Q&A with James Glassman, Houstorian

We’re big fans of James Glassman and his organization Houstorian. This week, we had the pleasure of talking with him about a range of Houston topics including preservation, neighborhoods, and how Houston continues to inspire his work. His thoughts are too good not share, so enjoy!

Houston and James Glassman go hand in hand. When did this relationship begin?

I’ve always been a fan of history – family history, local history, architectural history. What really got me excited was Stephen Fox’s Houston Architectural Guide (now in its 3rd edition). It showed us the exciting stories behind Houston’s landmarks. It’s a real page-turner!

Houston has fueled so much of your great work over the years- from a published book, fine art, graphic design, apparel, etc. Are you driven mostly by where we are going or where we have been as a city?

My preservation group Houstorian is all about telling the story of Houston – who we are is partly who we were. I deal mostly in the past, but I love discovering new trends.

Tell us about Houstorian and the platform it provides for you and your projects.

When I founded Houstorian in 2006, all I had was a lowly blog. It was tricky finding ways to engage Houstonians before Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Twitter has been such a benefit to transforming us into Houston’s loudest preservation group. With social media, we are able to promote new t-shirt designs, new preservation ordinances, or preservation events. Twitter has certainly allowed us to get out the word on saving Houston’s beloved, signature landmark Astrodome.

What role does nostalgia play in your work and love of Houston?

We go back before nostalgia – can you have nostalgia for a time you never lived in?  

Speaking of the past, much of your work emphasizes preservation of the built environment. Do you gravitate more towards the architectural significance of structures or the societal histories they can recall?

Even though I have a Master of Architecture, I’m much more keen on the societal histories – it’s a bigger tent, and includes architecture.

As a collector of concert playlists, is there a concert playlist that you wish you had from any show in Houston’s history?

Still wish I got to see Prince at The Summit on his Purple Rain tour…

People forget that Houston’s original structures were designed before air conditioning, meaning they had to be thoughtfully designed to be comfortable. How can history inform better buildings of the future?

Architects are always looking for ways to lower the electricity bill. Even after A/C, there were plenty of Houston landmarks that employed passive cooling features like cantilevered horizontal shades over the windows. Look at Downtown’s ExxonMobil Building (Humble Building, 1963) or Wortham Tower on Allen Parkway (1965). Those shades are useful, but created interesting design too.

What role can preservation play in making Houston a more sustainable place?

Historic preservation is the ultimate sustainable act. If we find new uses for landmarks, then we keep them out of the landfills.

Houston is an energy city shaped by a rich and colorful oil and gas background. It’s also a city that is still telling its story. As energy evolves, how will our city and culture change with it?

We love new, we make new, we embrace new. The City of Houston is designed to evolve, and runs towards the future with gusto.

Speaking of change, how is the Houston of today different from that of your childhood?

Both old and new neighborhoods have design guidelines. We care more and act for improved quality of life issues, from Trees for Houston to bike lanes to Protected Historic Districts. Oh, and where did all the Dairy Queens go?! The food is much better now!

What neighborhoods do you currently find most interesting and why?

I would love to live in Cherryhurst. It has lovely, smaller scale brick bungalows, mature live oaks, alleys, and it’s close to everything. Spring Branch and Garden Oaks/Oak Forrest have been fun to watch as they struggle with preserving the character of their community amidst increased market interest. Go get deed restrictions for your neighborhood!

Programs like ours at Local Sun provide historic properties with a way to buy solar power without having to install panels. What role should new technology play in the preservation of historic structures?

For me, the best historic preservation projects include the latest technology. That’s how they remain contributing members of the community, and not museum pieces.

What building or organization would you like to bring back from the past and what would you like to see in the future?

I miss the Houston Oilers. Luv Ya Blue!

I’m excited to go to events in the reconfigured Astrodome.

If Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was remade about Houston with you as its central character, to which era would you travel and what Houstonians would you want to meet?

I would’ve loved to see Space City Houston, when NASA came to town.

“What’s the secret, Max?”

To thine own self be HOU.

Joey Romano