Dr. Stephen Fox, Professor of Architectural History at Rice
Presentation given on December 5, 1998
Slides accompanying Lecture.

The Architectural History of the Houston Heights

I am an architectural historian and this affects the way I will talk about the history of the Heights. I want to examine its development and its early architecture. There are many other ways that one can and should interpret the history of the communities that make up the Heights. What I find valuable about a spatial approach to interpreting history is that one is dealing with sites that are available and perhaps already familiar to one's audience.

Houston Heights, the most venerable of the Heights communities, represents a distinct phase in the history of urban real estate development in Texas. It was one of a number of communities developed on the peripheries of Texas cities in the 1890 period by out-of-state investors, often from the Middle West or West. Like Oak Cliff in Dallas, Alamo Heights in San Antonio, Arlington Heights in Fort Worth, the Heights in Laredo, and Port Aransas Cliffs in Corpus Christi, Houston Heights was so large that it constituted a virtual new town rather than a mere "addition" to the city of Houston. It was tied to its host city by an important technological advance: the electrified streetcar system, a technology that first became available in 1890. Like its Texan counterparts, it advertised its aspirations through its picturesque name--the Heights--evoking nature and stressing its topographic superiority to the rest of Houston. However, Houston Heights was not marketed as an elite community but as a "streetcar suburb," in the phrase coined by the historian Sam Bass Warner, oriented toward blue collar and lower-middle-income socio-economic strata.

Houston at the turn of the 20th century was, by our standards, a small town. In 1900 its population was 45,000. Late 19th-century Houston (as depicted in this bird's eye view of 1891) was nevertheless spread out. South of Buffalo Bayou were downtown and the middle class neighborhoods of the Third and Fourth wards. Main Street was the principal axis of Houston. However, as this view from 1894 makes clear, with Houston's first skyscraper, the 6-story Binz Building, under construction, it was a city in which modern services--symbolized by the electrical, telephone, and telegraph wires--coexisted with unpaved streets. South of the downtown business district, beginning approximately where Foley's stands today, lay Houston's most elite residential neighborhood, the Main Street grand avenue. One symbol of the high status of the Main Street residence district was that streetcars were diverted to parallel streets so as not to run through it. North of Buffalo Bayou were the numerous railroad lines that ran through Houston and the residential districts of much of the city's working class population. Railroads were one of the foundation stones of 19th-century Houston's economy. But neither they, nor streetcars, were considered conducive to good residential neighborhoods.

By the 1890s, in Houston as in larger American cities, people were ready to leave the Victorian city for more peaceful, secure, and cleaner suburbs beyond the edge of town. It was the electrification of the horse and mule-drawn streetcar system that made suburbanism practical, especially for working families. And it was the development of Houston Heights in 1891 by a syndicate of investors from Omaha, Nebraska--who bought Houston's streetcar system so that they could electrify it and extend it out to the Heights--that occasioned the adoption of this new technology. At its inception, the Heights had a dramatic effect on all of Houston because of the connection between real estate development and urban infrastructure improvements that it portended.

Two officials of the Omaha & South Texas Land Company came to Houston to oversee the development of the Heights: O. M. Carter, the company's president, and D. D. Cooley, grandfather of the heart surgeon Denton Cooley.

By Houston real estate standards of the 1890s, the Heights was huge. The townsite comprised 1,750 acres. This version of the town plan differentiated between blocks intended for residential construction and blocks intended for industrial and warehouse development in the northwest corner. Not only the streetcar line but a railroad spur line was routed up Nicholson to provide rail connections to this industrial zone. Promotional photographs published by the Omaha & South Texas Land Company documented the scale of infrastructure improvements carried out to grade streets, survey blocks and lots, and install public utilities, such as the waterworks. The installation of a community-wide system of water distribution mains represented the cutting edge of highly-serviced improvements in 1891; only at this time did the cities of Houston and Galveston obtain such systems.

Much of the Heights territory was clear cut to provide ample open space for development, especially in the industrial sector. The "mattrass" [sic] factory was one of the buildings the developers built to entice manufacturers to relocate to Houston Heights. (This building still stands, much added to, at 611 West 22nd.) The residential blocks seem to have been spared clear cutting in order to endow them with a suburban, park-like appearance. This was the image conveyed by the land company's promotional illustrations, which focused especially on the large houses that Cooley and other investors built along Heights Boulevard. The combination of metropolitan improvements (piped water, electricity, and fast-moving public transportation) and rustic verdure that these images contained represented a 19th-century vision of suburban living. The broadcasting of these images through a publicity campaign was as innovative as the servicing of the countryside.

"Boulevard," as Heights Boulevard was originally called, represented a particular type of street characteristic of American Victorian cities: the residential grand avenue. Its development as an esplanade-centered boulevard suggested that it sought to rival Main Street, Houston's most prestigious grand avenue. Heights Boulevard never actually challenged Main Street in terms of social prestige. But it demonstrated the ingenuity of the Heights' developers, who used the city-planning device of the tree-shaded grand avenue to give the Heights a distinct identity in the imaginations of Houstonians, an identity reinforced through the reproduction and distribution of published images.

