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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Sterling Building & Houston's First Tunnel System

According to Shaina Zucker in the Houston Business Journal on October 25, 2013, “Site preparation, including the deconstruction of an existing abandoned structure [the Texas Tower or Sterling Building[1]], will begin the first week in November. . . . The [new] tower will also connect to Houston’s tunnel system." 

The Downtown Houston Tunnel System is -- kind of -- going back to its beginning with the construction of Hines's new building at 609 Main Street.


* * *
Depending on who is defining the Tunnel, it is as old as the 1930s or as young as the 1960s. I define the Tunnel as a venue for tourists, a place for shopping, eating, and enjoyment. With that definition in mind, I consider that the Tunnel began with the vision of three men: Wyatt C. Hedrick, Ross Sterling, and Will Horwitz.
1920s. Tunnel systems first appeared in the United States in the 1920s as part of subway construction on the East Coast. They soon spread to every major city across the nation and can be found under rivers and railroad lines for automobile access and under streets for pedestrian access.[2] The first tunnel under a Houston city street was built in the late 1920s to connect two office buildings.
Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick (1888-1964) had an active practice in many cities . . . across the nation from the 1920s to the 1950s, and at one time his was the third-largest architectural firm in the country.”[3] He would have been aware of the tunneling trend when he proposed connecting two buildings under Fannin Street to his father-in-law, future Texas governor Ross Shaw Sterling (1875-1949).
In 1903, Sterling became an oil operator and in 1910 bought two wells, which evolved into the Humble Oil and Refining Company, now ExxonMobil. The company was chartered in 1917, with Sterling as president. The company then acquired a small pipeline, giving Humble “a volume large enough to command a respectable place in the market.” Humble sent the oil to Magnolia’s refinery in Beaumont, but they needed “a refinery of the first magnitude” to process their own production and that of other independents. To meet this need, Sterling purchased 2,600 acres of land at Goose Creek for a refinery.
As Sterling reported in his autobiography,
This mushroom growth and expansion, plus the preliminary costs of the mammoth refinery and the cost of a handsome new office building under construction in Houston, were spreading our finances pretty thin. It was apparent that a large loan would be necessary to complete the Goose Creek refinery on the scale planned and to tide us over until the new developments began paying off. . . . In the summer of 1918, we decided that [William Stamps Farish, a member of Humble’s board,] should go to New York and seek a loan of $5 million. . . . He called on every trust company in the big city, and each one . . . eased him down. . . . Farish was about to despair of getting the loan when he ran into Walter Teagle, president of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, at a meeting of oilmen. . . . Farish told Teagle he was in New York looking for money to construct a big refinery and pipeline, and to drill some new wells. ‘Well, why didn’t you come to us?’ Teagle asked. ‘We’ve got plenty of money, and we might make a trade with you.’ . . . Standard of New Jersey had emerged from the war long on cash and short on oil and refineries to supply its worldwide marketing system. . . . Texas offered the best available source of supply.[4]
Long story short: Standard put $17 million into Humble’s treasury and became Humble’s banker. In exchange, Standard became half-owner of Humble.[5]
By becoming partners with Standard Oil of New Jersey, Sterling would have had occasion to meet John D. Rockefeller, Jr. By 1921, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had transferred the bulk of his fortune, including stock in Standard Oil of New Jersey, to Junior, close to $500 million. And Sterling, like the rest of the world, paid attention to what Junior did.
So, it would make sense that, in the 1920s, when Rockefeller proposed building what became Rockefeller Center, connecting seven city blocks with an underground concourse, Sterling would agree with his architect son-in-law that building a tiny tunnel under one Houston city street to keep the heat at bay was a good idea.
The two connected buildings were the Post-Dispatch Building (1926), now the Magnolia Hotel, and the Sterling Building (1931). Ross Sterling owned both buildings
In 1925, Sterling sold his Humble interests and started developing real estate in Houston. He bought the Houston Dispatch and the Houston Post in 1925 and 1926 and subsequently combined them as the Houston Post-Dispatch, which later became the Houston Post. “The first issue of the hybrid Houston Post-Dispatch greeted the world on August 1, 1924.”[6] In 1926, Sterling’s son-in-law, Wyatt C. Hedrick, with his partners Sanguinet, Staats, and Gottlieb, completed the new Post-Dispatch Building at 1100 Texas Avenue, on the corner of Texas and Fannin.
