Notes from the Underground

Downtown Houston's Tunnel System has over 100 places to eat and connects more than 81 buildings and parking garages. I have spent 26 years taking people through the Downtown Houston Tunnel System. I created this blog because I thought it might be fun for folks to know more about what happens in downtown underground and why. I welcome questions and comments about Houston's Tunnel.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Notes from the Past

Going through my old files, I found one of the first "Notes from the Underground," a quarterly print newsletter I published the old-fashioned way and distributed by snail-mail in the year 2000. That was quite a year for the Tunnel, as you can tell from these Notes from the Past.

The Tunnel’s Whole Again. There’s a lot more tunnel to explore now that the connection between Bank One Center and McKinney Place is open to pedestrian traffic. Closed since February 1999 due to demolition of the Woolworth Building and construction of the 12-story McKinney Place, this part of the Tunnel allows you to walk from the Park Shops mall in Houston Center to the food court in Bank One Center. It’s not pretty yet – but it’s open.

The Tunnel Takes Off for the Sky. A new skywalk is nearing completion connecting Texaco Heritage Plaza and the Doubletree Hotel at Allen Center. This means that, for the first time, Texaco Heritage Plaza will be accessible to the Tunnel System. There is another skybridge in the offing. Enron is constructing a new office tower – Enron II – which will be joined to the current Enron Tower by means of an elegant glass skybridge connecting the two buildings to a parking garage. Once these new connections are finished, the Tunnel Lady is going to have to trek around the Tunnel System with her tape measure because she won’t be able to say that the Tunnel is 6.3 miles long. Will we outdistance Toronto’s seven-mile system? Stay tuned.

This old newletter features ads from Vespucci's, a marvelous Italian restaurant in Bank One Center's food court that has since gone out of business. The building is now called 919 Milam and Vespucci's has been replaced by Ninfa's Mexican Cantina.

There was also an ad from Bank United, a bank that is no more. But its first Tunnel location was historic. It was the first bank to open a Tunnel-level branch -- in Two Shell Plaza's Tunnel. Once other banks saw how successful this Bank United branch was, they began opening their own branches -- and adding ATM machines throughout the Tunnel System.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Shell Plaza

A few years ago, a blogger asked me about One Shell Plaza.

Completed in 1971, One Shell Plaza was designed by Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for Houston developer Gerald Hines.   It is 
50 stories or 715 feet high and was the tallest lightweight concrete office tower in the world when it was completed.

Its foundation is 58 feet (or six stories) deep and sits on an eight-foot-deep concrete slab.


One reason is to counterbalance the weight of tall buildings, such as cathedrals and skyscrapers.

Another reason is that Houston’s soil holds lots of water. If architects didn’t build thick foundations deep in the soil, tall buildings would suffer from "hydrostatic pressure" – they could literally float up.

Many downtown buildings also have a system of pumps around the perimeter of the foundation; which pump out a little bit of water from the soil every day.

Notice One Shell Plaza’s exterior walls. Do they seem kind of wavy?  They are.

The structure is comprised of framed tubes, concentrated in its perimeter walls and central service core. These tubes are then clad in polished Italian travertine marble.  Because the largest tubes are located near the corners of the building where structural loads are most intense, and other tubes vary in size depending on loads they bear, a rippling effect is produced.  This design also resulted in floors free of interior columns, allowing Hines to lease more space and making it more convenient for each tenant to arrange the space.  While we take this open design for granted today, it was a novel concept in the early 1970s.

King Scallop (Pecten Maximus) & the Founding of Royal Dutch Shell Oil. I found this information on Shell's Web site in March 2007 and in Daniel Yergin's excellent history of the oil industry: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, pp. 63-128. It's a long, complicated story, so you might want to save it for a time when you can curl up to your screen for a while.
Hint: Try to keep track of all the "Marcus"s and the "Samuel"s.

In 1833 the elder Marcus Samuel, after trading on the East London docks and buying curios from returning sailors, opened a small shop in London selling sea shells to Victorian natural history enthusiasts. "In the census of 1851, he was listed as a ‘shell merchant’; among his most popular products were the little knickknack boxes covered with seashells, known as a ‘Gift from Brighton,’ which were sold to girls and young ladies at English seaside resorts in the mid-Victorian years. By the 1860s, the elder Marcus had accumulated some wealth and, in addition to seashells, was importing everything from ostrich feathers and partridge canes to bags of pepper and slabs of tin. . . . In addition, in what was to prove of great importance to his son [Marcus Samuel, the younger], the elder Samuel had built up a network of trusted relationships with some of the great British trading houses. . . . After the death of his father, Marcus [the younger], in partnership with his brother Samuel Samuel, developed a considerable trading operation. . . . In 1891, . . . [Marcus] Samuel won his contract with the Rothschilds, which gave him exclusive rights for nine years, until 1900, to sell Bnito’s kerosene east of Suez. . . . [H]is tankers would be capable of being steam-cleaned and then filled for the return trip with goods from the Orient, including food. . . . [Marcus’s nephew Mark Abrahams bought] the sites and [built] storage tanks throughout the Far East. . . . On January 5, 1892, . . . the Suez Canal gave its official approval to passage for tankers built according to M. Samuel’s new design. . . . [According to the Economist,] ‘instead of sending out cargoes of oil in cases costly to make, expensive to handle, easy to be damaged, and always prone to leak, the promoters intend to ship the commodity in tank-steamers via the Suez Canal, and to discharge it wherever the demand is greatest into reservoirs from which it can be readily supplied to consumers.’ . . . The first tanker . . . was called the Murex -- named for a type of seashell, as were all of Samuel’s subsequent tankers. It was a memorial to the elder Marcus, the shell merchant. . . . Standard Oil’s agents were too late; Samuel’s kerosene was everywhere. Thus, Standard could not cut prices in one market and subsidize them by raising prices elsewhere. . . . [Samuel’s] customers were expected to use the old Standard Oil tin cans. But they did not. Throughout the Far East, Standard’s blue oil tins had become a prized mainstay of the local economies, used to construct everything from roofing to birdcages to opium cups, hibachis, tea strainers, and egg beaters. They were not about to give up such a valuable product. The whole scheme was now threatened – not by the machinations of 26 Broadway or by the politics of the Suez Canal, but by the habits and predilections of the peoples of Asia. A local crisis was created in each port, as the kerosene went unsold. . . . [Samuel’s] partners in Asia began manufacturing tin receptacles for the kerosene. . . ‘What color do you suggest?’ cabled the agent in Shanghai. Mark gave the answer – ‘Red!’ . . . [T]hroughout Asia, Samuel’s bright and shiny red receptacles, fresh from the factory, were soon competing with Standard’s blue ones, battered and chipped after the long voyage halfway around the world. . . . [R]ed roofs and red birdcages – as well as red opium cups, hibachis, tea strainers, and egg beaters – began to replace the blue. . . . By the end of 1893, Samuel had launched ten more ships, all of them named for seashells – the Conch, the Clam, the Elax, the Cowrie, and so on. . . . By 1902, of all the oil to pass through the Suez Canal, 90 percent belonged to Samuel and his group. . . . [In 1893, they created] a new entity, the Tank Syndicate, composed of the Samuel brothers, Fred Lane, and the trading houses of the Far East. . . . A significant part of the Russian [Rothschild, Samuel] advantage came from the fact that Batum was 11,500 miles from Singapore, compared to Philadelphia’s [Standard’s] 15,000 miles. But Standard could turn the tables if it could acquire access to crude much closer to the Asian market, or, indeed, in Asia itself. Thus, Standard’s attention turned to Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies, from which the steaming time to Singapore, across the Strait of Malacca, could be measured in hours. And its eyes fell, in particular, on a Dutch company that, after years of struggle, had successfully carved out a profitable business from the jungles on Sumatra. This company was now beginning to make a sizeable impact on markets throughout Asia with its own brand, Crown Oil, and in so doing, it was opening up the world’s third major producing province. It was called Royal Dutch. . . . [Around 1885,] the Dutch king himself, William III, was willing to grant the use of the title ‘Royal’ in the name of this speculative enterprise, a license normally reserved for established, proven companies. That imprimatur was to have lasting value. The Royal Dutch company was launched in 1890, and the first flotation of its stock was oversubscribed four and a half times. . . . In 1892, a six-mile pipeline linking the wells in the jungle to the refinery on the Balaban River was completed [by Royal Dutch]. . . . [B]eing a producer was not enough; if Royal Dutch were to survive, it