By Chris Daigle
Downtown Houston has always been a place where the old meets the new, especially in its architecture. Along Louisiana Street, near Texas Avenue, two buildings have hosted generations of Houstonians. They have survived five hurricanes, seen two world wars, the Great Depression, Prohibition, three floods, and have been home to over 100 businesses between them since they were born in 1906, 112 years ago. The only force they couldn’t survive was progress.
The two buildings, a red brick structure with the address of 509 – 511 Louisiana, and its companion, a three-story building with New Orleans style windows, were part of the Theater District before there were theaters. They were the brain children of two businessmen who saw opportunity in the central part of the city.
William A. Wilson, a real estate developer of two Houston neighborhoods, Woodland Heights in 1908, and Eastwood in 1913, built the red brick building with arched windows at 509 – 511 Louisiana in 1906 to upgrade the area from a red light district called, “Happy Hollow,” that was a city nuisance by the 1870’s. When the “Soiled Doves” as they were called, were relocated to the Hardcastle area of Freedmen’s Town, along what is now Allen Parkway, lots 7 and 8 of Block 59 became available for purchase.
Wilson’s friend, Llewellen Perry, a real estate man himself, also wanted in. He built his handsome two-story building next door, at 515 – 517 Louisiana, to house such businesses as a printing company, the Phenix Dairy (from 1916 to 1919), and National Wire and Iron Works, whose slogan was, “Just think: 100 feet of good fence for $2.50.” You could also buy Phaetons there, which were touted as, “Rubber-tired surrey runabout, trap and storm buggies.”
By 1909, the building had made the leap into the automotive age. The new Economy Plating And Manufacturing Co. offered nickel plating for car bodies. Four years later, the building was reborn as the Elite Garage And Repair. In 1921, it was overhauled again, this time with a maritime theme. Sail and hatch manufacturer Crescent Awning and Tarpaulin Company advertised, “Special attention given the steamships. Ask us about them.”
Not to be outdone, William Wilson promoted his building with a paint company. By 1912, it was an early home of the Star of Hope Mission, and later, the Texas Boxing Enterprise. The Mission had moved by 1920, whereupon the building was remodeled at the exorbitant cost of $1,975, and reborn as the Houston Auto Supply Company, which was “Peddling all sizes of Packard cable, Autorelite Spotlights, and rear curtains for your motoring pleasure.”
Meanwhile, south of Block 59, Houston’s first large theatre building was emerging in 1910 as the City Auditorium, a facility large enough to host shows by Enrico Caruso, Christmas shows, and wrestling matches. The City Auditorium existed until 1963, when it was demolished for the current Jones Hall For The Performing Arts.
In the 1920’s, Sicilian-born local real estate entrepreneur Michele DeGeorge was developing properties in Houston, and saw the need for a hotel on available land across the street from the City Auditorium. The boarding house at Texas and Louisiana gave way to DeGeorge’s Auditorium Hotel in 1926, which was a 200-bedroom hotel that opened with much fanfare, to host actors, acrobats, business travelers, cowboys and musicians more efficiently than the Rice Hotel, just two blocks away. This was DeGeorge’s second hotel, as he had already built the DeGeorge Hotel in 1913, at 1418 Preston Avenue, to serve the Union Station railway passengers.
The Perry Building’s most recent tenant was Charley’s 517, a suit-and-tie restaurant and wine cellar catering to the theater district. It was a Houston icon for over 30 years, touting a 1987 Texas Monthly print ad that claimed that, “Charley’s 517 is the height of rustic elegance in the heart of Houston’s Theater District.”
The march of time, however, has a way of taking away the shine of a simpler, more enjoyable era. The Longhorn Café and Saloon opened in 1978 in the Wilson Building, but was shuttered along with Charley’s 517 in 2010. The upstairs offices were occupied by attorneys and businessmen, but issues keeping the buildings up to city code finally made any use of the structures impossible.
A huge dilemma was brewing out of the sight of theater patrons. Inside the Lancaster Hotel, Michaelene “Miki” Lusk Norton and her siblings were looking at ways to save the buildings.
“We wanted to use them for special occasions, wedding receptions, and as an entertainment space to complement the Lancaster Hotel,” she said.
The welfare of the two buildings was a personal matter for Norton and her Lusk siblings, who now own the Lancaster Hotel and the two Louisiana Street buildings. She is the great-granddaughter of DeGeorge and granddaughter of Tanny Charles Guseman, who was DeGeorge’s son-in-law. Guseman bought the Wilson Building and the Perry Building respectively in 1943 and 1953.
“I was very interested in this piece of land, which was known as Block 59, and researched it in 2010 with the anticipation of obtaining a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark Designation for the buildings,” Norton said. “My assistant, Susan Cowles, and I spent days at the Coffeepot Building next to the Harris County Courthouse to learn what happened there, from when God made the land to when grandfather Guseman made the purchases,” she said. “I needed the chain of title. We knew this was Block 59 of the original 62 blocks laid out by Gail Borden in 1837 on the first map of Houston ordered by the Allen Brothers.”
Meanwhile, Norton said that downtown was developing rapidly, forcing the Lancaster Hotel to find creative ways to park its guests’ cars. “The hotel never had its own parking area since it was built in 1926, because it was built in the middle of downtown, and people parked at the curb, or in garages, or on surface lots,” she said. “Recently, we have had contracts with the Houston Chronicle, the Calpine garage behind us, the Alley Theatre garage, and JP Morgan Chase. The Tranquility Park underground garage is too far away for guests to walk to or to provide valet services for.”
The greater number of people using parking spaces meant that rates were going up, and the available number of spaces were going down. “After the Chronicle building and garages sold in November 2015, the new management company for the Houston Chronicle garage raised their monthly rate from $4,000 to $14,000, then finally offered us 22 spaces for 6 months at $8,000 per month. The garages downtown were over-subscribed, and our valet parking company was squeezed out,” Norton added.