Sterling was elected governor of Texas in 1930On January 20, 1931, he was inaugurated, serving, as Texas governors did then, for two years. “During those weeks before I became governor, I took time out from making preparations for my administration to dedicate the twenty-one story Sterling Building, across the street from my Post-Dispatch office building on Fannin Street in Houston. . . . After the stock market crash, I now found that by erecting those buildings I had overextended myself financially. . . . Members of my business organization watched the gathering economic storm with grave foreboding[,] . . . but I was too busy with public affairs. By the fall of 1930, the Depression had hit Texas hard. Everyone was alarmed at the rapidly increasing unemployment. In Houston, a city of approximately 300,000 people, the army of jobless numbered 5000 by December 1930.”[7]
The third person responsible for the Downtown Houston Tunnel System is Will Horwitz (1886-1941). “Born in Benton, Arkansas, he graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master of Arts degree and came to Houston as early as 1917. One of his jobs was showing movies at Camp Logan and it was to set his course in life. With a borrowed stake of $150 he bought his first theatre in 1919, the Travis, a rundown burlesque theatre at 612 Travis where the JP Morgan Chase Tower now stands. As the story goes, lacking the funds to buy a new sign, he improvised. He blocked out the ‘a’ and the ‘v,’ knocked the top off of the ‘t,’ and so was born the Iris. It happened to be his daughter’s name. He established prices of 5 and 15 cents for his theatres, angering movie producers who threatened to withhold their films from him if he didn’t raise prices, but Horwitz refused and the movie producers backed down." His Homefolks Theatres chain thus introduced to Houston modest, reasonably priced movie houses for ordinary people with second-run, family-oriented entertainment [8].
But how did the Iris Theatre inaugurate the Downtown Houston Tunnel System?
In 1925, Horwitz expanded his Homefolks Theatres with the Texan, located at 814 Capitol, on the site of today’s Houston Club Building. “The Texan . . . was one of the first true air-conditioned theatres in the city.” Its basement “featured a nursery and playground for the kiddies. This included rocking horses and swings, as well as a merry-go-round in the middle of the room. The carousel could hold a dozen kids at a time. Maids, dressed in white aprons, were on hand to look after the children.”[9]
1930s. While excavating to install the air conditioning for the Texan Theatre in the 30s, Horwitz had the idea of connecting his theatres with an underground tunnel, so his patrons could go back and forth between them.[10] Horwitz began construction on the Uptown Theatre at 805 Capitol, across the street from the Texan, but on the same block as the Iris. He “envisioned not a single theatre, but a minicity [Uptown Center] that included the Uptown Arcade – an enclosed set of shops and restaurants, all built into a tunnel system connected to the Uptown Theatre – a 500-car-capacity parking garage (and bicycle-checking area), and the newly renovated Iris Theatre [on Travis].”[11] He “installed an electronic organ in his Uptown Avenue . . . and dubbed it the Radio Mystery Organ because the sounds were created by radio tubes.”[12]
“Other attractions [included] a flower shop, a post office, and a curio shop. In the heart of the basement, patrons could relax in the Old English-style decor of the Uptown Lounge, also known as the Blue Room, and the Texas Fountain Room. The underground walkway connected the Texan lobby, the Fountain Room, and the Uptown Tavern, then joined a set of stairs to the Uptown. . . . The temperature of the whole facility was maintained by a massive air conditioning system, from the auditorium on down to the individually cooled telephone booths."[13]
Perhaps he got the idea from Wyatt C. Hedrick, the Sterling Building, and Rockefeller Center.
   Rockefeller Center was completed in 1932. It boasts a sunken plaza, an “open space in the heart of the city’s concrete ravines” – world-famous Rockefeller Plaza, complete with an ice-skating rink and huge, lighted Christmas tree in the winter. The plaza is ringed with shops connected to an underground concourse, which itself is connected to the city’s Sixth Avenue subway on the west and pedestrian tunnels emanating from Grand Central Station on the east.
