Back to the Future
Market Square’s storied past reflects Houston’s own boom, bust and boom again history

In August 1836, when John and Augustus Allen bought their 6,000 acres of land on Buffalo Bayou, they had a great city, and even a nation’s capital, in mind.  Other Texas cities and towns had already put in their bids to be the new capital, so the Allens wasted no time. They named their imagined city Houston, in honor of the hero of Texian independence, and had newspaperman Gail Borden survey and plat their holdings.

The Allens set aside the block bordered by Franklin and Congress on the north and south, and Milam and Travis on the west and east, and offered it to the Republic of Texas gratis if the new nation would agree to make Houston its capital. They called the block Congress Square.

The Republic accepted the Allens’ offer, but when the brothers took a longer look at the site, which was filled with pine, oak, and sweet gum trees, they decided to build the capitol at Texas and Main, where the Post Rice Lofts stand today.

The Allens repurposed the original site (as we would say today) and made a part of it into a public market and trading post.  As such it was a natural gathering place for the capital’s rowdy inhabitants.

On the first anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, a grand ball was held for the upper reaches of Houston society, who, according to Marie Phelps McAshan’s A Houston Legacy: At the Corner of Texas and Main, “at midnight went to Ben Fort Smith’s City Hotel, to dine on turkey, ducks, rabbit, flounder, candied yams and champagne.” 

But, McAshan adds, “Over on Market Square [note: the area was not yet formally named Market Square], the San Jacinto veterans couldn’t care less about satin and ruffled shirts. They were celebrating to the explosion of guns and dancing around a big bonfire while oxen pawed the mud, bellowing and jangling their bells.”

By 1841 the space had been formally named Market Square. The two-story City Hall stood there, with a retail market on the ground floor and government offices above.

The area was home to another kind of market as well. One of the boom town’s best known brothels, Pamela Mann’s Mansion House, occupied the block’s northwest corner. For a time the widowed Susanna Dickinson, lone Anglo survivor of the Alamo, earned her daily bread at the Mann house.

By the 1860s, John Kennedy’s Trading Post (now home to La Carafe) was the favored gathering place of the Native Americans who came to town to trade and make merry.  McAshan writes,

They spread their wares on Kennedy’s floor. When Kennedy had put sufficient money on the counter, the Chief signaled enough. The Indians then pointed to the articles they wanted. The Chief slapped down money until Kennedy signaled enough … Late in the day, the Indians staged splendid rambunctious races on horseback around Market Square until the deputy sheriff escorted them safely out of town. 

Even in a city where change is the abiding constant, Market Square has been unusually protean. In 1871, the original City Hall was demolished by “carpetbaggers,” and a new one built by those Civil War victors. In 1876, the “reconstruction” City Hall was torched, presumably by disgruntled children of the Confederacy.

The new City Hall kept its dual function, with the city market on the ground floor and city government on the second. The market was the old city’s heart. (Or, as Balzac wrote about Paris’ Les Halles, the city’s “belly.”)  In 1879, the Weekly Telegraph declared it the best market in the South, except for New Orleans’ French Market.  The newspaper did a survey of its businesses, and in the daily market found 22 meat stalls, 14 vegetable stalls, and two bakers. The Saturday market expanded to include seven to eight fruit sellers, six to eight “homemade candy” purveyors, and four to five dry goods stalls.

The Saturday market was the place to be. During a time of intense racial tension, everyone came together there – and not just for dutiful shopping. In 1890, Harper’s Magazine paid a visit.  The writer noted that the vendors included “German farmers, Chinese peddlers, Negro gardeners, German and Irish women, [and] Italian fruit and fish vendors.”

The highly impressed visitor went on:  In and out of the building surge the crowd, for all Houston is here. It is a singular custom, this making a fashionable promenade of the market, yet … the fine ladies do not seem to mind the mixture of peoples or the place itself, but dress in ‘purple and fine linen’ for the occasion. The dude is in force, and the ‘masher’ is not wanting; the men who stare and the girls who love to be stared at; sober matrons on housekeeping thoughts intent; flirtatious maidens who push through the crowd, and seem to have no idea that their manners are not of the best … merchants, lawyers, physicians, servant-girls and cooks, the haute-volée and the demi-mond [sic], and both in their best attire; policemen and tramps; old women, men on crutches and babes in arms; black, white, brown and yellow – Negros, Americans, Mongolians, Irish, Dutch, French, Germans, Italians and Spanish – they are all there, laughing, talking, quarreling, gesticulating, bargaining, gossiping, staring, keeping appointments and making new ones, being proper or improper, polite or rude, as the case may be .  And this goes on from four to nine in winter, from five to ten in summer.”