Houston Heights represented a complex of concepts and techniques that were new to Houston in the 1890s. It was big in scale, and intensively capitalized and serviced. It integrated passenger and commercial transportation with urban real estate development to induce industrial enterprises to leave the crowded and expensive railroad districts of the city for the near countryside, where workers could afford to buy land and build houses while still being able to travel efficiently into the city. The Heights was organized with such spatial devices as Heights Boulevard to give it an aura of prestige, which modern communications networks disseminated through publicity. But the very scale and comprehensiveness of the Heights made it vulnerable to changes in economic circumstances. When the expansionary economy of the late 1880s and early 1890s contracted with the Panic of 1893, the Omaha & South Texas Land Company was affected, as were most of the developers of heights communities in Texas cities. In 1896, the Omaha & South Texas Land Co. went bankrupt. O. M. Carter, however, retained a substantial interest in Houston Heights real estate and continued to be identified with the community's development for the rest of his career.

The Omaha & South Texas Land Company endowed the Heights with social amenities as well as infrastructure improvements. It built the Houston Heights Hotel in 1892 (here seen after its conversion to a nursing home) at W. 19th and Ashland. Along 19th Avenue, adjacent to the hotel, the Height's "downtown" was developed. The earliest business buildings represented its small town status. One of the Heights's most famous retail ventures, Kaplan's, exemplifies the two-story, wooden building type associated with neighborhood convenience shopping in Southern cities: the corner store, in which the storekeeper's family often dwelt above the store. Kaplan's subsequent location emphasizes the fact that this building type was repeated, with minor variations, over and over again.

I use the term "building type" to describe Kaplan's rather than "architectural style." I think the concept of building type represents a clearer way to talk about the early architecture of the Heights than if one clearer way to talk about the early architecture of the Heights than if one were to attempt a stylistic analysis of different buildings. American architecture of the 19th and 20th century has been so eclectic, incorporating so many formal sources, that even historians don't always agree on nomenclature. The concept of building type--socially coding the use to which a building is put by repeatedly employing certain distinct shapes and patterns of spatial organization--facilitates the explication and categorization of the Heights's architecture.

In looking at the institutional and residential building types most characteristic of the Heights, what one becomes aware of is the changes that took place in American architecture between the early 1890s and the mid 1910s. Because the economic Panic of 1893 drastically slowed development of the Heights, the community's period of initial development extended into the 1910s, the same period when the Heights--from 1896 to 1918--was a separately incorporated municipality. In terms of architecture one can see the transition from Victorian types to 20th-century types.

This image of Harvard Elementary School displays the contrast of the rudimentary, old-fashioned 19th-century "school house" type and its much more substantial and spacious two-and-a-half story brick successor. While the earlier building is house-like in terms of its size, its scale, and its construction, the later building is clearly an institutional structure. One can see intermediate stages in the Houston Heights High School (which was designed to be built in phases) and Cooley Elementary School, before closing the cycle with Harvard Elementary School after the demolition of the original building and the expansion and modernization of the brick building.

A similar sequence is visible in the churches of Houston Heights. The First Methodist Church was a Victorian cottage type church. Like the original Harvard School, it was house-like in size and construction. The First Baptist Church, although built of wood, sought to be less house-like in appearance and size. Grace Methodist Church and All Saints Catholic Church were brick-built institutional buildings.

Houston Heights City Hall and Fire Station at W. 12th and Yale, built in 1915, was an early version of a modern public building type that was very popular in Texas towns in the 1920s: the city hall combined with the fully-automated municipal fire station. After Houston Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918, it acquired the Heights Branch of the Houston Public Library of 1926, a modern branch library building decorated with Renaissance style cast stone ornament. Although none of these buildings were extremely large in size, they were distinguished from residential buildings by their brick construction and by shapes and patterns of spatial organization relating to their specialized uses.

Among Heights houses, it is possible to trace the transformation of the suburban dwelling house. Most of the oldest houses in the Heights--those built before 1905--were variations on the one-story, raised Victorian cottage, often with galleries wrapped around two sides to take advantage of the prevailing southeast breeze. Two story houses were more spacious but displayed the same principles of spatial organization. After 1905, the Victorian cottage tended to be replaced by the bungalow, the modern 20th-century American moderate-income family house type. The use of the roof as a prominent formal component of the design was a distinguishing feature of the bungalow, as were its more emphatically pillared verandas. Note in the Cooley bungalow, the paved driveway alongside the house leading back to a rear garage. The bungalow's more spacious two-story counterpart was what historians now call the "four-square" type house, the name derived from its blocky proportions. Note that Dr. Coop's house is faced with brick. I say "faced" because, unlike the brick school and church buildings, it was probably brick veneer: a wood-framed house faced with brick rather than wood clapboards, a type of construction that became almost universal for middle-income housing in Houston after World War I. There are only a few examples in the Heights of the columned Colonial Revival, the most popular elite house type in Houston in the 1910 era. There were a few houses that forecast the more careful adaptation of specific historical models that was popular in the 1920s, such as the Shefer House with its "Dutch Colonial" gambrel roof and the stucco-surfaced, Mediterranean villa type Tibbott House on Harvard, with French doors opening the interior of the house to its site and an east side loggia replacing the old-fashioned front porch.

