Category Archives: Houston History

Downtown Houston: Where old meets new

By Chris Daigle

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The William Wilson Building is dwarfed by the Calpine Building next door (Photo: 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.

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Miki Norton and her brother Charles M. Lusk III look at a photo from an earlier time (Photo: Chris Daigle)

“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.

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Demolition (Photo: Chris Daigle)

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.

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Louis Aulbach, archeology steward with Houston Archeology Society (L); and Linda Gorski, president of the Houston Archeology Society. (Photo by Chris Daigle)

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.

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Miki Norton (in the yellow shirt); Linda Gorski, president of Houston Archeology Society (right of Norton); and the archeology team after they found the spring (Photo by Chris Daigle)

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.”

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Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.

 

Hats Off to Houston’s Historic Shudde Hats: Local family has made hats for 112 years

By Chris Daigle, Contributing Editor

I always revisit places that made Houston history. I didn’t know it, but one place made an impact on my life as well.

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The front of the Shudde Brothers building (Photo by Chris Daigle)

Houstonians have all seen it so many times as we drive out of downtown on Washington Avenue: a forlorn looking building next to Knapp Chevrolet, not attracting much attention, because, after all, this part of town in Sixth Ward is full of aging wooden buildings. Many don’t know that if these walls could talk, they would tell of four generations of a family dedicated to hat making for all of Texas, and the rest of the United States, too. The friends they made and the client list that resulted over 108 years made them a cross-section of Houston history.

The faded letters over the front door can just be made out to read, “SHUDDE BROS.” for the Shudde Brothers Hatters at 905 Trinity Street, just south of Washington Avenue. It was started the old fashioned way, in an old fashioned time.

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Neal Shudde (Photo by Chris Daigle)

In 1906, Otto Schueddemagen and his wife Emma moved to a house on this spot with five boys: Walter, Al, Ben, John, and Herbert, and a daughter, Lydia. By 1907, Al began a hat renovating business in the 800 block of Preston with $200 and a firm desire to be the best in town when Houston was a relatively small town. He then named it Southern Hat Company. Al’s grandson, Neal Shudde, talked at length recently about the family, and the business. He’s the fourth-generation Shudde, continuing a tradition of craftsmanship that made men’s hats when the hat made the man.

“We’re standing in the family home right here,” he said, looking around at fireplaces, a polished wood floor, and a handcrafted spiral staircase. “The family lived here and ran a men’s hat store downtown, and in 1914, a factory was built around the house to expand the operation.”

By then, four of the brothers were involved in the downtown store or the factory. Men’s clothing and a second store were added after 1919. “This was a huge amount of progress. In 1906, when my great grandparents moved in, this house had been built in 1878, and was out in the suburbs. Washington Avenue was the only westbound road out of town from here, which is why they came,” said Neal.

We paused to look out on a Houston skyline much changed between the 19th and 21st centuries. The window we looked out of was 136 years old.

“Each brother had a unique personality,” Neal said, “which made things interesting for the business. Ben was an athletic guy, and he spent his young years as a Vaudville performer, doing trapeze acts on stage. He entertained daily in the years before 1920, and he was mechanically inclined too, and that ability led his brothers to ask him to run the factory.”

By the 1930’s to the 1990’s, Shudde Brothers Hatters (known for correct hat renovations) had made a tremendous name in clothing and hat merchandizing, taking hat orders from many western stores and men’s clothiers all over the United States. Their popularity made them a hit with the farmers to the famous, and the entertainment world took notice too.

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Montie Montana, Canada’s Roy Rogers (Photo by Chris Daigle)

“The factory customized the hats for John Wayne to wear during the filming of the movies, ‘The Alamo’ and ‘Hellfighters’ just outside of Houston,” said Neal. “Roy Rogers would have his hats sent to us by train before the rodeo every year in custom leather cases. Tom Mix was another frequent customer. Canada’s version of Roy Rogers, named Montie Montana, who was a legendary cowboy roping star and actor, had index cards on file with Shudde Brothers, with precise dimensions for his hats. The list goes on, but Gene Autry was a customer for many years,” he said.

“After John Connolly became governor of Texas, his wife Nellie Connolly would bring in his hats herself to be renovated,” Neal added. In November, 1963, Neal’s father Weldon got a call from Mayor Lewis Cutrer who said, “Weldon, the President’s coming to town. Can we give him a hat?” In response, Shudde Brothers donated a Stetson “Silver Belly” size 7 5/8, to be given to John F. Kennedy in Houston on November 21, 1963. Because of a crowded schedule in Houston, it was presented to him in Fort Worth the next morning, two hours before he was murdered.