Makes Central Market sound pretty tame. It’s no surprise that the Weekly Telegraph claimed that all Houstonians took “the keenest pride” in their market.

The building burned in one of the city’s frequent fires in 1901 and was reconstructed in 1902. In her Houston: the Unknown City, author Marguerite Johnson quotes a Houstonian who remembered “the strong smell of fish and of roasting coffee,” and how “Every night they would take the haunches of meat and put them on a hook and raise them to the top of the city market to get them away from the rats. But the rats could climb the ropes. That was a picture to remember.”

But in 1939 a change came that moved the city’s heart out of Market Square, and in effect began the identity crisis the Square has suffered ever since. That year the city government offices moved to today’s City Hall on Bagby, and the city leased the old building to a bus company.

In 1960 the city demolished the old building, calling it a “fire hazard.”  Market Square was converted into a very Houston kind of “park” which consisted largely of a surface parking lot. The city attempted to sell the land to a private interest that promised new development for the “wrong end of Main Street,” as the area had come to be known. But in an early act of civic consciousness, voters rejected the sale when it was put to a referendum.  Then, in terms of Market Square itself, a kind of stalemate set in. Area businesses and the daily papers all called for a real park, like Jackson Square in New Orleans, to be built there. But the city was slow to move.

Ten years later, Market Square did finally become a park. In the meantime the area around it, then known as Old Market Square, went through a meteoric revival before crashing once again to earth. 

Old Market Square was just about as diverse as the old city market, and a variety of scenes flourished there side by side. The posh crowd could opt for glamour, while down the street hippies partied in psychedelic bliss.   Starting in the mid-‘60s, some of the oldest buildings in Houston, including many that were out of use, were converted into boîtes de luxe for the “bold-faced types,” as the Chronicle’s Big City Beat columnist Maxine Mesinger styled them. Café Hannibal (311 Travis, now Market Square Bar and Grill) billed itself as “very posh and swinging” in its advertising. Les Quatre Saisons opened in a two-story building at 316 Milam (later Warren’s Inn and now a parking lot), and featured classical music and operatic singing along with its French menu. The very elegant Viennese-German restaurant The Bismarck opened in what is now the Magnolia Ballroom (715 Franklin). Well-known ragtime pianist Pinky Hull opened a Roaring ‘20s-style club that had then-governor Preston Smith in attendance at its opening.

These places, and others, opened to red carpets and blazing klieg lights, and it looked like some combination of Hollywood and Broadway had taken root in the native gumbo.

Deserving special mention is La Bastille, opened in a basement at 716 Congress in 1965 by Ernie Criezis and his wife, Dutch chanteuse Toni Renee. The building is long-since demolished, but apparently it ran deep enough underground that it passed for a “Parisian prison.” In the ‘70s La Bastille was known for bringing in jazz greats such as Dizzie Gillespie for two-week stints, but in the ‘60s the entertainment was more cabaret style. Renee appeared there frequently (even at lunchtime) doing songs by Piaf, Brel, and the rest of the Gallic gang. At other times the club featured acts such as Los Chamacos from Mexico City and performers who were likely to turn up on the Johnny Carson show. Carson himself did standup in La Bastille.

After a visit, What’s My Line regular Betsy Palmer said, “There is nothing in New York that even comes close to competing with La Bastille for entertainment and atmosphere.” Comedian Jackie Mason appeared there and met with Criezis to discuss the possibility of becoming his partner.

Criezis and Renee must have been quite a couple. According to the Market Square Gazette, a weekly paper published between 1967 and 1970 to cover the Old Market Square revival, they were constantly flying to New York and Paris in search of new acts. They developed a relationship with Liza Minnelli during her heady days between Sterile Cuckoo and Cabaret.

After a concert appearance at Jones Hall, she visited La Bastille and later raved about it in the press. She was so impressed by the group appearing there that night – Houston’s own Bojangles – that her manager signed them to tour with Minnelli in Europe and to appear in Cabaret. But perhaps Minnelli was attracted to something other than their harmonies. She was later sued by the wife of a band-member for “alienation of affection.” The jilted wife claimed that Minnelli only contracted the group “for the purposes of securing [the husband’s] company.” There’s no mention of how the suit was settled.

