Saving River Oaks
by Stephen Fox
River Oaks is not only the most famous residential neighborhood in Houston, it is one of the foremost examples nationally of the country club place garden suburb. When Will C. Hogg, Mike Hogg, and Hugh Potter began the development of River Oaks in 1924, it was with the intention of making it into a demonstration of the highest standards of modern community planning, a role model for the rest of Houston to follow. Will Hogg’s ambitiousness and Hugh Potter’s skillful management of River Oaks during its first thirty years made the community known nation-wide as a symbol of Houston. Encouraging home-owners to retain the most talented architects in Houston (as well as several architects of national reputation) to design new houses, they succeeded in creating a large, professionally-administered residential community that demonstrated the potential for beauty in a raw and often raucous city. During the 1920s and 1930s, River Oaks was constantly published in national news, real estate, and design media, highlighting its planning standards, its residential architecture, and its landscape design. Since the 1970s, River Oaks has also been the focus of scholarly analysis, in recognition of its significant contributions to the history of Houston and twentieth-century American elite suburban community development.
River Oaks’s historic aura is threatened by unrestrained demolition. The constant loss of houses—not only among those many well-designed houses of the 1920s and 1930s that provide the community’s overall distinction, but increasingly the major architectural monuments of the community—is cause for grave concern. Hugh Potter’s advertising always stressed the benefits of community. River Oaks was not about one-against-all. It was about the value of community. It was not about the priority of single, spectacular houses, but the collective landscape of block fronts, parks, and harmonious architecture. This collective landscape, on which River Oaks’s identity rests, is under assault. The historical distinction of the community is being plundered. Its identity is being destroyed.
As an architectural historian, I am well aware of the irreplaceable losses that have already occurred as well as the potential for further destruction. I appeal to the members of the board of the River Oaks Property Owners and to the membership at large to begin to investigate ways to curb this disturbing trend, to promote the values of community awareness and preservation, and to exert leadership by working with representatives of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, Historic Houston, and other conservation groups to explore avenues for promoting River Oaks’s preservation rather than its destruction.
Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas