Houston: The Feast Years An Illustrated Essay
HOUSTON: THE FEAST YEARS
Houston: The Feast Years (1962)
Reluctant Empire (1957)
Houston: Land of the Big Rich (1951)
The Feast Years
An Illustrated Essay
With Woodcuts by Lowell Collins
Modern Photographs by Owen Johnson
Historic Photographs and Sketches by Various Hands
The first requisite to happiness is thata man be born in a famous city.Euripides
If you would be known, and not know,vegetate in a village; if you would know,and not be known, live in a city.C. C. Colton
Urbes constituit: hora dissolvit.Seneca
Press of Premier
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 62-20819
Copyright © 1962 by George Fuermann
Woodcuts Copyright © 1962 by Lowell Collins
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
PREMIER PRINTING COMPANY
Houston, the reporter for the LondonDaily Mail wrote, “has caused me to lift my ban on the word fabulous.”
The next year, 1956, the London Times speculated that America might “eventuallybe based on a quadrilateral of great cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles,and Houston.”
That year, too, the New York Times quoted Lloyd’s of London: “Within 100years Houston will be the largest city in the world.”
Houston: one of “The 12 Most Exciting Cities of North America,” saidHoliday in 1953—one of the dozen, from Quebec in the north to Mexico City inthe south, possessing “that rare combination of qualities which has always spelledgreatness.”
Few Houstonians see their city in such remarkable terms. Few understandwhy their city provokes such estimates by others.
The first known sketch of Houston was made by a British artist,who never saw the place, to illustrate a book written by Matilda CharlotteHoustoun, an Englishwoman who did see Houston in the early 1840s. Theartist apparently took her description of Buffalo Bayou’s big banks to meanhills.
Years later, perhaps in 1868, a French artist seems to have used the Englishman’ssketch as a model for one of his own, below, making mountains of thehills.
Roughly the size of Warsaw, Stockholm, Singapore, and Naples, of Bucharestand Brussels and Munich, Houston is prosaically listed in the Bol’shaia SovetskaiaEntsiklopediia—the Soviet Encyclopedia—of 1957 as a “Railway and airline junction.Important industrial, commercial, and financial center in the South of theUSA.” Even an American encyclopedia is hardly expected to describe the city’sfestival atmosphere, its spirit of play, which derives in part from a surprisingcharacteristic described by Arthur C. Evans, a man well seasoned in life, whowrote:
“I tried to think of Houston as being masculine. It wouldn’t do. Houston isnot a masculine city in the sense that New Orleans or San Francisco is masculine.And so, for me, at any rate, it is Miss Houston, a beguiling, vibrant, radiantlyhealthy adolescent—and I love her.”
Houston, Promised Land or New Golconda or whatever writers say of it, is acity of great expectations. Ambitious, confident, it moves swiftly, restlessly. Itsprofile, a transfiguring skyline moored to the flat Gulf plain, vaguely resemblesother modern skylines, but Houston resembles nothing in the world except itself.Ever since World War II the city has beguiled observers, who often approach itwith preconception, and often leave it with surprise.
“Air conditioned Tower of Babel, anchored on gold, gall and guts,” the authorJames Street wrote of it. “An adolescent Amazon with a little gland trouble.”
“It is plain Simon-pure American inspiration,” the American Magazine saidof it.
It “has a strength and power and rude majesty all its own,” the St. LouisPost-Dispatch said. “In time, perhaps, it will achieve greatness.”
What arrests the visiting journalist, what does he sense about Houston thatresidents often fail to feel?
Let us see.
President John F. Kennedy standing beside a full-scale model of the Apollolunar landing vehicle, which was shown for the first time during the President’sinspection of the Manned Spacecraft Center in September, 1962.
The ship channel, Oil, and Two World Warsmade Houston what it is. The second age of discovery may make it what it becomes.As Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Balboa, Magellan, Captain Cook, andothers opened the unexplored seas and lands of the earth during the first age ofdiscovery, so the men who are opening the unexplored space of the universe havebegun the second age.
In 1961, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided tobuild its Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston, the city began an identity withthe old ports of western Europe that played leading roles in the great adventuresof two, three, and four centuries ago. Technical direction of America’s effort toput the first man on the moon will come from Houston.
The government is spending well over a hundred million dollars—it may cometo far more than that in the end—to build office buildings, laboratories, and massivetest communications and control facilities on range land near Clear Lake.The millions of dollars to be invested by industry to serve the center are incalculable.Slowly the character of the city will change as the migration of spacescientists merges with Houston and with oil, the city’s mover and shaker for halfa century. “It is likely,” the Dallas News said in 1962, “that even many Houstonianshave no conception of what is happening and what it may mean to theircommunity.”
Salvador Dali’s surrealistic impression of Houston was a result ofhis visit to the city in 1952. The flaming giraffes symbolize oil derricks, atwhich a woman, her face covered with camellias, looks with eager expectation.The port and the pioneers are shown in other symbols.
This, apparentlypainted in the 1920s, is an unknown artist’s conception of Houston in 1980.