There were celebrities everywhere in Old Market Square. Today’s La Carafe may be a beloved watering hole, but it’s unlikely that Beyonce has ever taken Jay Z there. But in the ‘60’s, stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor, Johnny Mathis, the Kingston Trio, Liberace (a frequent visitor, apparently), members of the Tijuana Brass, even author James Baldwin knocked back drinks in the old bar.

There were also bars and restaurants with unique themes. The owners of the Viking Club (807 Congress) cut a hole in the roof of their building and lowered in a Galveston fishing vessel that had been reconfigured to look like a Viking ship. The Moulin Rouge was home to a can-can show. Later it featured an “incredibly cruel” show (in the words of the Gazette) in which a French entertainer hypnotized his sister and pierced her cheek with a sharp blade.

Houston’s greatest jazz performer, Arnett Cobb, played all over downtown. At one point he was appearing six nights a week at Grif’s Green Derby (owned by Michael Griffin, who later opened Grif’s Shillelagh Inn).

And so it went. In 1968, Houston Post columnist Marge Crumbaker wrote “to say Old Market Square is flourishing seems a terribly inadequate way to describe its new face. What it is really doing is jumping, going hog-wild with a boom, spreading, leaping and lunging with an overwhelming vitality.”

In the meantime, the counterculture had arrived. Many Houstonians remember David Addickes’ eye-poppingly psychedelic Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine (in the International Coffe Building at Allen’s Landing) where young patrons would lie on cushions and gaze upon the images Addickes projected on the ceiling while bands such as the Red Krayolas, the Moving Sidewalks (Billy Gibbons’ first band) and Johnny Winter played. At the time Addickes called the club a “zonk out emporium.” 

There were also plenty of head shops and the like, and they drew more hippies than the city fathers’ approved of – although one official did cite the hippies as a possible tourist attraction.  

The friction between Liza Minnelli’s crowd and the hippies may have been a small factor in Old Market Square’s eventual decline, as many of the district’s proprietors felt the city did little to embrace and promote the area.

Then-chief Herman Short’s police force certainly took a dim view of the longhairs.

In a 1984 Houston Post essay, Charles Segers, then a writer and editor for Prudential Insurance, said of the area in general, “Old Market Square was like Bourbon Street, except that it had an atmosphere of the forbidden that I had never experienced on Bourbon Street.” Writing about the Cellar coffeehouse, he said, “to recreate the Cellar you would have to have the conjuring powers of the Prince of Darkness himself. It was sin and decadence made tangible, at least to my relatively innocent senses … Inside was seething evil.” From reading the essay it’s hard to tell exactly why it was so “evil,” or if Segers perhaps was writing tongue-in-cheek, but he talks about how dark it was inside, and how menacing the patrons seemed. (The Cellar did in fact receive some 127 police visits in 1967 alone.)

Segers writes, “The Houston establishment never really approved of what was going on down at Market Square, despite the tourist dollars it was bringing in.”

Sure enough, by the early 1970s, Old Market Square had already seen its heyday. Former night clubs were converting to strip clubs and peep shows. The thrill was gone, but who was to blame?

In 1965, Chronicle arts writer Ann Holmes wrote presciently that “downtown could go either way.  It could be another Left Bank, another Village … [or] its current excitement could fizzle out … if landowners get greedy and put up prohibitive prices.” Many, among them preservation architect Bart Truxillo, did blame club owners and landowners.

Around 1967 Truxillo bought and restored the old Houston Ice & Brewing Company building (popularly known as the Magnolia Brewery). It became home to the Bismarck and various other entities, such as Willie’s Pub and a cellar flea market where Mickey Rosmarin of Tootsie’s got his start. In a recent interview, Truxillo said that the introduction of cover charges at the bars put the brakes on development. “At first you just walked around and had a drink, until you found the place you wanted.  You couldn’t do that if you were paying a cover.”

Others agreed.  In a 1975 Chronicle article on the decline of Old Market Square, one former club owner said, “People didn’t have covers.  People could browse. Cover charges and high prices killed that.” Willie Rometsch, owner of the Bismarck, also said that some clubs became “clip joints charging $60 for champagne you could buy for $1.75 at Weingarten’s.” 

Ernie Criezis said, “Three years ago La Bastille was worth $175,000.  Now I’d be lucky to get $35,000 for it.” (Criezis eventually left downtown and opened The Great Caruso on Westheimer near the Beltway. He eventually moved to Los Angeles where he died in 1996 at 61. A man with a flair for the dramatic in death as well as in life, he is now buried next to Marilyn Monroe.)