Anticipating downtown Houston’s roof gardens at Tranquillity Park and Discovery Green, Rockefeller Plaza is a four-story structure, sixty feet wide, whose “ceiling” is a welded steel platform topped with a layer of asphalt. It rests atop three stories of underground corridors that are used, from top to bottom, for shops, maintenance, and storage. Spreading like capillaries sixty-eight feet below street level under all seven blocks of Rockefeller Center is a sub-subbasement that carries utilities and a network of wires and pipes.[14] 
   RadioThere was another connection between Sterling and Horwitz – radio. Fascinated by the power and lure of the medium even before the age of broadcasting, Horwitz was the owner of Houston’s third broadcasting station, WEAY.[15]
He began broadcasting on June 9, 1922. The Post Building,[16] (1910), home of the Houston Post, was on the southwest corner of Travis and Texas and Horwitz’s WEAY antenna was stretched between its studios at the Iris Theatre at 612 Travis and the Post Building. In the meantime, the Post was building a studio of its own on the fourth floor. “The front page story in the Post the next morning called WEAY the ‘Iris-Post Signal’ and said it had been received in El Paso, Cleveland, Atlanta and Dallas. The Post soon began printing front page schedules for [Houston’s first] three stations on the air, listing WEAY as the ‘Iris-Post’ station for a while but eventually just as ‘the Iris Theatre Station.’”[17]
According to U. S. Department of Commerce records, there never was a legal relationship between the Post and WEAY. “One possible explanation for the Post calling WEAY the ‘Iris-Post’ signal was that it was a promotional tie-in. The Post had obviously caught radio fever . . . and treated radio developments as exciting and very important. In its stories on radio the Post repeatedly referred to its readers as the ‘Post radio family.’ By contrast, the Chronicle seems to have considered radio unnewsworthy and seldom mentioned it at all, much less on the front page like the Post. The Post was already sponsoring concerts on the two earliest stations; the tie-in with WEAY was a little closer with some of the programming originating from the studio on the fourth floor of the Post building down the street from the Iris, and with the flattop antenna stretched between the two buildings. . . . [T]he Post had a close relationship with Horwitz over the years, serving as co-sponsor of his annual Children’s Christmas Party at the City Auditorium.”[18]
Sterling writes in his autobiography,
In 1924 I became involved in another business enterprise that would have a major public impact: commercial radio. Just as in the case of my involvement with the Dispatch, a radio station came into my possession through a whimsy of fate. My son, Ross Sterling, Jr., was a schoolmate and playmate of Howard Hughes, Jr.  . . . As a youth, Howard Junior spent many after-school hours with Ross Junior. Even then, Howard Junior's inventive genius was evident, as he incessantly devised one kind of contraption after another.
. . . 
When radio came along in the early 1920s, Howard and Ross were among its earliest enthusiasts in Houston. They visited an amateur broadcasting station, the pioneer ham operator in these parts. Little Ross, as we called him, went completely overboard for radio. He mounted a campaign to persuade me to establish a regular broadcasting station. Alfred P. Daniel, who had the amateur station, joined in the offensive, as did Howard Hughes. I capitulated. I could hardly refuse my boy anything halfway within reason. Besides, Little Ross's sales talk had aroused my mild interest in the commercial possibilities of radio. I paid $25,000 for the equipment for a class B broadcasting operation. . . . I purchased the equipment shortly before the merger of the Post and the Dispatch. It was left uncrated pending completion of our new publishing plant. It was still uncrated when Little Ross suddenly fell ill and died after an operation. I was stunned by this tragedy.
. . .
For a time, I took no interest in my own enterprises and plans, except for one. I resolved that the radio station would be a living monument to the memory of my son. The responsibility of setting up the broadcasting operation fell to the lot of Ray Dudley as general manager of the paper. He was dismayed to learn that the cost of operating the station properly would run up to $30,000 or $35,000 a year. That was before radio stations thought of stooping to the mercenary practice of accepting pay for radio time.
. . .
There wasn't time to erect a new building to house the radio station, so a hole was cut in the roof of the three-­story newspaper plant and a penthouse was constructed atop it to house the radio mechanical works and a studio. On May 9, 1925, radio station KPRC ("Kotton Port Rail Center") went on the air as Houston's first commercial broadcasting station.
. . .
