservation Foundation's April Conference at Asilomar.

Over six years and 16 trips to Galveston since Hurricane Ike–the 100-year storm that in 2008 damaged 75% of the island’s housing–I have been advocating on behalf of preserving the older houses and respecting the character-defining features of the old neighborhoods as key aspects to successful disaster recovery work. My presentation illustrated the process of saving a particular 1926 historic house that my grandmother bought in 1938 and that my mother lived in from 1948 until four days after the hurricane. The house was deemed eligible for rehabilitation under the Disaster Recovery Housing Program, with federal CDBG funds, but due to complexities of the historic context, the program’s budget constraints, and the bureaucratic morass, the house kept getting pushed to the bottom of the rehabilitation list.

The house needed significant repair after Ike to address storm damage, HUD and code upgrades, and deferred maintenance, all covered under the program. All exterior work was subject to State and Local historic regulations and review due to its location in the East End Historic District (EEHD), a neighborhood listed in 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places, along with the adjacent historic downtown. In the late 1950s, my father had made alterations to the house to accommodate a Radio and TV Repair business, obscuring the house’s original character and resulting in it later being classified as having an “adverse effect” on the district.

My challenge was to find a happy medium between the seemingly conflicting requirements of the program, in terms of scope and budget, and an approach that the Texas Historical Commission would approve as meeting the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in order to reclassify the house as "contributing" to the EEHD and to grant a windstorm exemption. I sought the support of local preservationists, politicians, City and State officials, and neighbors, as well as colleagues in California and Texas.

In the face of repeated setbacks and denials, including the program's formal request to demolish the house, I persistently continued to refine my case to establish the house’s integrity and its value to the neighborhood in terms of architectural and cultural history and the story it tells of change over time. Backed by historic research and documentation, including my grandmother's immigration record, Sanborn maps, property histories, and family photographs from the 1930s -1950s, as well as original building components salvaged from debris of the storm, I developed design options that I successfully argued would meet all parties’ requirements.

Block in historic district with early houses built in 1870s (corner and left in photo) and infill in 1920s, including 1926 house to right of corner, renovated as part of disaster recovery work.

I was only able to accomplish this project in the dual role of architect and homeowner acting on behalf of my mother, with an active presence on-site for much of the eventful construction period. While I was unable to directly help other eligible homeowners–traumatized, poor, elderly–many of whom were overwhelmed by the process and dropped out of the program or were unhappy with the work that was done to their homes, the example of the successful renovation of our house has received local recognition as a valuable precedent, and we hope it will be a catalyst for continued preservation and recovery. Jean's email is