“The Blue Tile Project” takes root in Houston

By Christopher Daigle

After driving on Houston streets that were named over 100 years ago, it’s pretty easy to take roads for granted. They are getting noticed, however, by people who spend less time looking up to see our history, and have been looking down to see the history of our paths.

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Joey Sanchez (Photo: Chris Daigle)

“You get a sense of how this city came together,” says Joey Sanchez, looking out the window of Catalina Coffee on busy Washington Avenue, especially on a Labor Day holiday. He’s not referring to the brick buildings that line the road; Sanchez’s focus is on the street curbs.

Sanchez started The Blue Tile Project about nine months ago on a bike ride with his wife from downtown to Hermann Park which took them through Midtown, and caught on to the blue tiles. Sanchez is now on a mission to document all the remaining blue curb tiles left in the city, which is an undertaking that’s making people wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The beautiful blue and white tile letters told drivers which block they were on, as well as the street name. “Everybody’s best estimate is that curb tiles came with the first curbs – about 1920,” Sanchez said. “Before the 1920’s, roads were paved with shell, so knowing what street you were on was important.”

“They are such a reminder of a simpler time,” said Sanchez. “A lot of people think that these names were just put there in one piece, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that these were made by hand, piece by piece, by a tile mason, right when the curb was made. That must have taken a whole day!”

What drives The Blue Tile Project is the realization that this, “original street art” as Sanchez calls it, is disappearing at a rapid rate. “The city decided to put ramps on the curbs in the late 1980’s, right where the blue tiles are, and instead or relocating them a foot away, or saving them, they were just destroyed,” he said.

This awareness has highlighted some very unique tile “personalities” across town. At the corner of Andrews and Crosby, in Freedmen’s Town, the curb tile name for Crosby was installed upside down. Considering the time it took to lay a tile pattern in a new curb at the time, it’s pretty certain this was no mistake. The reason, however, may never be known.

In River Oaks, a street is named “Locke Lane,” according to the modern street sign and the concrete pillar at the corner, but the tile curb suggests “Lock Lane” as the proper spelling. Without spending days at the City Planning Department, we may never know.

Spelled correctly or not, the tile signs are being mapped and tagged for any Houstonian to see and share using the hashtags #WordOnTheStreet, #StreetArt and #Houston. So far The Blue Tile Project has cataloged 1,280 blue tile street names throughout Houston.

According to Sanchez, “[The blue tiles] seem to be primarily inside Loop 610, though some are found in Spring Branch and Bellaire. By the early 1960’s, this lettering just wasn’t done anymore.”

The Blue Tile Project is an idea whose time has come. “The way this city is changing so fast and tearing down its history, people are now coming around to those things that are still here to remind them of a simpler time.” Sanchez said. “They don’t have to go away. Rather, let’s emphasize them and help make them a part of our city’s character.”

Sanchez says the six goals of The Blue Tile Project are to document, preserve, restore, recreate, reimagine, and celebrate this original piece of history, and they are already becoming a reality: During the recent renovations to the Alley theatre, craftsmen created a “Nina Vance Alley” tile pattern right at the entrance.

“It is the kind of thing that stores and businesses in the 1920’s and 1930’s did, and a new version lives on today,” he said.

“Wanna see something interesting?” Sanchez asked. “The parking lot of Spring Street Studios is a Blue Tile graveyard.” Sure enough, the artists at the old warehouse turned art studio collected over 50 curb sections from all over Houston, rescued from construction sites before they could be destroyed. Now they are parking stops standing guard against the ravages of time. 1500 Studewood, 500 Houston Avenue and 1100 Omar represent a museum of tile craftsmanship. “This started before The Blue Tile Project began,” Sanchez explained.

Mark Hinton is another student of Houston’s streets. Hinton is a Houston native, retired from the banking and finance business. When he retired, he says he wondered about the names of these streets around him. Various attempts at research at the Houston Library yielded very little information. “I started talking to little old ladies, and neighborhood people who lived there for 50, 70 years, and got story after story,” Hinton said. “The more I researched, I also noticed that no one had done a book like this yet, so with the help of my wife Barbara, we got a book published, called “Historic Houston Streets; The Stories Behind The Names.”

Now in it’s second printing, Hinton’s book has expanded to 384 pages, about one and a half times as long as the first edition.

“The stories just kept coming,” Hinton said. “Some names came in unusual ways. Wister Lane, for instance, in Timbergrove Manor, was meant to be Wisteria Lane because the plant grew there. The first wooden sign with the name Wisteria blew over in a storm, breaking off the ‘IA’, so the street planners called it ‘Wister.'”

Hinton explained that many street names originally came as honor for heroes of Texas battles, such as Travis, Jefferson, Dowling, Lamar, Clay and Austin, and neighborhood streets generally bore the names of the developer’s family, or the trees in the area. Nina Lee Lane in Oak Forest is named for Nina Lee Hill, wife of Harold P. Hill, office manager of the Oak Forest Addition. Frank Sharp, the developer, suggested the name for the street. Chantill Lane is named for Nina Lee’s silver pattern. Nina Lee Hill celebrated her 95th birthday on August 24th of this year.

So, what’s all this interest in blue tile leading to? “We’re hoping the city can be persuaded to save these sections of curb when they tear up the streets. People can create these designs in their front walk or their house numbers. It would allow neighborhoods to to keep their individuality while sharing a common thread,” Sanchez said.

So get involved! snap a picture and use the hashtags #WordOnTheStreet, #StreetArt and #Houston. Visit the website and Facebook to see the latest tagged tiles.

The streets of Houston have as much personality as the residents that drive on them. “Look around you,” said Joey Sanchez, “There’s a history lesson on every block.”

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Chris Daigle is a Houston historian and regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To email him, click HERE.

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