needed to establish its own marketing organization throughout the Far East, independent of middlemen. Royal Dutch also began to use tankers and to build storage tanks near its markets. The immediate danger was that Samuel’s Tank Syndicate would move too swiftly ahead and gain a hammerlock on the business. But, in a timely piece of protectionist intervention, the Dutch government excluded the Tank Syndicate from the ports of the East Indies, telling its own producers that the Tank Syndicate thus ‘need not be for the time being an object of terror’ to the local industry. . . . To forestall [a takeover by a company such as Standard], the directors of Royal Dutch created a special class of preference stock, the holders of which controlled the board. To make acquisition even more difficult, admission to this exclusive rank was by invitation only. . . . The managers of Royal Dutch greatly enjoyed receiving 15 percent of the company’s profits. . . . By the midsummer of 1901, . . . Sir Marcus Samuel . . . rechristened his rapidly growing company Shell Transport and Trading again, like the names of his tankers, in honor of his father’s early commerce in seashells. Now, Samuel and his company saw the oil flowing from the Texas plain as a way to diversify away from Shell’s dependence on Russian production and to obtain oil that could be exported directly to Europe. . . . One of [Samuel’s] consuming passions was the conversion of coal-burning vessels to oil – his oil. He proudly announced in 1901 that his company ‘may clearly claim to be the pioneers of ocean consumption of liquid fuel.’ . . . By June of 1901, only half a year after the gusher had burst out at Spindletop, [Shell and James Guffey] had completed their negotiations and signed a contract. For the next twenty years, they agreed, Shell would take at least half of Guffey’s production at a guaranteed twenty-five cents a barrel – a minimum of almost 15 million barrels. It could take more if it desired. To each side, this appeared to be the deal of the new century. Marcus Samuel ordered four new tankers to be built swiftly to implement what he regarded as another great coup – the new Texas trade. . . . Spindletop also helped open up one of the main markets of the twentieth century and the one Marcus Samuel was championing – fuel oil. This, however, was more by default rather than design; the Texas oil was of such poor quaility that it could not be made into kerosene by existing processes. So it went, primarily, not for lighting, but for heat and power and locomotion. A host of industries in Texas converted almost immediately from coal to oil. . . . These conversions, the result of Spindletop, pointed to a major shift in industrial society. . . . [T]he Mellons offered the new enterprise to Standard Oil. . . ‘We’re out,’ a Standard director explained. ‘After the way Mr. Rockefeller has been treated by the state of Texas, he’ll never put another dime in Texas.’ . . . [In 1903,] [t]he deal of the century – so critical to Marcus Samuel’s vision – was replaced by a contract that guaranteed Shell practically nothing in the way of oil. Guffey Petroleum – and the Mellons – were completely off the hook. . . . In 1897, Samuel . . . incorporated the whole of his oil interests and tanker fleets, as well as the storage installations belonging to the various trading houses. It was called the Shell Transport and Trading Company. . . . The Rothschilds . . . renewed the contract to supply Shell with Russian oil – on terms . . . more favorable to Shell than previously. . . . In [December] 1900, Jean Baptiste August Kessler, the man who, more than any other, was responsible for the survival of Royal Dutch, . . . suffered a heart attack and died. The next day, a driving young man named Henri Deterding, age thirty-four, was installed as ‘interim manager.’ The ‘interim’ lasted a very long time; for the next three and a half decades Deterding would dominate the world of oil. . . . Together, Shell and Royal Dutch controlled over half of the Russian and Far Eastern oil exports. The ‘ruinous competition’ between the two would provide the starting point from which Deterding was to embark on a momentous negotiation to achieve amalgamation with his great rival, Marcus Samuel. . . . If the Rothschilds wanted in, Deterding argued to a dubious Samuel, bring them in at all costs. . . . ‘Once we are combined with the Rothschilds, everybody knows that we hold the future, but we cannot do without their name.’ . . . In June 1902, . . . Samuel signed an new orverarching agreement with Deterding and the Rothschilds. ‘British Dutch’ would disappear into a new, larger combination, the Asiatic Petroleum Company. . . . In the winter of 1906, [Samuel realized that the] only way that Shell could survive was to amalgamate completely with Royal Dutch on the best terms he could get. . . . Deterding offered only one guarantee. Royal Dutch would buy a quarter of the shares of Shell, and thus would, as a shareholder, have Shell’s best interests at heart. . . . The union was cemented in 1927, and out of it emerged Royal Dutch/Shell Group. . . . The completion of the amalgamation in 1907 meant that the world oil market was now dominated by the original giant, Standard Oil, and a growing giant, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group." [Yergin, pp. 63-128.]

"Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Shell’s oil output and sales increased dramatically, to the point where Shell supplied almost one-seventh of the world’s oil products. This period was also important for the development of natural gas as an alternative source of energy. In the 1970s, Shell made major oil & gas discoveries in the North Sea, just off the coast of Scotland. At the same time, an economic recession combined with a steep rise in the price of crude oil had a serious impact on the oil business. People turned to natural gas. By the end of the decade, gas accounted for about 15% of Europe’s energy consumption, with Shell and its partners supplying about half. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) – which Shell helped to pioneer – also performed well. Meanwhile, Shell was developing its long term interests in coal and metals. In the 1980s, Shell companies installed advanced technology, launched new products and services, and explored solutions to environmental concerns. Shell began to sell unleaded petrol, and subsequently gained a worldwide leadership position. With the 1990s came lower oil prices, and a concentration on Shell’s core businesses – mainly oil, gas and chemicals. By mid-decade, Shell had started to look ahead to the new millennium and what would be required of energy companies. This included a specific focus on integrating a commitment to sustainable development throughout the Shell business. Fundamental changes have occurred and continue to be made in the Shell Group to ensure that it retains its competitive advantage. These changes include[d] the unification, in July 2005, of the parent companies of Royal Dutch and Shell Transport under a single parent company, Royal Dutch Shell plc." []

"The exact origins of the Shell red and yellow are hard to define. True, Samuel and Company first shipped kerosene to the Far East in tin containers painted red. But the link, once again, could be with Spain. In 1915, when the Shell Company of California first built service stations, they had to compete against other companies. Bright colours were the solution, but colours that would not offend the Californians. Because of the state’s strong Spanish connections, the red and yellow of Spain were chosen. . . . the actual colours have been modified over the years, most notably in 1995 when a bright, fresh and very consumer friendly new Shell Red and Shell Yellow were introduced to launch Shell’s new retail visual identity. The Shell emblem – or Pecten – remains one of the greatest brand symbols in the 21st Century." []

To learn more about One Shell Plaza, go to For more information about Shell -- and to see more shells -- go to

The Tunnel in One and Two Shell Plaza has great locations for shopping, eating, and services. In One Shell Plaza's Tunnel, you'll find Loki Florist and the One Shell Plaza Barber Shop, both of which have been here since the building opened. One of my favorite shops to browse is Mendota, whose owners offer a "lifestyle products gallery." To locate some of your own favorites, take a stroll through the Tunnel on your own or with me ( For a map of the Tunnel, go to