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History of the Houston Heights

> Historical Overview | The Founders | Photos

The decade of the 1890s was an exciting period of development for Americans. Towns were becoming cities; cities were expanding. This was especially true in Texas, where speculators were drawn from other states. The Houston area attracted thousands of these adventurers, and it was in this climate that Houston Heights began. 

As early as 1886, Oscar Martin Carter, a self-made millionaire who had business interests in Nebraska and Colorado, brought to Houston a utopian vision for the approaching twentieth type of town, a planned community where successful entrepreneurs and working people alike could live and work, in health and safety, as neighbors. Compared to Houston, a city plagued by yellow fever and devastating annual floods, Carter chose the ideal spot for his new community. Houston Heights, with an elevation 23 feet higher than downtown Houston, a natural sandy soil, rich vegetation, mature trees and artesian water sources, promised a sanctuary of health and well being.

The land O.M. Carter and his Omaha and South Texas Land Company developed had long been an important area to the city of Houston. This section of Southeastern Texas was first inhabited by Indians of the Coastal Plains. Although a Spaniard had visited the area in the early 16th century, it was not until 1745 that the French from New Orleans and the Spanish began to vie for control of the region. At that time, the area that included much of Houston Heights was controlled by Chief Canos of the Orcoquisacs. Chief Canos successfully played the two European powers against one another for many years.

O.M. Carter had convinced his eastern investors that Houston was destined for growth and the ideal place to invest heavily. Not only did Carter realize that Houston would attract major industries and thus experience. Population growth due to the jobs created by those industries, but he planned for many of the industries to locate in his planned development. He also knew that there would be a great need for housing and he wanted his development to provide the opportunity for home ownership.

Carter's vision included a transportation system that would bring passengers four miles from Houston to his planned community, a considerable distance in those days. However, in 1890, when most cities the size of Houston already had electric streetcar lines, Houston only had two mule-drawn systems. He arranged for the purchase and electrification of both systems, thus guaranteeing electric streetcars to Houston Heights. His investment gave potential investors the confidence to believe in his dream and invest in his totally planned community. It was also a very profitable venture, since the city was destined for tremendous growth as well.

By 1891, Carter attracted a corps of investors who set up the Omaha and South Texas Land Company. He even convinced some of them to give not just their money, but to live their lives in his utopian city. Carter recognized the desire of the growing middle class to move away from the noise and dirt of the crowded city. The company purchased 1,756 acres of land, and made over $500,000 worth of improvements, including utilities, streets and alleys, as well as parks and schools. The blocks were carefully arranged, some principal streets were covered with shell, and a waterworks system was established. Scattered open spaces supplemented the 60 foot- wide esplanade on Heights Boulevard. The trees and other natural features that now line the streets were planted during that early period of development. Carter also built a commercial strip at 19th and Ashland Streets and arranged for stores to open there to serve new residents. As was common in most promotional towns, he built a grand hotel (destroyed by fire, 1915) where prospective buyers could stay when they inspected the area.

The founding fathers also built a series of grand Victorian homes along Heights Boulevard, a broad, tree-lined central thoroughfare patterned after Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Major industrial and commercial concerns were also attracted to Houston Heights by Carter and his associates before the turn of the century, thus completing his plan to develop a totally planned community in which to live and work.

From the outset, Carter planned Houston Heights as a modest community. There were a few land dealers, such as William A. Wilson, who acted as investors and developers in the area. But, in general, Carter sought to prevent speculation. His advertisements and his methods of promotion do not appear to have been aimed at the very wealthy, but at the growing class of white-collar workers, young professionals, and the skilled craftsmen of the working class. His philosophy has been maintained in practice by the residents over the years, whether consciously or not. The social and economic make-up of the present day Houston Heights probably is quite similar to that of 1915. The early occupants of the large, fanciful homes along the Boulevard were often doctors, lawyers or real estate professionals.

New industries directly related to oil, gas and shipping developed at the turn of the century in Houston and the Gulf Coast. Carter planned a portion of Houston Heights to attract some of that industry. Cotton mills, textile factories and oil refineries cropped up in the area during the initial years of development. One factory, the Oriental Textile Mill, even developed an area of about four blocks near the plant as a "Factory Village," a clustering of small houses for the workers.

