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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. Most of these tracts were used as farms, brick quarries, or plantations. Washington Avenue used to run a serpentine route through these tracts.
By 1858 Mr. Baker had acquired several tracts to create one large continuous tract and engaged the County Surveyor, Mr. Samuel West, to replat the tract into a lot and block system that defines today’s Old Sixth Ward. By that time Washington Avenue was regraded and moved northward to the new route that is still used today. The new WR Baker NSBB 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 did not begin until 1860.
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. Its proximity to Vauxhall Gardens, where many German festivities were held, on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou found favor amongst German immigrant families that held farms west and northwest of Houston. These families built in-town houses to live in while trading their farm produce downtown, and during holidays or festivities. Most of these ‘Sunday’ homes were built with timber harvested from the owners’ farmlands.
By 1885 the Fourth Ward North, as Sixth Ward was originally called became well established, was home to people of various descents, with a majority of them from northern Europe. It had no established socioeconomic structure where 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 eventually grew southbound towards the Buffalo Bayou and westbound towards Shepherd Drive over the next century.
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 the 2200 block of 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 an high elevation free of bayou flooding 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 also 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 heyday 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 smaller German Sunday houses were also joined together to become larger homes.
Sixth Ward’s heyday lasted until the 1920’s when the advent of the automobile led to the development 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. Several blocks of the neighborhood were removed to make way for the construction of Memorial Drive in the 1950’s.
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 when many of its rental properties were restored as single-family homes resplendent in their original glories. 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.
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 (1860-1890) 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 western 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 once 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.
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