After the turn of the 20th century, not only was development renewed in Houston Heights, but more development began to occur north of White Oak Bayou along the lines of the Houston Electric Company's streetcar routes. This map of 1920 shows how Woodland Heights was tied to the Houston Avenue and North Main Street carlines. Brooke-Smith Addition and Sunset Heights were served by the North Main line. Where the streetcars didn't go, there was vacant land. Surging automobile ownership after World War I changed this condition as streets replaced streetcars as the new connective tissue of the city and the undeveloped interstices of the Heights filled in.

A quick survey of the other Heights communities can start with the most prominent after Houston Heights: Woodland Heights. This was developed in prominent after Houston Heights: Woodland Heights. This was developed in 1907 by William A. Wilson, who began his real estate career in Houston Heights. It's intriguing to see how Wilson learned from his experience of working in Houston Heights. Although Woodland Heights was marketed to a slightly more affluent clientele than Houston Heights had been originally, it was not an elite neighborhood. Nevertheless, Wilson appropriated the symbols of the elite private place type neighborhood--gate piers framing the street--to mark the entrance to Woodland Heights. He was one of the earliest, if not the first, residential developer in Houston to plant live oak trees in rows along Bayland Avenue and other streets in Woodland Heights to shape a sense of community space. Wilson reinforced the visible sense of community by instituting deed restrictions in Woodland Heights intended to preserve its character as a neighborhood of single family houses. Wilson also published Homes magazine, based on the format of the popular new house and garden magazines, to promote Woodland Heights. As the investors in Houston Heights had done, he built his own large house on Bayland, although most of the houses in Woodland Heights were more compact.

In the 1910s, Houston entered an era of civic improvements. The city began the creation of a chain of parkway corridors along the banks of its bayous. The first to be carried out was the White Oak Bayou Park, which, before Interstate 45 was built through its lower reaches, wended its way into downtown Houston. One of the last Heights subdivisions was tied to the parkway, Norhill, developed by the commercial bakery company president Henry W. Stude on his family's former pasture lands with Will C. Hogg and Mike Hogg. The park esplanades of Norhill not only pay homage to Heights Boulevard but forecast Will Hogg's great community planning venture, River Oaks, which he and his brother commenced shortly after they began Norhill. The brick veneer suburban cottages of Norhill represent the late 1920s and 1930s successor to the bungalow as the preferred middle-income Houston house type.

One aspect of the Heights that I want to address, albeit inadequately, is the presence of African-American communities. This is a diagram published in the Report of the City Planning Commission of 1929 showing concentrations of African-American settlement in Houston. It shows the location of African-American neighborhoods hugging the west edge of the Heights and the Heights Annex. It also shows the location of African-American neighborhoods in Sunset Heights but fails to show (perhaps because it was not in Houston's city limits when the diagram was made) Independence Heights, north of Loop 610 between Airline and Yale. Independence Heights was the first in a sequence of communities developed by the Wright Land Company that culminated in Houston Acre Homes Addition, better known as Acres Homes. Begin in 1910, it mirrored Houston Heights in being a separately incorporated municipality from 1915 until 1929, when it was annexed by Houston. Independence Heights was an African-American community. It was therefore extremely rare during the long period of African-American racial segregation in the South in being a duly constituted municipality with elected and appointed African-American public officials.

The Heights is home to some very provocative new architecture. Many examples, like this house on Bayland Avenue by Thompson-Frater Associates, architects, pay homage to the historic house types of the Heights. Others, like this house in Woodland Heights by the architect Peter Waldman, or this house in Norhill by the architects Pia Wortham and Joan Callis, are bold departures from existing types but carefully adjusted in terms of scale and siting so as not to disrespect their neighborhood settings. What these examples suggest is the vibrancy and excitement that the Heights continues to generate after more than a century as Houston's first new town.

Sources: 1. Sister M. Agatha, The History of Houston Heights, 1891-1918, Houston: Premier Printing Company, 1956 2. David G. McComb, Houston, A History, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 3. Harold L. Platt, City Building in the New South: The Growth of Public Services in Houston, Texas, 1830-1910, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983 4. Steven M. Baron, Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas, Lexington: privately printed, 1996 5. Houston Heights Multiple Resource Group nomination application, National Register of Historic Places, 1983 and subsequent addenda 6. Ron Tyler, editor in chief, New Handbook of Texas, Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996