But these aims could not be achieved without listeners, and few Houstonians had radio sets with which to enjoy its programs. So the Post-Dispatch management bought up a large stock of the little old-fashioned crystal sets with the ear phones, and offered them free as newspaper subscription premiums. More than 12,000 sets were distributed in this way. Thus, we killed two birds with one stone. We built a listening audience and the newspaper's circulation by the same instrumentality. Station KPRC grew and expanded with the Post-Dispatch. As paying commercial programs came into vogue, the station belied Dudley's apprehension by turning a profit. Later on, during the depression in the early 1930s, the radio station earned more money than the newspaper of which it was a subsidiary.
. . .
I had initially seen radio as a plaything. I had never dreamed that it would play an important role in my political career. I would be the first Texan to go on the air in a political race, and the first to take a sound truck along on a campaign tour to amplify my speeches.[19]
1940s. Will Horwitz died on Christmas Day, 1941. One by one, his theaters also died. The Texan was razed in 1953 for construction of the Houston Club Building (1956), which itself is soon to fall for a new building by Skanska. By 1968 Horwitz's tunnel was filled with debris. His daughter, Ruth Iris Horwitz, married Fred Gibbons, who played the organs and pianos at several downtown movie houses. Fred’s son, by a later marriage, is Billy Gibbons, who formed Houston’s famous rock group, ZZ Top.[20]
Ross Sterling suffered a stroke on September 18, 1948, while “visiting his daughter and son-in-law, the Wyatt Hedricks, on their ranch near Fort Worth. He was taken to a hospital there, paralyzed and semiconscious. For six months, he lay helpless, in a shadowy twilight zone between life and death. . . . [O]n March 25, 1949, a month and three days after his seventy-fourth birthday, the tired gray eyes closed. . . . Two days later [March 27, 1949], on a bright Sunday afternoon, his mortal remains were laid to rest in the bluebonnet-covered family lot in Houston’s sylvan Glenwood Cemetery, beside the grave of Ross Sterling, Jr. After twenty-five years, Big Ross and Little Ross were together again.”[21]
SOURCES
1.  The Sterling Building postcard is part of the Texas Postcards collection at the Boston Public Library, http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/6816359324/in/set-72157626587059111, accessed November 2, 2013.
2. In 1993, several years after I began offering tours of the Tunnel System, I was contacted by Jack Byers, then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Byers was researching tunnel/skywalk systems around the world in order to choose three to compare in his Master’s thesis. He sent me the history of tunnels and other systems and I sent him information about the Downtown Houston Tunnel System.
3. Sanguinet and Staats-Hedrick Collection, Architecture and Planning Library, University of Texas at Austin, accessed October 1, 2013.
4. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 36-41.
5. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 36-41.
6. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, p. 63.
7. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 127-128.
8. Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007. I highly recommend this book, not only to learn about the history of Houston cinema, but also to learn about the city itself.
9. Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007.
10. “Will Horwitz and XED, Reynosa,” Houston Radio History Bog, http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html, accessed July 12, 2012.
11. Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007.Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007.
12. “Will Horwitz and XED, Reynosa,” Houston Radio History Bog, http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html, accessed July 12, 2012.
13. Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007.
14. Daniel Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, New York: Viking Press & Last Laugh, Inc., 2003.
15. “Will Horwitz and XED, Reynosa,” Houston Radio History Bog, http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html, accessed July 12, 2012.
16. George Fuermann Collection of Houston Post Cards at the University of Houston Libraries, Copyright 2000 by the University of Houston Libraries. The Houston Post occupied this building on the southwest corner of Texas and Travis from 1904 to 1925 and built a radio studio on the fourth floor in 1922 to originate some programming for WEAY in the Iris Theater just down the street at 612 Travis. Look for the mast that was erected on top of the building. The radio antenna stretched between that mast and one atop the Iris.
17. http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007/04/1922-part-3-weay-iris-theater-station.html, accessed November 2, 2013.
18. http://houstonradiohistory.blogspot.com/2007/04/1922-part-3-weay-iris-theater-station.html, accessed November 2, 2013.
19. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 60-70.
20. Information about Will Horwitz and his theaters was obtained from David Welling’s award-winning book, Cinema Houston, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin, Texas, in 2007.

21. Ross S. Sterling and Ed Kilman, Ross Sterling, Texan: A Memoir by the founder of Humble Oil and Refining Company, edited and revised by Don Carleton, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, p. 236.