Houston, that huge yet friendly city on the Gulf Coast, isn’t exactly known looking in the rearview mirror. In fact, history can be a tough sell even to native Houstonians (yes, they exist). Tristan Smith is trying to fix that. As a transplant to Space City, Smith reveals the town’s historic treasures and exceptional heritage of innovation, industry, and architecture. “A History Lover’s Guide to Houston” is his follow-up to “Images of America: Houston Fire Department,” published in 2015.
How long have you been in Houston?
I moved to Houston in August of 2011 from Lawrence, Kansas.
What is your opinion of Houston’s historic preservation community?
I think that Houston has a strong historic preservation community. I came from a city where both the city government and the historic preservation community viewed the preservation of its history, historic buildings and their environs as a high priority. Of course, there were disagreements, some setbacks, but the relationship between the two was fairly strong. That’s a much easier balance to find in a much smaller city.
Are there any specific preservation projects that excite you?
I think more can be done in Freedmen’s Town, but the historic restoration development that is taking place at and around the Rutherford B. H. Yates Home is a great start.
What’s your favorite Houston building?
The Astrodome. How could it not be? Outside of that, La Carafe was a favorite the moment I saw it.
What building would you like to bring back from the past?
The Shamrock is one that I would like to see as I never had a chance to visit it. I am also a big baseball fan, so I would have to add old Buff Stadium in there as well.
Who, from Houston’s past, would you like to meet?
Julia Ideson would have been a fascinating person to sit down and talk to.
Houston is such a forward-looking city, how do you frame its history with that in mind?
I really think you can only look forward to the future by embracing your past. The path Houston takes to get to the point of being the home of NASA and “Space City” is rooted in its history with the turning basin, the proximity to the coast, the politics of the city and state, oil and gas, transportation, etc. We’ve been on the cutting edge for over a century…knowing where you came from (good, bad and ugly) is important in moving forward.
What role does nostalgia play in your work and love of Houston history?
My Houston-centric nostalgia doesn’t play as much a part here as it would have back in Lawrence or Kansas City, where I grew up. I think, in general, a lot of my love of history is rooted in some form of nostalgia. My emotional and nostalgic ties to events and buildings here in Houston are still forming somewhat. There is a feeling, though, of “dang, I wish I could have walked through that building before they tore it down” or “I wish I had a chance to see a ballgame at The Astrodome”.
Do you gravitate more towards the architectural significance of structures or the societal histories they can recall?
I love the architectural significance of structures and understand their significance to the landscape of the city’s history. The process of design, realization, the connection between the architect’s artistry and nuances to a style are extremely important and interesting to me. However, personally, I gravitate to the societal histories of buildings. I like imagining the sounds, the smells, the traffic, the conversations, the business, the life that passed through a building.
Any follow-up book ideas?
I am currently at work on a book that will look at a more state-wide series of historic locations. I think there are many opportunities for stories to tell in Houston and throughout Texas.
A History Lover’s Guide to Houston
By Tristan Smith
Houston earned its international reputation as a hub for space flight and the oil industry. But visitors don’t need to search out the secrets of the stars or the depths of the earth to experience the impressive legacy of the nation’s fourth-largest city. Traverse the streets of downtown and find historic treasures from antebellum Texas. Venture to the outskirts to find the world’s “Eighth Wonder,” as well as the globe’s tallest stone monument and one of its largest ports. Discover why the town’s exceptional heritage of innovation, industry and architecture has sparked a movement to uncover and embrace its historic structures. Join Tristan Smith for an in-depth exploration of Houston’s historic wards.