Articles by Chris Daigle, Houston Historian

DaigleCHRIS DAIGLE is a native Houstonian and a contributing editor to The Grapevine Source. All articles and photos are copyright Chris Daigle. To contact Chris, click HERE.

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Virtuosi of Houston Presents Concert Gala, Auction

By Chris Daigle, Contributing Editor

Celebrating it’s 22nd season of excellence in chamber music education and performance, Virtuosi of Houston presented Legends Of The Future: Celebrating Leaders of S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Arts, and Mathematics) at a gala concert, dinner, and auction on May 5, 2018 at the new Post Oak Hotel in Uptown Houston.

Virtuosi of Houston was founded in 1996 as a premier youth chamber orchestra for gifted instrumentalists to increase education and performance opportunities leading to a music profession for Houston’s middle to high school age musicians, and to bring an expanded repertoire of chamber and jazz works to Houston audiences.

Conductor Andrzej Graiec presents the Virtuosi of Houston

Conductor Andrzej Graiec presents the Virtuosi of Houston

The chamber group is smaller than a typical symphony orchestra, allowing these exceptional musicians to experience increased confidence, leadership, responsibility, and skill through individual attention from two world class conductors, Andrzej Grabiec, Professor of Violin; and Franz Anton Krager, Director of Orchestras; both from the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music.

Members of the orchestra are from very diverse backgrounds, and represent more than 34 ZIP codes from 12 school districts, as well as several homeschooled students. The two Virtuosi of Houston Maestri choose who is to be accepted when auditions are held. Any student that qualifies to be part of the Virtuosi of Houston orchestra is accepted regardless of their family’s ability to pay the tuition. Each year, up to 35% of the students receive full or partial financial assistance. The distinct desire to provide all potential students the opportunity to engage in activities that they might not otherwise be exposed to is what drives their community impact.

Virtuosi of Houston performs three full orchestra concerts per season: two concerts in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts, and the finale of the season, The Legends of the Future Gala Concert and dinner at a hotel ballroom. This is a full chamber orchestra performance, but most of the music is Pops.

THE VIRTUOSI DIFFERENCE

The musicians excel because of their high level of performance experience, expanded knowledge of repertoire, and increased sense of confidence, leadership skills, and responsibility. The importance of providing arts education to children encourages a desire for learning, creative thinking and individuality. Over the past three years, 100% of graduating students go on to college, and a majority of them continued their music education as performance or music education majors. Virtuosi of Houston graduates say they are better prepared to face the competition for admission to prestigious music schools and conservatories than if they had been in mainstream music programs.

SMALL ENSEMBLE PROGRAM

The Small Ensemble Program consists of small ensembles that are drawn from the orchestra and coached by professional musicians. Over 80 events were performed during the 2016 – 2017 season. Many of these performances were pro bono, performed in hospitals, senior citizen homes and Memorial City Mall.

ANNUAL CONCERTO COMPETITION

Every spring, Virtuosi of Houston hosts the Immanuel and Helen B. Olshan Concerto Competition at the Memorial City Mall studio. The competition is open to all Virtuosi of Houston members. Those who compete are judged in the String and Wind divisions by some of Houston’s most acclaimed musicians. Winners in each division are awarded scholarships to use toward their music training. First place winners are featured during the Concerto Concert.

Several distinguished honorees were awarded by the Virtuosi of Houston for their outstanding community service at the evening’s Gala:

Walter Cunningham, former astronaut and business leader: Cunningham was selected as an Astronaut in 1963, and later served as Prime Crew of Apollo 2 (cancelled), backup crew for Apollo 1 (also cancelled due to a deadly fire in the capsule in 1967). Cunningham flew as pilot on Apollo 7, the first manned test of the Apollo Program in 1968. Apollo 7 is still the longest, most ambitious first flight of any new flying machine. Cunningham’s last assignment at the Johnson Space Center was Chief of the Skylab Branch of the Flight Crew Directorate. After leaving NASA, his experience included the presidency of two engineering companies, with extensive overseas operations and Vice President of Operations for a large commercial property developer.

David Dewhurst has embodied the Texas notion of “servant leadership” throughout his life. After serving as an Air Force Officer, CIA Field Agent and State Department officer, Dewhurst created a successful energy company serving several states. He also served as Land Commissioner, Chairman of the Texas Homeland Security Task Force and as Texas Lieutenant Governor.

