In-Depth

Another One Bites The Dust: A Closer Look At The Shelor Building Demolition

Chevron’s decision to demolish the Shelor Motor Company Building, built in 1928, was met with resistance. But what place does preservation have in Houston?

In the late 1920s, car companies were rushing to build showrooms on downtown’s Milam Street — it was the place to be for Houstonians in the auto industry at the time. But just last month, one of the era’s few remaining structures was demolished.

The Shelor Motor Company Building, which was located at the corner of Milam Street and Pease Street, was a three-story structure built in 1928. At the time, the Shelor building was praised for its innovation —  it was part showroom and part maintenance facility, with a parking lot on the roof. It went on to house the Houston Press offices from 1998 to 2013, when it was acquired by the Chevron Corporation.

Earlier this year, Chevron announced they would be demolishing the building in an official statement: 

Chevron is very proud of our long and significant presence in Houston, which dates back over 100 years. We purchased the property at 1621 Milam in 2013 as part of our long-term plans for a potential growing downtown presence.

We evaluated multiple options for the building and property and made the business decision to demolish the building. We have complied with all laws and regulations as we sought and received city permits to allow demolition.

The announcement sparked concern among individuals in the preservation community, and many turned to the Internet to make their case that the Shelor building should be saved. Among those individuals was Charles Renfro, who wrote an open message to Chevron in the Houston Chronicle pleading they reconsider their plans.

Originally from Baytown, Renfro graduated from the Rice University School of Architecture in 1989 and now lives in New York, where he is a partner at the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Renfro said growing up in the Houston area in the 1970s was thrilling.

A panoramic view of downtown Houston circa 1928. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

I got to watch all of downtown being constructed,” he said. “I witnessed the sprawl of Houston, and I also witnessed the profligate disregard for history at the same time that I saw the amazing embrace of the new. They sort of went hand in hand.”

Renfro said he wrote to Chevron not because he believes every old building should be preserved, but because he thinks the Shelor building was meaningful.

“I would not throw myself under a bulldozer. After all I grew up in Houston when it was booming, and I really relished the concept of the new and the excitement of a brand new city. It’s what made me become an architect,” he said. “But I am suggesting that if we lose all of those buildings which reflect the high points of the history, we’ll lose that history forever.”

Renfro also thinks the vacant Shelor building, which was built for cars, had untapped potential — he envisioned it as becoming a center for food trucks or other commercial vehicles.

Sarah Whiting, the Dean of the Rice University School of Architecture, was also one of the people speaking out to save the building. 

“It’s a representation of an important historical moment in our city, and as a building it was a very interesting design — to have that spacious interior, to have the ramp — I mean, it was very fine work,” she said. “And so, why not save it?”

Whiting met with Chevron representatives in October to make a case for saving the building, but was told the demolition was imminent.

Swapping Preservation For ‘Obsolescence’

Though Whiting and Renfro were disappointed with the fate of the Shelor Motor Company Building, both said they think overall, Houston has turned a page in regards to preservation and architecture. Whiting mentioned the Julia Ideson Building, and they both mentioned the Astrodome, as examples of successful preservation.

But Whiting thinks the word “preservation” might not convince developers. She suggested that instead of saying buildings needs to be preserved, advocates should talk about their utility and how to keep old buildings from becoming obsolete.

“Maybe obsolescence, which includes a kind of economic understanding of property, might be easier for Houston to understand as a topic,” she said. “Preservation sounds like something that belongs in New England.”

Up in New York, Renfro has made a name for himself preserving — or avoiding the obsolescence of — structures. In 2009, his architecture firm helped created the High Line, an abandoned railroad turned elevated public park that has since become a Manhattan staple.

Houston could use more projects like that, Renfro said, for the sake of the city’s future.

“Saving our historic buildings is a way to show that people’s investment into the new is something that will be treasured for decades to come. And only in saving our historic buildings will we pave the way for investment in great new buildings,” he said. “It’s not really just for the past, it’s for the future. It’s for giving people reason to build the future.”

Renfro and Whiting remain hopeful and said they think there is a growing appreciation in Houston for the buildings of its past — even as some of that past has been lost at the corner of Milam and Pease.

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