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American flag in the window of the Shudde Bros building (Photo by Chris Daigle)

Years later, unknown to Neal, the office of Lyndon Johnson wrote the factory in October, 1971 to renovate his hat to be put in the Lyndon Johnson Library. The list of entertainers doing business with Shudde Brothers included Chill Wills, Tony Curtis, Ernest Tubb, George Foreman, [“He was really a big person, but really nice. He came several times,” said Neal.”]. Justin Wilson and Dennis Weaver personally came to the factory to visit. The most famous of all the customers to Shudde Brothers was General Sam Houston, whose hat was renovated in 1936 for the Texas Centennial Celebration, marking 100 years of Texas independence.

One reason for the popularity of Shudde Brothers was, “Because this was a tight knit family. All the employees were like family, and were treated as such. When the Depression came, things got tough all around, and Al gathered all the employees together – there were about 40 of them at the time – and asked them in order to keep their jobs, would they work for half pay for now? Everyone agreed to do that, and nobody quit, and they survived,” Neal said.

As I perused though the file cabinets, I found a letter written by Walter, explaining that one employee could not serve in the Korean War because of bad health. That’s how much of a family they were.

Neal’s father Weldon eventually became President as the brothers passed away, and after Weldon’s death in 1996, Neal took over the business. “There are times when working six days a week is trying, and times when you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over,” he said, but he likes the business too. “Each hat has to be different.”

He takes pleasure in the craftsman side of the business, which allows him to design unique hat shapes. Neal said he has given a lot of thought and prayer to whether he should be doing something else, but for the foreseeable future, running Shudde Brothers Hatters at Brookwoods just feels right.

The name was changed because in 2007, a decision was made to move the business operations to Brookshire, 35 miles west of Houston, to the Brookwoods Community, a center for disabled adults, and it was the right decision for him to be closer to his son Wilson, who helps out at the store. Many more decisions then had to be made over the next seven years as to the future of the old building at 905 Trinity.

“We looked into moving the house portion of the building to Heritage Park downtown, says Neal, “but the expense and logistics of such a move were not possible, much less a move to Brookshire.” Neal talked to other historians about using the place as is for some purpose, but to no avail. Thus, the building’s days were numbered. There was lots of work ahead for Neal, and he was essentially moving out by himself.

“I had no idea the amount of stuff in there,” he said. Fate must have stepped in: this reporter became involved as a photojournalist interested in the story. I ended the process feeling I was part of a family, and fell in love with an old wooden building.

In a way, Neal was re-discovering a building that he spent most of his 60 years in, at least since high school, and enjoyed every minute of it. “Right here,” he said, running his hand over the wood paneling, “Here’s the office where my father and I ran the business together.”

The building was not so much demolished, but dismantled, piece by piece, by professionals, to be used in other vintage homes somewhere else. The hand crafted spiral staircase was removed intact and sold to an architect three blocks away. Inside, one would think it was 1914 again. Frozen in time were giant, heavy hatmaking machines, one resembling a printing press, but used to press and smooth hats. Steam boilers ran steam throughout the two story building for heat, and the two workbenches, now silent, were waiting for their next duty.

Overhead, wooden hat forms rested by the hundreds, having every possible hat shape and style available to craftsmen. Neal and I could see people cutting, trimming, steaming, sewing, and blocking hats for customers all day long. They didn’t have computers, and the only Apple they knew about was in their lunch box. They probably looked something like Wilford Brimley, all craftsmen, and loving every minute of it.

About a week into this conservation effort, we met Roger Huffman, an energetic, gregarious collector of vintage light fixtures. He’s got a big smile, and an even bigger handshake. In between fix-it jobs on heating units around town, Roger is also fascinated with historic buildings. “This was somebody’s life at one time. It was somebody’s livelihood,” he said. “I can tell that it’s got a hundred stories to tell.”

Now, with Neal, Roger, and myself, these walls began to speak volumes. Together, we were amazed by the craftsmanship that went into making this place originally, and how it has lasted over 108 years without modern conveniences, much less air conditioning. “That’s why there are these big windows,” Neal said. “That, and the circulating fans kept it bearable in here.”

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Photo by Chris Daigle

I explored file cabinets full of customer orders and invoices to every western wear store in America in the 1950’s; brochures, instructions to the machines, photos, and bowling certificates. I was getting a three-way education: Hat making, the history of light fixtures, and family history.

