The Beer Can House

In 1968, John Milkovisch began adorning the exterior of his house in Rice Military with flattened beer cans. Approximately 50,000 cans later, he had transformed his home into a Houston landmark. Today, the Beer Can House stands as a testament to Houston’s heritage and a rebuke those who seek to destroy that heritage.

Until the 1990s, Houston was a city that held a deep respect for property rights. The city had repeatedly rejected zoning, and had enacted few land-use regulations. In the 1980s the city began to control land use, and in each subsequent decade, those controls have expanded.

Consider what would happen if Milkovisch attempted such a project today. His neighbors would likely lobby City Hall. They might claim that his house was disrupting the character of the neighborhood and negatively impacting property values. They might claim that his house was becoming “historically inappropriate.” But no matter their particular argument, they would attempt to stop him through the coercive power of city government.

If this seems like hyperbole, consider what neighborhood activists around the city do on a regular basis. They see someone using his property in a manner that they don’t like, and they rush to City Hall demanding a new ordinance to stop the offending project.

They did it when they tried to shove zoning down our throats in the 1990s. They have done it repeatedly with the preservation ordinance and its subsequent amendments. They did it to Buckhead Development and its Ashby High Rise.

The Beer Can House is unique in more ways than one. On one hand, it has become an iconic landmark that represents Houston’s heritage—the freedom to use one’s property as one chooses. On the other hand, it represents the kind of quirky individualism that the city is trying to squash through land-use regulations like the preservation ordinance.

But more significantly, it stands as a monument to the proper way to preserve the past (for those who are interested in that type of thing). That will the topic of my next post.

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