Houston’s Oldest House Gets a New Life

By Ginger Berni

The exterior of the newly renovated Kellum-Noble House in 2019.
All photos courtesy of The Heritage Society unless otherwise noted.

Those familiar with Houston history may be able to tell you that the oldest house in the city still standing on its original property is the 1847 Kellum-Noble House in Sam Houston Park. Although owned by the City, The Heritage Society (THS), a non-profit organization, has maintained the home for the past sixty-five years. Recently, THS completed phase two of an ambitious three-phased project to stabilize the building’s foundation and address the significant cracks in the brick walls. Its story, however, goes much deeper than bricks that make up the building.

The restored parlor in the Kellum-Nobel house, 2019.

The narratives used to interpret the house have changed over time, with certain details of its history emphasized, while others were largely ignored. Like many historic house museums, Kellum-Noble featured traditional antique furnishings for a parlor, dinning room, office, and bedrooms, while a tour guide explained to visitors the significance of the building. Emphasis was often placed on discussing Sam Houston simply because he knew the original owner, Nathaniel Kellum, and Houston’s descendants had donated some of the featured collections. Yet the importance of Zerviah Noble’s efforts to educate local Houstonian’s, first using the house as a private school, then as one of its first public schools, was not communicated through the home’s furnishings. Perhaps more importantly, any discussion of the enslaved African Americans owned by the Kellums and the Nobles was noticeably absent – a practice that is not uncommon in historic house museums throughout the country and particular in the South.

In the twentieth century, both national and local trends had a direct impact on the Kellum-Noble House. Advocates of the City Beautiful Movement influenced the mayor to purchase the property to establish the city’s first municipal park, Sam Houston Park, in 1899. Supporters like Emma Richardson Cherry pleaded with city leaders to keep the home as part of the park. As Houston grew, its freeways, skyscrapers, and parking lots began to surround and diminish the structure. At the same time, the nation’s preservation movement gained momentum, and a handful of Houstonians saw value in the city’s aging historic structures and worked again to save the house from demolition. The Kellum-Noble House was initially preserved in 1954 because it was one of the city’s last few “relics” of the mid-nineteenth century, but a deeper look into the home’s long history tells a complex story. Thanks to The Heritage Society’s nearly $1.8 million investment, the historic brick home is stabilized, and its story will continue to be told.

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