Walking around Downtown Houston, visitors and Houstonians alike could be forgiven for thinking the city is merely another modern metropolis, with its steel-and-glass skyscrapers reaching to the clouds, and sleek mid- and high-rise residences adding to the streetscape. But Houston was birthed in the 19th century, on the sleepy banks of Buffalo Bayou’s brown waters. In the nearly 185 years since its founding, the city itself – and its Downtown core – have grown to become one of the most dynamic cities in the country, home to Fortune 500 companies, forward thinkers, and innovators and entrepreneurs. In today’s rapidly changing technological times, it’s easy to forget the history that came before.
Wander the streets of Downtown, however, and you’ll encounter history at nearly every turn, drawn from the city’s earliest days as a merchant outpost, progressing on a timeline through the heady days of the turn of the 20th century when Houston became a center for commerce and oil, the beacon of the South that gave birth to the Ship Channel.
Houston has always been a city on the move. And Downtown has always been where its origin story begins.
Past: Houston National Bank Building
Present: Islamic Da’Wah Center
220 Main St.
Houston National Bank began in 1876. Fifty-two years later, it moved into this columned edifice on the corner of Main and Franklin streets. Hedrick and Gottleib Architects built the bank in a neo-classical style, complete with cast-iron doors set with intricate detailing. The bank would remain here from 1928 through its merger with Tennessee Bank and Trust Company in 1964. In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon, former Houston Rockets legend, bought the building to have it restored and converted into an Islamic Center. Today, it’s recognized as one of the nation’s leading centers for Islamic worship and culture, with more than 1,500 visitors from across the globe visiting and attending prayer services every week. The Da’Wah Center’s interior boasts a gorgeous gold domed ceiling with stunningly detailed tilework, rich red carpets and carved marble accents. It houses not only a mosque, but also a museum, meeting spaces and a library dedicated to Islamic history and scholarship.
Past: Kennedy Trading Post
Present: La Carafe
813 Congress St.
Wine lovers know La Carafe as a favorite Market Square watering hole, its cozy, dimly lit interior a great place to while away sultry summer days. One of the oldest structures in Houston, the building began its life in 1847. Built by Nathaniel Kellum, it became the Kennedy Trading Post in the 1860s, where merchants, travelers and neighboring Native Americans all migrated to ply their wares and make purchases. Through five generations, the Kennedys owned the building, which served as a pony express station, a drug store and even a hair salon before La Carafe opened shop there in the 1960s. In addition to the brick-and-wood interior and exterior, the space can boast it’s the oldest continually operational commercial building in the city.
Side note: La Carafe is said to be haunted by a former bartender — or bar manager, depending on who's telling the story — named Carl; some claim to have heard a disembodied voice shouting out “last call” there on occasion, and have attributed it to Carl. Employees have reported hearing footsteps, breaking glass and heavy objects moving around upstairs when no one was supposed to be up there; other people claim to have seen Carl’s silhouette through a second-floor window after closing time. Another ghost rumored to haunt La Carafe is the “Lady in White,” who supposedly has pushed attractive women down the stairs; this is said to be the ghost of a woman who ran a boarding house near La Carafe years ago that was rumored to be a house of prostitution.
Past: Texas Capitol/Rice Hotel
Present: Rice Urban Lofts
909 Texas Ave
Easily one of Houston’s most iconic buildings, Rice Lofts also has one of the most stunning histories of any building in Downtown. From 1837 to 1839, the land on which it sits would serve as the Texas Capitol building, before Austin took that designation. In 1883, it would be bought by William Marsh Rice. The founder of Rice University opened a hotel on the site and named it after himself. Rice would sell the place to another Houston icon, Jesse H. Jones, who would demolish it and sink $2.5 million into it, re-opening the Rice Hotel in 1913. By the 1920s, its cafeteria became the first public air-conditioned space in the city; by 1948 all the guest rooms would have AC, too. And throughout the mid-20th century, it was the space for global luminaries to hang their hats when they came to Houston. Mick Jagger slept there. So did FDR. The day before their fateful trip to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stayed at the Rice. The hotel shuttered in 1977, following new fire codes that declared it unsafe, and it would be added to the National Register of Historic Places in the next year. In 1998, following a $28 million renovation, the Post Rice Lofts opened, providing luxury residential and retail space. Today, it’s known as Rice Urban Lofts, and it remains one of Downtown’s most prestigious addresses.