Others, including Truxillo, think the city never really was interested in revitalizing the area. Truxillo says that the city “wanted to push the Astrodome as an entertainment area.” In one of the final issues of the Gazette, the editor fulminates against the city’s spending money to develop Tranquility Park while allowing Market Square to languish as a surface parking lot. 

Truxillo says that after the Old Market Square scene died out, and the Astrodome entertainment district never developed, city officials came to him and other owners and asked what they could do to bring the Square scene back. “I told them you can’t just turn it on and off like water.”

Truxillo, among others, also says that the police presence was inadequate, and that people were afraid to go downtown even though the area was safe. A late editorial in the Gazette claimed that whenever there was a crime anywhere in downtown, “lazy editors” said that it happened “near Old Market Square.”

In hindsight, it’s probably inevitable that Old Market Square would “fizzle,” before becoming a mature, Village-type district, simply because it took off so fast. But one of the final reasons for its decline is the same reason that Market Square may have a hard time reaching the critical mass it enjoyed in 1968 – the demolition of historic buildings.

The demolitions began in the late ‘60s and continued through the ‘80s.  Market Square was recognized as a historic district in 1984 but by 1989 seven more historic buildings had been torn down for parking lots. Truxillo says now, “Bars and restaurants come and go, but when you take down the building then you’re stuck with a parking lot.”

Or a drive-through bank in the case of La Bastille’s old address. Texas Commerce Bank (212 Milam) demolished the old building and introduced “convenient” banking to downtown (it now belongs to J.P. Morgan Chase).  In his 1984 film Paris, Texas, director Wim Wenders used the drive-through as a symbol of urban alienation. 

But the demolition that causes the most pain today is probably that of Warren’s Inn (316 Milam) in 1988. Warren was Warren Trousdale, whose first downtown bar was called Ali Baba (823 Congress). According to his sister, Carolyn Wenglar, who now owns and manages both La Carafe and the current Warren’s Inn, Trousdale managed to buy the Bethje-Lang building (where Warren’s was located), after the Ali Baba building was demolished.  

As the owner, Trousdale was probably feeling safe operating the old building he loved so much. But as early as 1982, the Chronicle reported that a development company that wanted to build an office building and parking garage was attempting to buy the property. Trousdale is quoted as saying, “I told them they’d have to build over me because I won’t sell. We need some old buildings left, something for future generations to see besides steel and glass – something old and dear, like these buildings.”  

With its large statues representing the four seasons (left over from the previous occupant, Les Quatre Saisons) and its beautifully aged atmosphere, Warren’s Inn was a building that many Houstonians held close to their hearts. 

That’s why the news that Trousdale had finally sold the property to Guardian Savings came as an unwelcome surprise. Why had he sold? Those closest to him said that he had been the subject of a campaign of harassment.  

“Somebody – we don’t know who – was putting t-shirts in his toilets (to clog them). They even put cement in his sewer,” says his sister. She’s kept the current Warren’s Inn alive “in a little bit of tribute” to her brother, who was “quite a guy.”  

Ultimately deprived of a sewer connection, Trousdale sold the property and moved across Market Square. He died in 1988, not long after Guardian Savings demolished the building – without taking out the proper permits.  

Not long after, the oil bust caught up to Guardian Savings and it went bankrupt. “Maybe there was a little bit of karma there,” Wenglar says with a tiny note of triumph in her voice.

When the Market Square area made another comeback in the late 1990s, historic preservation had finally taken hold, so a number of historic buildings were preserved and brought up to code. Bart Truxillo is proud to have been the first business owner to designate his property as a landmark that can’t be demolished, by him or by anyone he would sell the building to. 

And the new redesign of Market Square Park (its fourth since 1970) will bring new life to the north end of downtown. It doesn’t promise to create a red-hot scene; instead, with its dog runs and low-key gathering places, the park confirms Market Square’s status as a neighborhood, rather than a pure entertainment district.

Of course, because of its rich history Market Square won’t be just another residential neighborhood. Residents there can share in the good feeling that Wenglar takes in owning the oldest commercial building in the city.

  “It does make you a little bit proud.”

By the way, if you miss the old statues and the elaborate iron gates from the original Warren’s, Wenglar is storing them at the old family rice farm, which she still works from time to time. Maybe one day they’ll re-appear.

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