Gordon Bethune earned worldwide acclaim at Continental Airlines for spearheading one of the most dramatic corporate turnarounds in United States history. When Buthune joined the troubled carrier as President and Chief Operating Officer in 1994, Continental was consistently ranked last in every performance metric, including on-time record, customer complaints and baggage handling. Bethune quickly assumed the role of CEO, and was elected Chairman of the Board in 1996. His effort to rescue the financially troubled carrier from a tailspin has made him a legend in commercial aviation.

Dr. Renu Khator is nationally known as an education thought leader and higher education policy expert, and is currently serving as Chancellor and President of the University of Houston System, where she oversees a four-university system that serves 71,000 students, has an annual budget that exceeds $7.1 billion and has over a $6 billion impact on the Greater Houston area’s economy each year.

Dr. John Mendelsohn was director of the Cancer Center at University of California San Diego before chairing the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He then served as president of University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center from 1996 to 2011 during a period of expansion and national leadership in patient care, research and prevention of cancer.

Sidney Evans is very Houston proud. His background includes a nine-year career with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. As Director of Membership and Visitor Services, Evans was responsible for the recruitment and retention of members, the Visitor Information Center and the Placement of ‘Houston Proud’ volunteers.

Monzer Hourani currently directs the successful operations of a real estate development company. The philosophy which Mr. Hourani has always followed in each of his development endeavors is to develop, design and construct very economical and modern healthcare buildings, while maintaining a superior quality product, and to complement the latest advances in technology and medicine.

Sybil Roos actively supports many of Houston’s philanthropic organizations, including Camp For AllCity Art WorksEaster Seals Greater HoustonThe Mission Of YahwehThe Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and University Of Houston Moores School of Music.

Margaret Alkek Williams is Chairman of the Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation. Together with her son, Charles Williams, President of the Foundation, she continues the legacy of giving established by her parents, Albert and Margaret Alkek.

Conducting the orchestras were two outstanding professionals: Andrzej Grabiec, Artistic Director and Conductor; and Franz Anton Krager, Artistic Director and Conductor.

Conductor Andrzej Grabiec conducts Virtuosi of Houston with University of Houston musicians

Conductor Andrzej Grabiec conducts Virtuosi of Houston with University of Houston musicians

Andrzej Grabiec has lived in the United States since 1979, and has held numerous prestigious positions as a performer, artistic director and as a pedagogue. He moved to Houston in 1995, where he is Professor Of Violin at the Moores School Of Music at the University of Houston and Artistic Co-Director and Co-founder of Virtuosi of Houston. Mr. Grabiec’s performances continue to take him to music centers in the United States and Europe, where he collaborates as a soloist or a chamber musician with many international artists.

Franz Anton Krager is Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Texas Music Festival, Founding Co-Artistic Director for the Virtuosi of Houston, Artist in Residence at the Kinkaid School and Evaluator/Clinician for the Orchestra America National Festival. Krager is also a Professor of Conducting, Director of Orchestras and Chair of the Conducting Department at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music.

The S.T.E.A.M. overture was arranged by Dr. Robert Nelson, Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Houston Moores School of Music. His S.T.E.A.M. overture was commissioned by the Virtuosi of Houston to be featured as the opening for the evening’s performance. The overture is a setting of thematic material from five film scores, with each theme coming from a film related to one of the S.T.E.A.M. disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

The first section, Science, contains music from Back To The Future, a movie featuring time travel as a central plot. Music from Robert Nelson’s score to The Apollo Fire is heard representing Technology. The third section, Engineering, is the theme from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, a film about the crew of a highly advanced submarine. The Arts are represented by music from the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. The overture closes with the theme from A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of mathematical genius John Nash,

A silent auction and a live auction were held between performances, which together raised approximately $450,000 to benefit Virtuosi of Houston.

For more information, visit https://virtuosiofhouston.org/.

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Paying it forward: What you need to know about your water heater

April 23, 2018

I’m in this amazing new world, being a single guy living on my own in a fancy condo now. What comes with that, though, is I’ve got to think about everything and do everything right, or it doesn’t get done. I have to think of things like: Does the car have oil and gas? Did I leave the oven on while I’m at work? What do I bring to the meeting tonight?