The greater portion of Houston Heights was residential, however, and as it grew, it was not uncommon for a new resident to use the skills of his trade to build a home for his own family in addition to those he built professionally. Smaller, more modest cottages were built by resident-carpenters and other members of the building trade.

The green, open spaces in which children could play, the schools, the churches and the social and civic clubs were all necessary elements. One of the most important was the Houston Heights Woman's Club. It was established in 1900 by the merger of several other, more specialized groups. The club built a small bungalow style clubhouse at 1846 Harvard Street in 1912, which still serves as the headquarters for the group today. The purposes of the club included social work and charity, as well as educational instruction and cultural events. In addition to the Woman's Club, there were several more exclusive groups in the area with which the residents, particularly women, could affiliate.

Education was a very high priority among the leaders of Houston Heights from the beginning. Two elementary schools were constructed by 1900 to serve the northern and eastern sections of the community, and a high school was built in 1904. A few additions were made to these schools while Houston Heights existed as a separate municipality, but major new construction did not occur until after annexation of the town by Houston. New schools were built in the 1920s and a library was constructed at 1302 Heights Boulevard. This facility still serves. The city of Houston grew tremendously following World War 1, partly because of the deepening of the ship channel and expansion of the petroleum and chemical industries. A major result of the expansion was the extension of several major streets and highways and, in later years, the construction of new interstate highway systems. The road and transportation expansions in the 1940s gave urban residents greater mobility to move to the suburbs and abandon the older, established neighborhoods. As a result of the exodus to the suburbs, Houston Heights also began to decline. Most larger homes were transformed into multifamily apartments or were neglected and deteriorated and eventually demolished. 

By 1970, the perception of the Heights was that of poverty. The pattern of promotion, booming growth, uncertainty and decline that was experienced by Houston Heights is similar to what happened to most inner-city neighborhoods. More commercial and industrial interests began to creep into the area after World War 11, due to lack of zoning laws. 

In 1973, residents and business owners organized the Houston Heights Association to work together toward maintaining the quality of life desired and toward preserving the historic fiber of the community. This renewed vitality has been attracting new residents, many of whom are the children of those people who moved to the suburbs long ago. In contrast to 100 years ago, the majority of these young, new residents are not moving to Houston Heights to build new homes but to restore the historic homes built by others. They are part of the national trend to buy an old house with all its charm and architectural distinction and restore it. Young professionals are also seeking the convenience of close-in living -- only a short distance from work, cultural centers and restaurants. Once again, Houston Heights is developing a firm sense of identity and camaraderie not much different from that found in the community created by O. M. Carter many years ago.

Who Are The Founders of Houston Heights?
In 1886 Oscar Martin Carter, a self-made millionaire who had business interests in Nebraska and Colorado, brought to Houston his utopian vision for the 20th century. Carter's dream was to build a new type of town, a planned community where people could live and work in health and safety. Houston was a city plagued by yellow fever and devastating annual floods. Carter chose the Heights as an ideal spot for his new community. Houston Heights, with an elevation 23 feet higher than downtown Houston, a natural sandy soil, rich vegetation, mature trees, and artesian water sources, promised a sanctuary of health and well-being. Carter convinced his Eastern investors that Houston was destined for growth and the ideal place to invest heavily. Carter attracted his corps of investors who set up the Omaha and South Texas Land Company. Not only did they invest, but many also lived in this utopian city. The company purchased 1,756 acres of land and made over $500,000 worth of improvements, including utilities, streets and alleys, as well as parks and schools. The blocks were carefully arranged, along with the planting of trees and natural features that now line the streets. Along with his other accomplishments, Carter built a commercial strip at 19th and Ashland to serve the new residents.

D. D. Cooley came to Houston in 1890 as the general manager in charge of development for the Omaha and South Texas Land Company. Cooley owned and lived in one of the first residences built on Heights Boulevard; he was also one of the original group of investors in the Houston Heights. His home, built in 1893, was to serve as an example of the type of house to be built on the Boulevard. The Cooley family was extremely active socially; Mrs. Cooley even donated the land where the Houston Heights Woman's Club was erected in 1912. Education was of foremost importance to Cooley, and he was instrumental in establishing some of the first schools in the Heights, including one for black children.