One find made us stop everything and believe in Divine coincidence: A newspaper article on the passing of Walter Shudde showed his address as 2415 Elmen Street in 1972. Roger’s current address was 2411 Elmen, right next door!

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An abandoned hat rack, waiting for customers that will never come. (Photo: Chris Daigle)

There were many more “Oh My Gosh” moments in this three-month journey into yesteryear. Working at night by flashlight, we discovered vent fans hidden behind cabinets, hat racks with dusty fedoras waiting for customers who will never come and blueprints to the 1953 facelift of the building. We all agreed, in the cold and dark, that this wasn’t a matter of, “What am I doing here.” This was more like, “When can I get back here?” It was like diving to the Titanic without the water.

What gave the place its life, its very soul, was how long some employees worked there. Neal told us of Joe Bishop, who came to Shudde Brothers Hatters in 1923 to make deliveries on a bicycle, and stayed 60 years until 1983, when he retired as foreman of the factory. “Look here, this was Leo’s bench,” Neal said. “Leo Marx came to us in 1923, and learned everything in this place, and stayed 60 years. Leo knew all about our customers and what they liked, and he did it all, except the sewing. The men didn’t do any sewing. Leo mostly blocked and shaped hats. Those are the two main steps of renovation.”

Each person’s bench still had the notes, hat sizes, and clippings of their career posted to the wall. Roger showed us a board on which Leo wrote, “If you need a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”

For many years, the front walls were covered with celebrity customer’s photos, from John Wayne to George Bush. Neal’s father, Weldon Shudde, kept them out of view because he was a modest man who felt that displaying them would be bragging. After receiving a Hollywood glossy 8×10, he would write a thank you note to the sender, and put the photo away. Neal convinced his father to hang the photos because the customers might enjoy them. Neal noted that his grandfather, Al Shudde, was an outgoing man, but we noticed that all the stress of running, and now moving, 108 years of hat making history, Neal remained humble, just like his father. “Nothing to brag about. We’re just normal people,” he said.

Roger and I always had a sense that this was a comfortable place to work, even though we had no previous contact with Shudde Brothers Hatters. Maybe Al, Ben, Herbert, John, and Walter were in some way there with us.

“I’m sure they would be pleased with how we’ve taken care of things,” said Roger. “Now we know why people stayed so long. I’d love to have worked here myself. They worked for a family, and they felt needed, and that was why.”

Neal said, “The atmosphere was not ‘us versus them.’ People wanted to be here, and wanted to give their best. They gave respect, and got respect, as craftsmen.”

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The front room of Shudde Brothers was a showcase of Family history back to 1907. The factory clothed the famous to the farmer for four generations. (Photo: Chris Daigle)

Roger added, “We’re also saving a sense of place. The sights and smells of this place take you back to a simpler time. Most people wish for the good old days. We are standing in the good old days right now. We have touched and saved things that haven’t been used in 50 years or more. No amount of money can replace that.”

After three months of exploration, the final demolition day came: Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Neal came for one last look at the site of his entire family history, and some of the city’s history as well. He stood alone with his thoughts.

“It’s just so surreal, looking at this,” he said. “You know, my grandfather started Southern Hat Company on July 1, 1907, and we moved out on June 30, 2007, one hundred years ago to the day. The factory was built in 1914, and its being demolished in 2014. That’s God’s way of saying, ‘Job well done, mission accomplished.’”

Neal kept some bricks for himself, and he was on his way. Tomorrow he’s selling hats at the Rodeo. Neal Shudde has a tradition to continue.

In a way, things came full circle in this wooden time machine in the shadow of downtown Houston. Before people sat and watched John Wayne battle the oil well fires in “Hellfighters,” his hats were made right here. Before people saw Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on their black and white TVs, those hats were being made right here.

On March 30 at 8pm, we took one last look at the empty scene of so much history that unfolded silently behind those wooden walls. The block is now empty, but it filled three explorers and thousands of Texans with memories to last a lifetime.

And suddenly, we realized, we are all Shudde Brothers now.

For more information about Shudde Brothers, visit http://www.shudde.com/.

***

Daigle

 

Chris Daigle is a Houston Historian and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. He may be contacted at blue69@att.net.

“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.

Houston historian selected for Austin exhibit

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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Chris Daigle is a contributing Editor to The Grapevine Source. To contact him, email blue69@att.net.

One of Houston’s historic locomotives waits for permanent home

By Chris Daigle

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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Chris Daigle is a contributing editor to The Grapevine Source. He is a Houston historian, specializing in Astrodome history. To contact Chris, email blue69@att.net.