With all that to keep up with in my life, the one thing I left out was, “I wonder how the water heater is doing?”

It was enabling me to have a warm bath every day. It was helping me cook and clean. It was my friend, a silent partner doing it’s job behind closed doors. It never complained, and it never called me at work when it was sick or bored.

Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that it was sick. Water was running down the side and overflowing the pan underneath the water heater. There’s only one thing you can do when that happens: Turn it off and drain it. There’s this twist knob on top to turn off the water. Just turn it, and the water stops, right? In a perfect world, yes. But with a shutoff valve attached to a plastic water pipe, with too much twist, the plastic pipe will break, as I discovered.

Do you remember the old movies where a submarine is under attack in the war, spewing water everywhere? That was me as a torrent sprayed the room. Now the disaster has to be stopped at ground level. At 9 PM in the darkness, it’s a guessing game as to which valve controls which condo. The valve wouldn’t turn. What do I do now? Call 911? No time for that. Call the maintenance man? I don’t have three days for that. Slap myself to see if this is a bad dream? That became clear as I rushed upstairs for a wrench to close the valve. Back down, and the valve is shut. That did the trick, right?

I had just shut off my neighbor’s water.

After one more panicked trip down the stairs to shut the correct valve, I got it closed, but the damage was done. What should have taken 30 seconds to a minute took about six minutes in all the panic and confusion. And a lot of water had already spewed from the high pressure pipe. And now it’s all going down to the neighbor below me for a nice visit to say, “LUUUUUCY! I’M HOOOOOME!”

Rod Serling could not have written a more bizarre scenario than I’m now in, but that’s exactly where I am right now. Several miracles did happen, though. The electric water heater somehow did not electrocute me while I was standing in all that water, and it was confined to a small room. As to my downstairs neighbor, I’m not so sure yet.

This disaster turned my head around as to what should and should not be correct in a home water system. I never paid any thought to the condition of the pipes, the drains, or how to cut the water in an emergency. It never occurred to me that a drain pan must have a drain line going out of the house to give leaking water a place to go. It never occurred to me to test the shutoffs in the system to see if they work properly.

Now I am Paul Revere, telling anyone who will listen how not to be like me:

  • Know where your main water shutoff is, and how to use it properly. There is a big handle at the bottom that shuts off the water supply, then a smaller handle has to be opened to release pressure from the lines. The water is really shut off only when these two steps happen together;
  • Look at the condition of the pan under the water heater. It must have a pipe draining water to the outside. This is as essential as an exhaust pipe on a car. Apparently mine never had one since 1973, or it would’ve been there. If the pan is wet, the heater is leaking somewhere. Unfortunately, you have to replace it;
  • If your water pipes have the old style turn handles that have to be cranked 25 times to shut off, insist on replacing them with ball valves. You simply turn the lever 90 degrees to open or close it. It takes two seconds to operate. Saving time is critical in an emergency;
  • If you have to close the valve on the water heater, put one hand on the pipe to brace it before turning the valve with the other hand. This reduces the chance the pipe will snap from all the twisting. Turn the valve slowly. If it will not turn, don’t force it. Turn off the main water supply before you force any valve.

I speak from experience here. I didn’t know any safety practices, and no one told me. A water heater is out of sight, out of mind. We’d rather be cheering on a baseball team to the World Series, or attending the fern society annual conference downtown than figuring out why our water heater is leaking and what to do about it.

Don’t just cross your fingers and hope the problem will go away. Care about your appliances and they will care about you!

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“The Blue Tile Project” takes root in Houston

February 22, 2018

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.

AGP_8355 copy

“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 Projectabout 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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Houston historian selected for Austin exhibit

January 26, 2018

“Legendary photographer” and Houston historian Chris Daigle has been chosen by the Bob Bullock Texas State Museum in Austin to exhibit several artifacts from the Astrodome as part of its, “The Story Of Texas” exhibit, to be on view until March, 2019,

 

ChiliManBullock

Daigle (L) and Wancho

 

Seen here with  Exhibits Director Tom Wancho, Daigle examines a 1980’s Astros Pennant to commemorate the outstanding season of 1986 for the team. Among other artifacts on display will be the Sports Illustrated magazine featuring the 1968 UH vs. UCLA basketball game, called, “The game of the century,” and the 1978 recording of “Houston Oilers Number One,” the theme song of the “Luv Ya Blue” days of the Houston Oilers football team.

