Home to approximately 2,000 Houstonians, the area now called the Old Sixth Ward was originally part of a two-league Mexican land grant issued in 1824 to John Austin, a close friend of Stephen F. Austin.  It had been assumed they were cousins but Stephen Austin’s last will and testament referred to John Austin as “my friend and old companion”.

Two years after the Allen Brothers purchased the grant from Mr. Austin’s estate in 1836 to establish the city of Houston , Mr. S.P. Hollingsworth filed a survey of the western environs of downtown Houston which included today’s Old Sixth Ward which he divided into large, narrow tracts that ran northward from Buffalo Bayou. By January 1839, several tracts within the Hollingsworth survey had been sold to several prominent Houstonians, including W.R. Baker, James S. Holman, Archibald Wynns, Nathan Kempton and Henry Allen. By 1858, Mr. Baker and his colleagues owned or held mortgages on most of the land in this area. In that same year Mr. Baker engaged the County Surveyor , Mr. Samuel West, to restructure his holdings by replatting them into a lot and block system that defines today’s Old Sixth Ward. The new survey was laid out to the true north as opposed to downtown which was platted at a 45 degree angle to true north. The first sale after the re-platting took place on January 31, 1859, when Mr. Baker sold several blocks to Mr. W.W. Leeland.  Construction of homes on the lots began in 1860 but a building boom did not take off until approximately ten years later when Washington Avenue was re-graded.

The original boundaries of the Old Sixth Ward were the Houston and Texas Central Railroad on the north side, Mr. Wynns’ plantation (now Glenwood Cemetery) on the west side, the Buffalo Bayou on the south, and Stanley Street (now Houston Avenue) on the east.  Mr. W.R. Baker was the president of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad and encouraged many of his employees to purchase lots in the Sixth Ward. Due to its location immediately west of downtown, it also became popular with German immigrant families who held farms northwest and west of Houston.  These families built “in-town houses” for

them to live while trading their farm produce downtown, and during holidays or festivities.  Most of these homes were built with timber harvested from the owners’ farmlands.  There was a park on the south side of Buffalo Bayou west of Sabine Street, where today’s Eleanor Tinsley Park sits, called Vauxhall Gardens which was considered one of the city’s first parks. It was a very popular recreation spot for Houstonians and many traditional German festivities were hosted there.

By 1885 the Fourth Ward North, as Sixth Ward was originally called became well established, was home to people of various descents, especially those of northern European ancestry.  It had no socioeconomic structure and it was not unusual to see an owner of an oil mill living next door to a railroad laborer, and a Baptist minister next to a saloon keeper.  The neighborhood grew southbound from Center Street and the streets extended all the way to the bayou, including Richmond, Nelson and Bow Streets. The entire southern tier

of the neighborhood was removed to make way for the construction of Memorial Drive in the 1950’s. Prior to the development of Houston Heights in 1893, Center Street enjoyed the highest elevation in the city, and the Fourth Ward North’s elite set up housekeeping along that street which was acknowledged in those days as the uptown’s silk-stocking district. Center Street enjoyed its own streetcar service, however sadly only two out of roughly 80 houses built along that street survive today with one remaining at the SW corner of Sabine and Center Streets, and the other relocated to Kane Street.

After the death of Mr. Wynns in 1858, his plantation became the site of a short-lived brick quarry. A group of investors purchased the property and re-opened it as the Glenwood Cemetery on May 1871.  It provided a natural protective barrier along the west side of the Fourth Ward North that still exists to this day.  During the 1890’s the Houston Chronicle newspaper lauded Fourth Ward North as one of the finest and ‘healthful’ places to live in Houston.  The area enjoyed the highest elevation in Houston and abundant artesian water, fed by the same aquifer that fed the Beauchamp Springs nearby. Residents enjoyed close proximity to downtown, the Vauxhall Gardens, and the Highland Park resort located nearly a mile north at the corner of Houston Ave and White Oak Drive which was one of the city’s earliest amusement parks. So popular was Fourth Ward North, the Chronicle ran a weekly section on it for several years documenting its daily happenings.

