I am a former journalist and editor, currently writing fiction for adults and children. Visit my website at www.karengrikitis.wordpress.com.
Published June 25th 2015
Exploring the development of the USA's fourth largest city
Houston's development from 1836 when the Allen Brothers purchased 6,600 acres of land along the Buffalo Bayou to create an inland port and commercial centre, to its present day incarnation as the USA's fourth largest city renowned for its expertise in the energy and aerospace sectors, can be traced on walking tours of its historic buildings downtown.
The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park organises four tours a day for $15, around some of the houses in the park, which date from 1823 to 1905. I went in the morning and chose to look round four very different houses, one dating from 1850 and belonging to a succession of wealthy owners, including Mrs Cherry, who was a founder of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. The elegant furnishings reflect a lifestyle in stark contrast to that of the occupants of San Felipe Cottage, an 1868 dwelling built by a German immigrant family. More modest still is the 1870 Yates House built by Reverend Jack Yates, a freed slave. The house originally stood in Freedmen's Town, also called Houston's Fourth Ward, where many former slaves lived after emancipation.
All but one of the houses in Sam Houston Park (named after General Sam Houston, a hero of the Texas War of Independence in 1836) were located elsewhere in the city, purchased by the Heritage Society and moved to the park. The exception is the Kellum-Noble House, built in 1847, which is still in its original location and is the oldest surviving brick house in Houston. The Heritage Society was formed to save it from demolition.
My guide gave an insight into the lives of the owners of each property and the development of some of the houses, such as the addition of sleeping porches, which allowed breezes in to cool the occupants during the hot summer nights.
A museum in the Sam Houston Park provides an interesting timeline of Houston's development along with a collection of photographs and historical artefacts.
In the afternoon I was taken on a downtown walking tour by Houston Historical Tours, which I booked the previous day at a cost of $65. I met my guide Vicki in the city's 1939 City Hall, built in the Art Deco architectural style popular at that time. We made our way through Houston's underground walkway system, which allows you to move around the city without being exposed to the searing temperatures and high humidity between May and September. Every now and then, we came up to explore a particularly interesting lobby or exterior, where my guide would outline the building's origins.
Notable structures include the Niells and Mellie Esperson buildings, reflecting the Italian Renaissance style with a small 'temple' and columns on the top. These were built in 1927 and 1941 by the widowed Mrs Esperson in honour of her husband, who was an oil and real estate tycoon, and at 24 storeys high, were Houston's tallest buildings for many decades.
We had a bird's eye view of the ornamentation at the top of these and other structures when we ascended to the 180° Sky Lobby on the 60th floor of the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower, which allows free access to the public. My guide pointed out Memorial Park, one of the USA's largest urban parks, to the west of the city, which opened in 1924 following a gift of the land from the wealthy Hogg family.
View from the 60th floor Sky Lobby of the J.P. Morgan Chase Tower, Houston
The sister of the family, the unfortunately named Ima Hogg, was a well-known philanthropist and patron of the arts, who donated the Bayou Bend Collection to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Many of the historical 20th century buildings, institutions and parks in Houston are associated with the city's wealthy families who made their fortunes in cotton and sugar, real estate and oil, among other industries. These include George Hermann, who donated land to the city which became Hermann Park in 1914, William Rice, who founded the Rice University in 1912 and Monroe Dunaway Anderson, who endowed money towards the development of The Texas Medical Centre in 1945. This is the largest concentration of medical establishments in the world and includes 21 hospitals, four medical schools and eight medical research institutes.
The fortunes of many of these renowned Houston citizens were built on the hard work of thousands of slaves, who numbered an estimated 250,000 in Texas in 1865. Emancipation finally came in December of that year. 'Juneteenth' on 19 June, the day of the emancipation announcement, is celebrated all over Texas. Reminders of this dreadful part of Houston's history include the Antioch Baptist Church built in 1875 by freed slaves, which is still a thriving part of the community.