Silas Wilkins bought the first lots in 1893. He was a carpenter for the Omaha and South Texas Land Company who had helped ready the land for the residents. Shortly thereafter, he built a home at 1541 Ashland Street and later became the second postmaster of Houston Heights after the incorporation of the Houston Heights as a "village" in 1896 (Houston Heights celebrated its 100th anniversary of incorporation on July 1.)

William G. Love was elected the first mayor. He served from the incorporation as a village in 1896 until 1899. Love's greater service to the Heights, however, was as its legal advisor. He was also appointed District Attorney for Houston and Galveston counties in 1907, and was elected to the position the next year, serving until 1910. The large, Queen-Anne style house at 1505 Heights Boulevard was his home until his death in 1926. 

John Milroy joined Carter in 1893 and was influential in selling lots and recruiting residents into the Heights. First living at 1602 Harvard Street, he and his family moved in 1897 to the large home at 1102 Heights Boulevard - today listed as a Registered Texas Historical Landmark. For 20 years, Milroy acted as general agent of the Houston Heights Office of Carter's company, in charge of all lands owned by Carter in Texas. He also served 8 terms as mayor of Houston Heights (1899 to 1907). Milroy died only a few months after its annexation into Houston in 1918. 

Milroy was followed by David Barker, who was mayor from 1907 to 1913. During Barker's administration, Heights Boulevard and several other streets were paved, schools were constructed, and the first fire station was built. Houston Heights' dry ordinance, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in large portions of the community, was passed on September 25, 1912. This ordinance remains in force today. Barker's home at 121 E. 16th Avenue received a Registered Texas Historical Landmark designation in 1991. 

Barker was succeeded in April 1913 by Robert F. Isbell, who lived at 639 Heights Boulevard. (In The History of Houston Heights by Sister M. Agatha, we read that Isbell resigned his position in August,1914 to move his family to Taft, Texas for a better job opportunity. He was accidentally shot and killed on February 19, 1920. His widow returned to their Heights Boulevard home where she continued to live for many years.)

James B. Marmion served as the last mayor of the Houston Heights (1914-1918). His administration spawned a new fire station, city hall, and jail at 12th and Yale. During his administration, residents concluded that they could no longer provide enough tax revenue to properly educate their children through the local school system. This acknowledgment directly led to the decision of annexation by the City of Houston in 1918.

The photos presented in this section have been selected from the Heights Centennial Photography book entitled "Houston Heights 1891-1991; A Historical Portrait and Contemporary Perspective". This book is out of print.

On May 5,1891, 0. M. Carter, President of the American Loan & Trust Company, instructed his agents to begin buying 1,765 acres of land four miles northwest of Houston. The land was owned by Mrs. Sarah Brashear who sold it to Carter's agents for $45 per acre. After purchasing the tract, Carter filed the charter for the Omaha and South Texas Land Company in April 1892, and disclosed his intention to construct and operate on the tract, "a first class residence and manufacturers locality..." On May 2, 1892, scarcely one year after the Omaha and South Texas Land Company acquired the land, 300 men began clearing the land for "The Boulevard," later known as Heights Boulevard, the grand entrance into their residential area. The men lived in tent camps on the property during construction. They also began clearing the land for a steam railroad to the planned industrial section where Carter had enticed major manufacturing concerns to locate. A story has been told of an incident in which G. B. Hengen, who was engineer in charge of construction, would have been killed by a large pine tree as it was cut down in August 1892, had it not been for D. D. Cooley, Supervisor of Development. Mr. Cooley upon seeing the tree fall, called out "Mr. Hengen come at once!" Knowing that Mr. Hengen would respond immediately, Mr. Cooley knew that if he had warned him any other way, Mr. Hengen would not have had time to get out of the way of the falling tree. (Photograph courtesy of Carter Cooley Deli)