Desiring to have greater representation in Houston’s city council, residents of the Fourth Ward North petition to have their neighborhood separated from the Fourth Ward to the south and rename it as the Sixth Ward.  The Houston city council voted to recognize Sixth Ward on January 1, 1877 but the voter’s representation did not change.  A new ordinance formally creating the Sixth Ward as a separate voting precinct was passed on December 9th, 1895.   Immediately afterwards property values skyrocketed which ushered in the ‘Golden Age’ of Sixth Ward’s history.  For the first time the neighborhood was connected to the city’s network of running water and electricity. Larger and more elegant homes complete with indoor plumbing were built on the remaining vacant lots, and in other instances older houses were pushed back to become the rear wings of brand-new sections in front.  Some of the former German immigrant ‘in-town’ houses were also joined together to become larger homes.

Sixth Ward’s ‘golden age’ lasted until the 1920’s when the advent of the automobile led to the rapid growth of new subdivisions along the city outskirts.  These new subdivisions featured inexpensive homes complete with garages, modern bathrooms, and financing packages which attracted many people from the Sixth Ward and other older neighborhoods.  By that time, the original generation of homeowners had passed on and their heirs were eager to offload these properties.  The Sixth Ward then entered an 80-year phase when most of her homes were used as multi-tenant rentals owned/managed by absentee landlords.

The country’s bicentennial in 1976 ushered in a new found enthusiasm in the nation’s history and historic preservation.  The Sixth Ward was designated Houston’s first National Registered Historic District in 1978. 20 years later, the neighborhood was designated again as a City of Houston municipal historic district. Since neither designation provided protection from the continued demolition and insensitive alterations of its remaining historic resources, a group of Sixth Ward homeowners petitioned to have the neighborhood designated as a protected historic district.  On August 1, 2007, the Houston city council granted the protections for the Old Sixth Ward.

A century after the 1895 ordinance, Old Sixth Ward saw a rebirth of its Golden Age when many of its rental properties were restored as single-family homes resplendent in their original glory.  Some of its restored homes won local and national awards. Recognizing the Old Sixth Ward’s efforts to preserve her history, Mary Kay Inc donated $20,000 to the neighborhood association in honor of its founder, Mary Kay Wagner-Ash, who grew up in the neighborhood. The neighborhood also won recognition from the city and state.

In 2008 the Old Sixth Ward neighborhood celebrated the sesquicentennial of its founding.

Old Sixth Ward housing stock demonstrates five main architectural styles:

During the late 19th Century more than three quarters of the homes were owner-occupied. The distinctive Victorian character of these dwellings was enhanced by decorative millwork usually applied to the front porches. As the 20th Century progressed, new housing reflected changes in architectural styles. Bungalows were built among the Victorian cottages, but the essential character of the neighborhood did not change.

Gulf Coast Colonial/Greek Revival Style (1850-1890) These houses are usually five bay cottages with a full-length front porch tucked in under the main roof line. This style of house is predominantly found along the Gulf coast from Florida to Texas.  The style represents an adaptation of the antebellum Greek Revival architecture popular in the northeast to the semi-tropical climate.

Folk Victorian Style (1870-1910) These houses represent a vernacular attempt to adapt the Victorian architecture to the gulf coast climate. The houses featured locally milled porch posts and gingerbread. In many instances the Folk Victorian house was actually a Gulf Coast Colonial cottage draped or altered with later Victorian elements. 

Queen Anne Style (1880-1910) These houses are noted for their prominent gables, variety of shingle treatments, ornate factory-made millwork, abundance of stained-glass windows, and tall roof lines. These houses reflected a national trend in architecture that took the country by storm at the end of the 19th century. 

Classical Revival Style (1895-1920) These houses are characterized by simple Greek-inspired columns, restrained exterior ornament, and wide roof overhangs. The period during which they were built is marked by the decline of Victorian exuberance and a new found interest in the antiquities of Greece and Rome. 

Bungalow Style (1900-1940) These houses reflect a new utilitarian trend in architecture. Bungalows were noted for their prominent porches, lack of entry foyers, and perfectly proportioned rooms.

If you have pictures, know some of the "unknown" photos, have comments, corrections or information to add, contact Chuck Stava at ChaStava@aol.com.

Old Sixth Ward,
Apr 19, 2015, 10:39 PM