Past/Present: Allen’s Landing
1005 Commerce St.
Just past the intersection of where White Oak Bayou meanders into the easy currents of Buffalo Bayou sits Houston’s birthplace. New Yorkers Augustus Chapman Allen and his brother John Kirby Allen came ashore in August 1836, mere months after Texas declared independence from Mexico. The developers purchased approximately 6,600 acres and set about turning their investment into the city we know today. Given its location as a natural turning basin, it was an obvious choice for a wharf, and in 1841 it became the original Port of Houston, launching the city as an economic gateway. Allen’s Landing now houses a park and is straddled by the University of Houston Downtown. The name Allen’s Landing, however, is a 20th century invention, created, according to a 2008 Houston Chronicle article, by the Chamber of Commerce.
Fun factoid: In the late 1960s, the Sunset Coffee Building was home to the city's premiere psychedelic nightclub, Love Street Light Circus Feel Good Machine, where bands with names like Bubble Puppy and Neurotic Sheep performed mind-expanding music accented with strobe lights and pastel projections.
Past: Houston City Hall
Present: Market Square Park
Part of the very fabric of Houston almost from its birth, the space that is now Market Square was donated to the city by Augustus Allen in 1854. His intent was the space be used as an open-air market, where farmers and tradesman could gather to sell goods. Given its proximity to Allen’s Landing, the space quickly became a thriving gathering place. It would also house Housotn’s first City Hall, a sprawling towered affair on the corner of Prairie Avenue and Travis Street built in 1841 and destroyed by fire in 1870. It was rebuilt, but fire consumed it again in 1901. By 1939, City Hall had moved to its current Babgy Street location. Market Square would fall into disrepair, only to be revived and reimagined as Market Square Park, today one of Downtown’s most-loved spots.
Past: The Merchants and Manufacturing Building
Present: University of Houston Downtown
One North Main St.
Commonly called the M&M Building, this massive edifice was built in 1930, and was the largest building in Houston at the time, sprawling across 14 miles of floor space and 600,000 square feet. It could accommodate hundreds of tenants, but the Great Depression quashed enthusiasm for the space, which would eventually prove too costly to operate. Purchased by South Texas Junior College in the 1960s, it was sold to the University of Houston Downtown-College in 1974 (College would be dropped from the name in the1980s). Today, the One Main Building is the centerpiece of UHD’s campus, home to the school’s administrative offices, classrooms, gatherings spaces and an art gallery.
Past/Present: Main Street
A walk along Main Street is a self-guided expedition through Houston’s past. The Scanlan Building at 405 Main dates to 1907 and at 11 stories was briefly the tallest building in the city. Just down the way, at 301 Main, you’ll find the Sweeney, Coombs & Fredericks Building, a stunning example of Victorian architecture with curving bay windows and 1880s details. Virtually every style of architecture and every period of Houston history is here in some fashion, from the city’s earliest beginnings to the sleek, modern MetroRail that now runs along the corridor.
Past: Hermann Building
Present: Hermann Lofts
George Hermann was one of Houston’s visionary businessmen, with interests in everything from real estate to cattle operations. His bequest to the city gave birth to Hermann Park, now one of the Houston’s outdoor showplaces. The building on Travis Street that bears his name dates to 1917 and was converted to its current set of 26 individual condominiums, all while preserving the building’s original details.
Past/Present: Cotton Exchange Building
Originally a three-story building completed in 1884, the ornate structure was a thriving spot for Texas’ cotton trade. The industry grew so rapidly a fourth story was added in 1907, and the exchange would eventually need to move to larger digs by the 1920s. Today, it’s home to Public Services Wine and Whiskey, but the exquisite interior harkens to Houston’s past.
Past: Ritz Theater
Present: Majestic Metro
911 Preston St.
When it opened its doors as a movie theater in 1926, the Ritz was the first cinema in Houston with air conditioning. Designed by William Ward Watkin, who also designed the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Ritz was an ornate affair that could seat nearly 1,000 people for its shows. Today, the former movie palace is a private-event space, gorgeously restored with a dance floor and sound and lighting systems and capable of accommodating 250 guests.