The new Els: Speedways for amateurs
When the astronauts moved to Houston in 1962, their presence gave breathto what had seemed a fantasy to many Houstonians, who more than most Americanswill experience vicariously the most extraordinary adventure in history. Howfar Houston has come since two New Yorkers paid $9,428 for a townsite andnamed it for the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto! The interval between that dateand the arrival of the astronauts was but 125 years. What is Houston that it hasbecome so much?
Beginning life three thousand years after Athens and two thousand afterLondon, beginning two centuries after Boston and New York, fifty years afterLos Angeles and at nearly the same time as Chicago, Houston suddenly joinedthe family of metropolises midway in the twentieth century. Its likeness in history,however, is to none of those cities, but to Carthage of North Africa, one of themost famous cities of antiquity, whose beginning preceded Houston’s by twenty-sixcenturies.
Carthage, like Houston, was above all a commercial city, its people vigorous,practical. At one time Carthage was famous for the great wealth of its leadingfamilies; Houston was once known as the Land of the Big Rich. And the sea, oraccess to it, was the key to the rise of both. As Carthage became the richest cityof the western Mediterranean, Houston became the richest of the Gulf of Mexico.Carthage lived for fifteen centuries and died abruptly, disappearing from history.
The largest of twenty-one places named Houston in the United States, notcounting Houston City and Houston Junction, both in Pennsylvania, Houstonis the seventh American city in population and the second, after Los Angeles, inland area. But to call Houston the seventh city in population, though correct, isunrealistic. The true population of a modern city is shown not by the number ofpeople living within its legal limits but by the number living within its metropolitanarea, which for Houston is Harris County. By that measure, Houston rankssixteenth in population.
Whatever its rank, Houston is often said to be a small town with an enormouspopulation. Such a notion becomes increasingly hard to support except forone aspect, which was shown by B. D. (Mack) McCormick, a collector of folk7music. He described the city in a pamphlet accompanying each of two recordings,produced in England in 1960, of the Houston area’s folk music.
The crowd, the buzz, the murmuring
Of this great hive, the city.
Houston is “less a city than it is an amalgam of villages and townships surroundinga cluster of skyscrapers,” he wrote. “Each section of the city tends toreflect the region which it faces, usually being settled by people from that region.Thus the Louisiana French-speaking people are to be found in the northeast ofHouston; the East Texas people in the northern fringe, which itself is the beginningof the Piney Woods; the German and Polish people are in the northwestHeights; and so on.... Each area surrounding the city has gathered its own, and8each group has in turn established a community within the city.... And so thecity, which in itself has no cultural traditions, is rich in those it has acquired.”
The Main Stem: The end of the Salt Grass Trail.
McCormick quoted Sam (Lightnin’) Hopkins, a Negro folk singer, who spokeof a Houston unknown to many Houstonians: “The idea of it is that everybody’round here plays music or makes songs or something. That’s white peoples, coloredpeoples, that’s them funny French-talking peoples, that’s everybody, whatI mean. They all of ’em got music.” McCormick himself has said, “More Englishmenthan Houstonians see Houston as a rich source of traditional lore, thoughotherwise the British think of Houston in clichés.”
Much of the area’s past is deep-etched in folk music. One song was sung byHuddie (Lead Belly) Ledbetter, a Negro convict and perhaps the most famous9of colored folk singers. The song, titled “The Midnight Special,” begins:
If you ever go to Houston,
You better walk right,
You better not stagger,
You better not fight.
Sheriff Binford will arrest you,
He will carry you down;
If the jury finds you guilty
You are Sugarland bound.
Many “think of Houston as a cluster ofmud huts around the Shamrock Hotel, in the cellars of which people hide fromthe sticky climate, emerging at long intervals to scatter $1000 bills to the fourwinds,” Gerald Ashford wrote in 1951. Such a fancy formed a dominant themeof Houston appraisals during a brief and a bizarre period. The myth that Houston’spopulation consisted mainly of the rich was absurd, but the millionaire legend,though arresting to the world, was a liability to Houston. For one thing, itobscured the city’s reality, which was itself exceptional enough.
The Shamrock Hilton Hotel, built by the wildcatter Glenn H. McCarthy at acost of $21,000,000, opened on St. Patrick’s Day of 1949 with what turned out tobe a spectacle. Conrad Hilton took control of the hotel in the spring of 1955. Thetwo dates roughly mark the period of the legend’s vigor.
Still, it was in some ways an exhilarating time, and it left Houston with anextravagant folklore. The goose hung high. The legends die reluctantly: An oilmanwas said to have offered his daughter $5000 for every pound she lost; aHouston man who sent a new Cadillac to Europe to have a $5000 custom bodyput on its chassis was said to have told the craftsmen to “Throw the old bodyaway;” wanting to play a joke on a colleague who was traveling in Europe, anotherHoustonian had a fair-sized roller coaster built in the traveler’s wooded yard.
But the maybe-so stories are less remarkable than many of the authentic ones.A Houston oilman well known for eccentricity and boyish hedonism was stayingat a hotel in Los Angeles one night in 1955. He wished to awaken at a certain earlyhour the next day, so he made a long-distance call to a man on his staff in Houstonand told the man to call him in Los Angeles