This exhibit will be in the company of such Texas artifacts as a 700 year old sailing ship, swords and cannons from the Alamo, and saddles used by Texas Revolution pioneers.

For more information, visit https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/.

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One of Houston’s historic rail cars waits for permanent home

December 4, 2017

Before Houston had freeways or overpasses or traffic jams, it had railroads. It had so many railroads in fact, that Houston was for many years known as, “The city where 17 railroads meet the sea.” One reminder of that phrase remains today. Southern Pacific 982, a locomotive donated to the City of Houston, was a fixture in Hermann Park for almost 50 years, reminding us of our past, until progress changed its future.

In 1957, changes were being made to America’s trains. Newer, more efficient diesel locomotives were replacing the steam driven, smoke producing, heavier machines that required their own tender to carry coal and water just to run them. These locomotives were essentially a rolling boiler with wheels, a style that had been in use since railroading began in the mid 1800’s.

Southern Pacific 982 was such a machine. It was built in Philadelphia at the Baldwin Train Works, and by 1920, she was running with Southern Pacific to carry freight on the Texas And New Orleans Railroad, making regular stops between Lufkin, East Texas and throughout Louisiana.

The locomotives of the early 20th century were built to survive 40 years of daily use. World War II brought about the greatest use of railroads in America, having to carry war materials and personnel across America, pulling 100 cars at 50 miles per hour. Because there were fewer automobiles in use at that time, nearly anything that was sent anywhere went by rail.

Locomotives that had long been resigned to “dead tracks,” where they could be stripped of their parts, were instead rebuilt and sent back into service. New locomotives could not be purchased because of the war effort. Southern Pacific 982 was fitted with steam lines to heat passenger cars. Because of these different circumstances, trains were now rolling coast to coast instead of on just local routes, as they were designed for originally.

Locomotive 982 saw continuous service until December 28, 1956. Its last movement was documented in a memo: “H.M. Goodson, chief clerk to P.B. Rice phoned at 11:00 AM January 7, 1957, advising engine 982 departed Lafayette, Louisiana at 8 A.M. Handling train 2/243 should reach Houston some time this afternoon.”

Newspaper accounts from the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post indicate that in the following months, several locomotives, including 982, were on their way to being scrapped. The steam locomotives were being replaced by the greatly more efficient diesel power plants. No more billowing smoke; no more coal, oil or water to carry with them. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mr. Ed Teague, the caretaker of the locomotive for many years, said that he saw the 982 in a scrap line and convinced the man in charge to place “Old 982” at the end of the line. Its career had ended after traveling over 3.5 million miles! Peter Whitney, a train buff, appealed to the City of Houston to save one of the old engines as a icon of Houston history, but was met with a “no funds” response.

The idea of saving SP 982 was presented to the Houston Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. This sounded like their kind of project, since they had undertaken things like this before. An estimate of the cost of moving the locomotive was prepared in January, 1957, in the amount of $2,540. Negotiations with Southern Pacific were positive, but talks with the City of Houston proved more difficult. Mayor Oscar Holcombe was against placing the locomotive in any park because it posed a liability problem. The councilmen were generally in favor of the idea, but they couldn’t decide where to put it. Memorial Park and Hermann Park were debated as sites by City Council, and in the press. Eventually, Hermann Park was chosen since it would provide a more secure location. The necessary motions were passed by City Council while Mayor Holcombe was out of town.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#7In May 1957, it was decided to move the engine and tender into Hermann Park down Fannin Street from the crossing at Blodgett, where the Southwest Freeway (Highway 59) crosses today. Called, “Operation Choo Choo,” sections of track were laid down and the engine was pushed along until the next section of track was in place. The Houston Chronicle reported that it was a hot week in May to move a heavy engine, and the tracks kept sinking into the hot asphalt. It took the efforts of two tractors to keep the engine from falling over. This went on for a week until Southern Pacific 982 finally arrived at Hermann Park.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#6On June 2, 1957, the old locomotive was dedicated to the City of Houston. The engine was presented by B.S. Sines, Vice President of Southern Pacific Lines, and was accepted by Mayor Pro Tem Louie Welch. The Houston Chronicle reported that seven former engineers came to see her in her new home.