Car No. 49 of the Houston City Street Railway Company, shown here outside the car barn on Commerce Street, was decorated for a parade in downtown Houston given in December, 1893 for prospective out-of-town investors. The parade consisted of several streetcars decorated with green boughs and alternating white and red incandescent lights. At the front of the first car was a five-pointed star six feet across, also made of incandescent lights. Between two decorated cars was an old mule-drawn streetcar, with the mule supplying the power. Each side was decorated with a sign saying "past". The second decorated car pulled an old mule-drawn car and from the inside, a small gray mule peeped out. On the sides of the mule-drawn car, a placard proclaimed, "I want a job." The first paid excursion on the streetcars to Houston Heights was taken by Car No. 2 on Sunday, October 23, 1892, at a cost of five cents. Every Sunday hence, streetcars took visitors to Houston Heights to view the wonders of the development. No matter how many cars were added to the trip, there never were enough cars to accommodate the curious visitors. On April 2,1893, trailers were added to the cars for the first time, but even then, people rode out to Houston Heights on the tops of the streetcars (Photograph courtesy of Houston Public Library, HMRC)

Seventeen houses were built by the Omaha and South Texas Land Company, primarily on Heights Boulevard and Harvard Street. Of these, five became homes for Carter and his associates, D. D. Cooley, G. B. Hengen, John Milroy and N. L. Mills. All were fine, elaborate homes built from the plans of George Franklin Barber, an early Knoxville, Tennessee architect, who designed house plans and published them for sale through catalogues. He revolutionized the concept of house plans, giving individuals the ability to have a house designed by an architect without the cost of hiring one (in most cases and in many parts of the country, there were no architects to hire even if desired.) In fact, Barber did not just sell his plans "as is", but encouraged his clients to make suggestions, which he would incorporate into the plans they chose. All materials, including intricate millwork, could be ordered from the company and shipped via railroad. Shown here is the original home of N. L. Mills at 1530 Heights Boulevard, which later became the H. A. Paine residence in 1908. According to Sister Agatha's History of Houston Heights this house was the most pretentious and highly decorative, with its intricate "gingerbread" fretwork. The house was razed in 1964. Of the original 17 houses, only three remain standing today - 1802 Harvard Street, 443 Heights Boulevard and 1102 Heights Boulevard. (Photograph courtesy of Houston Public Library, HMRC; history courtesy of Margaret Culbertson, librarian, Univ. of Houston, School of Architecture)

George Wickton Hawkins, who moved to Houston Heights in 1904, is shown here (seated on left) in Lansing, Michigan, where he traveled from Houston to purchase this 1902 Curved Dash Runabout. Known as the Oldsmobile, it was the world's first mass-produced automobile. Designed by Ransom Eli Olds, who founded the Olds Motor Works, the automobile was of a very short and simple buggy-type chassis with two long springs serving as auxiliary side-members, on which was mounted a single-cylinder 1.6 liter motor engine, with trembler coil ignition, a 2-speed epicycle transmission and central chain drive. The engine had an immense silencer and turned at 500 rpm - "one chug per telegraph pole." In 1902, G. W. Hawkins was to bring not one but many automobiles to Houston as president of the Hawkins Automobile and Gas Engine Co. The little Olds was an instant success - in 1902, U.S. sales totaled 2,100 units. Mr. Hawkins was issued Motor Vehicle License Plate No. 1. When James Ferguson became Governor of Texas in 1914, he insisted on having License Plate No, 1, so G. W. Hawkins relinquished that number and was issued License Plate No. 2. The tradition of governors having License Plate No. I has been continued since that time. Incidentally, Ferguson, while in office, created the Texas Highway Department. (Photograph courtesy of Mr. Grover C. Noonan Jr., grandson of G. W. Hawkins)

