Bob Hope once said the best view in the world is in Houston. The noted comedian cited the view from the penthouse of the Warwick Hotel (now the Hotel ZaZa), which looks out over Hermann Park and tree-lined Main Street toward the Texas Medical Center amid the glowing nighttime lights of the Mecom Fountain.
Now a group of Houston preservationists and fans of the fountain are working to keep it that way.
Led by one of the city's leading preservationists, Phoebe Tudor, who spearheaded the impeccable restoration of the Julia Ideson Library, and real estate magnate Bill Baldwin, a crowd-sourcing campaign to restore the Houston landmark to its former Mid-century modern glory has attracted more than $38,000, with pledges ranging from $5 to $5,000 from 198 individuals and businesses.
The group has set a goal of $60,000, which must be raised by March 31. (You can donate here.)
The drive came about after preservationist Anna Mod noted that Texas Department of Transportation workers were covering over the fountain with limestone as part of a "Grand Gateway" project to restore and renovate Hermann Park. The limestone was set to match improvements at the entrance to the park, but preservationists feel that it destroys the integrity of the fountain, which was designed by Eugene Werlin and built in 1964. It was donated to the city by oil magnate and Warwick Hotel owner John Mecom and his wife, Mary Elizabeth.
"It would be a pretty fountain, but it wouldn't look like like a fountain built in 1964," Tudor said about the planned renovation. "It's subtle, but the crux of historic preservation is it needs to be genuine and it needs to be original."
Baldwin, who heads the Mayor’s Quality of Life Transition Team, contacted Mayor Sylvester Turner, who convinced TxDot officials to halt the project. In return, Baldwin and Tudor agreed to spearhead a Friends of the Fountain group to raise private funds to restore the fountain.
They could have reached out to their well-heeled friends and foundations to contribute the relatively small figure, but wanted to show that, in a city that tears down or alters nearly everything that's old, there is broad-based support for saving historic buildings and objects that give Houston its unique character. "If people make a contribution, they are much invested in what happens," Tudor said. "This lets Houstonians participate in a small way to get the word out."
Donors, large and small, have sent fond memories along with their donations. The fountain is a prime spot for wedding and quinceañera photos; one donor laughingly recalled putting soap into the fountain to make bubbles when she was high schooler. "People kind of get caught up in the memories," Tudor said.
Funds will be held in an account by the non-profit Houston Parks Board, with work performed by the Houston Parks Department under the supervision of the Historic Preservation Office of the Planning & Development Department. Limestone will be removed and the low fountain wall, made of concrete in the Mid-century modern tradition, will be repaired and repainted if the fundraising goal is met.
This work will return the fountain, which was nominated as a city landmark late last year and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, to its original appearance and restore it as the centerpiece of the Museum/Hermann Park/University area, Tudor said. The group just got word that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has added Mecom Fountain to its #thisplacematters campaign, drawing national attention to Houston's preservation efforts.
If the fundraising goal is met, "It will be victory for the city and preservationists," Tudor said. "I feel like this is a watershed moment for preservation in Houston. This stuff matters and people care."
To donate to the Friends of the Fountain campaign, go to the Mecom Fountain Restoration website.