In December 2015, the family had to make a decision. After much debate, the vote was to do the only thing left for the Lancaster to survive: To tear down the two 1906 buildings Houston had known for 110 years, and the Lusk co-owners had known all of their lives.
“We didn’t really want to do it, but we needed parking. We really do love and cherish historic architecture in Houston, but this had to be done,” said Norton. “The buildings had so much deferred maintenance that bringing them up to code for occupancy would have cost several million dollars, and we still wouldn’t have any parking.” she said.
On January 5, 2016, Norton met with famed archeology stewards Jeff Durst, of the Texas Historical Commission, and Buffalo Bayou historian Louis Aulbach, to tour the buildings and see the history they might reveal. “This was somebody’s livelihood. People spent their lives here,” Durst said. “We’ve heard about the history of these buildings for years, and now we go inside.”
The buildings, though remodeled, were a time machine back to another era. Brick archways greeted visitors in every room. Tall windows, meant to catch the breeze long before there was air conditioning, looked out on a very different Houston that wasn’t there 110 years ago
On the third floor of the Perry building stood the “Barn Door,” long ago bricked up, that was a secret passageway to the Auditorium Hotel, which is now the Lancaster. “Both the hotel staff and family used this as attic storage for decades. It contained some trash and some treasures.” Norton said.
Crossing over to the William Wilson building, more secrets from another time were found. Two reels of motion picture film were hidden in a corner, which turned out to be footage of high school football in Amarillo in 1963. Hundreds of framed English hunting scenes from the hotel rooms and restaurant sat awaiting new owners.
January 26 was demolition day. For two weeks, Norton and her staff carried lights, framed pictures, and glassware out until the backhoe man said, “That’s it! You can’t go back in there.”
In the three days of demolition, Miki Norton stood across the street, remembering. “It was 110 years ago these buildings were constructed. It’s heartbreaking to watch them come down. At the same time, it’s fascinating to see the anatomy of historic buildings,” she said. These structures that had created so much Houston history were becoming history themselves.
Once the land was cleared, the archeological dig began. Specialists from the Houston Archeological Society and the Texas Historical Commission went to work. “This is the last site of its kind in Harris County that hasn’t been disrupted by a skyscraper,” said Linda Gorski, President of the Houston Archeological Society.
A natural gulley, untouched since the buildings were built, has existed since before Houston was founded. “They show up on the 1873 maps of Houston, and this one started in this block and ran to Buffalo Bayou. It means there was a spring or tributary here,” said Aulbach. The team predicted there would be Native American artifacts here, as well as early Houston treasures.
Block 59 had unique features. The old town of Houston had at least five gullies crossing its terrain. Springs were common in these areas, and today, Artesian Street, near the police station, refers to an Artesian spring that was used for clean water instead of bayou water in the 1800’s. In the 1890’s, City Council suggested residents throw their trash into one of these gullies, hoping they would fill up and become flat, creating more buildable land and a larger tax base. A spring formed the gulley that ran west from Milam Street to the bayou, and when the spring crossed Smith Street, a pool of water collected in an area known as Indian Campground. In the early days of the Republic of Texas, when it was a separate country, several tribes came to the new town of Houston to whoop it up in saloons and hang out with President Sam Houston.
After the Civil war, the area bordered by Milam, Prairie and Capitol Streets, along with Buffalo Bayou, was called the Happy Hollow. It was “happy” because it was full of female boarding houses whose residents’ occupations were listed in the 1900 census as prostitute. The “hollow” part came from the fact that the land sat on top of a gulley. Jones Hall, the Alley Theatre, the Lancaster Hotel, and the Calpine Building at 717 Texas, all sit on the sites of these former brothels.
Multiple shovel dig sites in the gulley were staked out by Jeff Durst. With ten people digging, the team found perfume bottles, liquor bottles, medicine bottles, glass, tile, ceramics, buttons, nails, animal bone, and rocks used by Native Americans to craft arrowheads; 1100 items in all. Ten feet away was the cistern, or water well, used by the tenants to collect rainwater. Aulbach said, “Since there was a gulley, the spring will still be here. We’re digging down to find it.”
The next morning, Miki Norton announced, “We found it! We found the spring!” It was twelve feet below street level, and six feet below the gulley: Flowing water no one had seen in at least 110 years. “Gradually, fill dirt and sand filled up this area, and floods brought more material from river. It just sort of settled over time,” Gorski explained.
The spring was photographed and measured, and experienced archeologist Roger Moore visited the site. He said it was the most significant find he had seen in the urban city. Office workers from downtown came to see and take pictures. At the day’s end, the great find had to be filled in for safety reasons and restored to its natural state. The last trace of Houston’s prehistory now belonged to the ages.
The absence of the buildings also revealed something most Houstonians had not known about for 100 years: A majestic pecan tree growing in back of the William Wilson building. Legend has it that this six-story tall tree was a descendant of a great stand of pecan trees on Block 59 when the city was founded, where, in 1837, the Cherokees traded with President Sam Houston of the Republic of Texas and signed treaties. Others say this pecan tree was most likely planted by William Wilson to enhance his property in the early 20th century.
“We wanted to keep the tree, but it was diseased,” Norton said. The tree, just like the buildings, is now just a memory.”
“It most likely lived so long because it was fed by the underground stream,” Aulbach added.
The future of Block 59 calls for a temporary surface parking lot for 50 cars, and eventually a parking garage and possible hotel expansion, incorporating some of the bricks and architectural embellishments of the two demolished buildings.
“We want to keep the memory of those two buildings alive,” Norton said. “It’s respectful to pay homage to those who were here before us.”
Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.