J.R. Glass said, “She used to go 100 miles on a tank of water. I’d get up at 2 A.M. go to the roundhouse, fire her up, and head for New Orleans.” The oldest retired engineer present was W.K. Larkin, 82, who thought Old 982 was once the most modern power plant on the railroad.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005. It was time for Hermann Park to go through some changes. The Hermann Park Conservancy, with the City of Houston, would transform the area near the lake into the Hermann Park Cultural Plaza, with a café, a covered plaza, and public art pieces. The miniature train that had carried kids around Hermann Park since the mid 1950’s would also be upgraded. That meant that SP 982 would have to move. The Houston Jaycees once again stepped up and hired Barnhart Crane and Rigging, a company with 36 years experience moving heavy equipment.

trainliftIn August, 2005, the engine was attached to a giant hydraulic gantry assembled over it to lift a combined weight of 199 tons between the engine and the tender. Slowly, SP 982 was lifted up six feet, and a long 120 wheel trailer rolled in under it. Two days later, the tender and the engine rolled out of Hermann Park on separate trailers.

It’s tricky maneuvering nearly 200 tons of train through Houston streets.

“There’s a lot of different ways we will use tonight to get downtown,” said Richard Davenport of Barnhart. “If it’s a four mile trip the straightest way, we may go 14 or more miles to get it there.”

After crossing a route through the night on 20 different streets in east Houston, on a clear Saturday morning the engine and tender arrive at their new home on Avenida De Las Americas at Capitol, right between Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“Operation Choo Choo II” had arrived. Again, Barnhart had assembled its 800-ton hydraulic gantry over new tracks, and train buffs from the Texas Railroad Preservation Association helped guide the engine and tender down into their new home.

Operation Choo Choo II was a true community effort. Over 100 financial donors and individuals combined to make the preservation a success. The History Channel taped the move of SP 982 for their “Mega Movers” series. Now baseball fans had something new (Minute Maid Park), and something old! Southern Pacific 982 had made a complete circle in 48 years, from Union Station in the 1920’s to Hermann Park, and back near Minute Maid Park, which is where Union Station used to sit.

CoveredNow the once proud Southern Pacific 982 sits all alone, wrapped in white plastic to preserve her new coat of paint, missing her coal tender, which was sold off to the Heber Valley railroad in Utah. Here she waits, along with two turn-of-the-century houses that were original to that area’s “Quality Hill” neighborhood.

In 2015, plans halted for old 982 and the plaza she occupies.

“We’re working with the Houston Jaycees to deed it back to them, and negotiate a permanent home for the locomotive,” said Carolyn Campbell, communications director with Houston First Corporation, which manages the entertainment and convention venues downtown. “One of the old houses has been adopted by Annunciation Church next door. As to the old Cohn house, some options for that and the locomotive are still being worked out.”

Along with the Astrodome, the history of Houston’s historic icons is waiting for progress. It’s sort of a slow replay of “Back To the Future” for Houstonians.

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If Memories were Money, I Could Own the Astrodome

November 13, 2017

Hereto forth, I humbly place my bid in for the Astrodome. I offer only memories as capital, but I have enough to fill the place to the Mezzanine and the Dome Dog counter.

The Astrodome has had its critics, even before it was built in the 1960’s. Nobody thought you should, or could, play sports indoors. But when it was finished, the Astrodome became a destination, and has been called, “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” alongside the Statue Of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids Of Egypt. 

Its uniqueness has always been more than architectural; it was a cultural shift. The Dome’s odd combination of daring design, and the fact that someone actually succeeded in its construction, made it the perfect symbol of all that is best about Houston. 

I had a Wonder in my own city!  Those who said it couldn’t be done suddenly became silent inside this air conditioned palace, sans mosquitos, and it was suddenly fit for boxing, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and A.J. Foyt. Performing without suffering got to be pretty big news!

My personal bid for the Dome is written on those $3.50 tickets I bought at Foley’sto see things like motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel risk his life jumping over 14 cars and the “Battle Of The Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. We were extras in the filming of Brewster McCloud for a week, and got to be there on the 50 yard line to see Earl Campbell play the best “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers game, making Monday Night Football history in 1978.