Correspondence dated December 9,1909, written by Mrs. G.H.B. of Houston Heights reads "here is a handful of white Wyndotts. Wish our little cow was in the picture." In the early days of Houston Heights, there were no restrictions against cattle grazing any place in the community - and of course, none against any other kind of livestock. That changed however, when a stock law was passed in 1911 to keep cows from eating and trampling the more tender grass on the lawns of the fine homes. The law however, did not apply to chickens which could do almost as much damage to a flower or vegetable garden as even the wildest cow. As difficult as it was to pass the stock law, nothing could compare to what happened in 1913 when the residents forced owners to keep chickens in their coop. Robert C. Patterson, an attorney with Baker, Botts, Parker and Garwood who lived at 1116 Columbia Street, resorted to his own method while waiting for the ordinance. He threaded tags, on long strings, through fat kernels of corn. The tags read "keep your confounded chickens at home." The chickens would swallow the corn and then the string, but when they could not swallow the tag, they would return home, squawking and fluttering until freed from the tags by their owners. Although some chickens' owners did not like the lesson taught, eventually, the chicken law passed. (Photograph courtesy of Carter & Cooley Deli)

When the members of the Houston Heights Woman's Club decided to build a clubhouse on the lot donated to them by Mrs. Helen Cooley, the women held a carnival in 1911 to raise money for the building. The carnival was held on the Heights playground, now the site of Hamilton Junior High School. The club also held benefit the Heights' most beloved citizens, who graduated from her early home theatricals to become a nationally famous actress. On September 13,1912, the Houston Heights Woman's Club met for the first time in their newly constructed clubhouse at 1846 Harvard Street. The club's first president was Mrs. W. A. Renn. Its opening celebration and dedication took place on October 18,1912 and the guests of honor were Mr. and Mrs. D. D. Cooley. Scarcely one year after the land was donated, the members of the club had managed to furnish the clubhouse and completely pay off the debt of $1,500 owed for its construction. The clubhouse has been used by its members continuously to the present time. Today, it is owned and maintained by the Houston Women's Cluband is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Photograph courtesy of Houston Public Library, Heights branch)

Built about 1896, the Heights Natatorium was located in the old Coombs Park at the end of Harvard Street at White Oak Bayou. The building had open galleries two and a half stories tall that surrounded and overlooked the water. Dressing rooms were located on each floor. The entrance was flanked by a large round tower and two smaller turrets on which flags were mounted. According to Sister Agatha's History of Houston Heights, the original building burned early on and a more modest structure was erected (pictured here.) When Coombs Park was dismantled, the Natatorium was also sold, eventually to the Vieweger family in 1907, who ran it for many years. Its last owners were Mrs. Beulah Dean and Charles H. Dean Jr., who operated it from 1929 until 1942. For years it was a drawing card to the Heights before swimming pools existed and was perhaps the most popular Heights attraction for young and old alike. This photograph was taken by Hawthorne Ramage about 1913. (Photograph donated by Ms. Verna Topkins to Heights Museum Collection)

Shown from left to right is Octavia Watts, William E. Watts Feed Store was located at 545 W. 19th Avenue) and Lee Watts, her husband, "Red" Follis, Bobby Reynolds, Espy Watts (son of Octavia and William Willingham. The Watts moved to Houston Heights in 1931 and were in partnership with A. L. Smalley at the 19th Avenue Grain and Fuel Company. In 1945, the Watts opened their own store, which sold feed and supplies for cows, pigs and chickens to their many Heights customers. Because they sold "Egg-A-Day Feed" for chickens, the Houston company painted huge eggs all over the building to advertise their product. The Watts lost their lease in 1946 but moved their successful business to 620 W. 19th Avenue where they operated the store until the death of Mr. Watts in 1948. (Photograph courtesy of Octavia Watts Lemon)

Heights residents celebrate the Golden Jubilee in 1941, to honor Houston Heights' 50th anniversary. The event was held on the esplanade of Heights Boulevard at 13th Avenue. According to an article that appeared in the May 9th issue of the Heights Citizen, 20,000 people took part in the celebration which began with an afternoon parade and ended at 10:30 p.m. with a two-hour speakers program and crowning of a Golden Jubilee king and queen. Miss Gertrude Grant, an 18 year-old Reagan high school graduate, was crowned "Queen of Today" by Mrs. Inger Moller, 77, who was crowned "Queen of Yesteryear." Mrs. Moller, a native of Denmark, came to the Heights in 1891 when the area was first being developed. Another Reagan graduate, Kenneth Walrod, was crowned "King of the Heights Golden Jubilee." (Article donated to Heights Museum Collection by C. W. Keith; Photograph courtesy of Houston Public Library, HMRC)