We didn’t just watch the events; we were all part of history being made. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve kept more programs. My 11 year-old self, and hundreds of thousands just like me, could look up every weekend and silently say, “If they can do this, I can achieve my dreams, too.” And we did – some with more success than others. The Astrodome, to quote the Miranda Lambert song, was, “The House That Built Me.”

The Roman Coliseum didn’t have the fumes of a demolition derby or provide a chance to shake hands with the greatest names in sports and music to add to our memories. The Dome was our Coliseum, our Statue Of Liberty, our Parthenon. The rusty beams are still coated with the sounds of Bum Phillips declaring, “And next year we will kick the damn door in!”

There was never a Super Bowl at the Astrodome, but we watched our teams come close to championships here so many times. Roy Hofheinz would be proud to see the Astros finally cross the finish line in the World Series this year, 55 years after he created them in 1962.

I am not bidding to make the Astrodome a hotel, or a sound stage, or a garden park, or an open air framework. But if my, “Bid of Memories,” succeeds, the Dome will remain a grand symbol of Houston’s “Can-Do” spirit. We owe it to a new generation to show them how it was done!

This place wasn’t named after a corporation; it was named for an idea that put a “cowboy city” on the map, and for the people with guts enough to make it happen. My down payment on the Dome will be the kids who are not even born yet, but who will eventually look up at our Wonder and say silently, “They did this…I can achieve my dreams, too!”

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A Houston schoolhouse needs a new home

November 9, 2017

Commuters whizzing by on North Shepherd hardly give a glance to the foliage-covered red house near 15th street. They are more interested in getting in and out of the Heights Veterinary Clinic next door. After all, the house has been there forever – there’s nothing to see here.

Upon further inspection, a flagpole in front reveals that this was the Lowell Street School, a traditional “Little Red Schoolhouse” that has inhabited this spot since about 1918, and was the classroom of Houston’s famous and not-so-famous through the decades.

When the house was built, World War I was winding down, and Shepherd Drive was a country road known as Lowell Avenue. The city limits would not catch up to this address for another 20 years.

The keeper of the house’s history is Dr. Kenneth Williams, the veterinarian next door. He has owned the clinic since 1975, and, at first, only knew that the property next door was used for campaign rallies and as the meeting house of the Rosebud Garden Club in the mid 1960’s. It wasn’t until a former classmate’s father came into the clinic that Williams realized what was really next door. Upon hearing that the school had so much history, Dr. Williams launched a personal investigation, which yielded few results.

According to City records, Magnolia Loan and Building Company deeded the land over to the Trustees of the Heights Annex Addition to pave the way for a school. Williams held a black and white photo showing the entire class in 1921 at the front door.

“Look here to the left,” Williams said. “That’s oil well firefighter Red Adair at about six years old.” Adair was portrayed by John Wayne in the 1968 movie, “Hellfighters.”

While it remains unclear how the building was used in recent decades, and exactly when the garden club took over, Williams says the Garden Club handed him the keys and abandoned the building in 1989, leaving the house in squalor.

In the years since, Williams has taken it upon himself to spend thousands of his own dollars fixing up the widows, repairing the foundation and roof, and has paid delinquent taxes on it to become the official owner of the land where this rare piece of Texas history sits.

Today, Williams has different plans for the lot under the schoolhouse: expansion of the vet clinic. To that end, the schoolhouse will need a foster home where it can be restored and used as perhaps a Scout meeting hall, or a community center for a needy neighborhood. That’s proving to be a difficult task. Williams is willing to donate the building to someone who can move it, but after contacting the Galveston Historical Society, the Houston Heights Association, the Heritage Society at San Houston Park and several others, there are no takers.

“I really want to avoid demolition of this treasure,” Williams said. “I’ve seen so many great places demolished in my lifetime. I don’t want this to be one of them.”

Williams showed us around his time machine schoolhouse on Shepherd Drive one morning. Layers of paint on the front doors compliment ornate, but rusty, skeleton key doorknobs, long since out of use. We were transported to a simpler time standing there, without cars, or televisions, or moon landings. What did kids see out of those 100 year-old windows that now give views to used car lots?

“Kids learned inside here a hundred years ago,” Williams said. “Kids can learn from this place today, if we can save it.”

For further information on this preservation effort, contact Dr. Kenneth Williams at heightsvet@gmail.com.

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One response to “Articles by Chris Daigle, Houston Historian

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