Girard Street

So, we have a tiny street here at UHD, between the Main building and the Student Life Center, called Girard Street. But why is it called that? How did it get its name?

I was posed this question by a staff person here at UHD and so I set out to find the answer.  I knew that in 1837, this area was not surveyed and there were no streets on this side of the Buffalo Bayou.


See how poor and empty it was all along the north bank of the bayou?

And I also knew that by 1847, the streets had been laid out.

first ward early

You can see Girard named at the very far right of the image, but it was a “broken” street that continued on either side of the bend of White Oak Bayou (this drawing is post 1847, but I am not sure when it was drawn).

So, I knew that at some point between 1837 and 1847, something happened.

Eventually I discovered that the street was named for the man who surveyed the land in 1839. Auguste Girard was the Chief Engineer of the Texas Army during the Texas Revolution, and after Independence he drew up a new map of Houston for the Allen Brothers, which included platting our area around the current UHD campus, and Frost Town, just to the east of Allen’s Landing. Probably accurately predicting that no one else was going to name a street for him so he might as well do it, he named one of the streets after himself and ensured his place in our history.

His 1839 map is accessible from the Rice Digital Scholarship Archives. He was also deeded land by President Anson Jones which would later form part of the Heights area.



A slightly less well-known part of the collections here in the University Archives is the Special Collections. Special Collections are a big umbrella that covers faculty publications, theses, some University publications, and any rare or unique books that we have which we don’t want to be checked out or circulated outside our library.

Many of our special collections books are rare because there weren’t many printed. But some are rare because they are signed by the author. One of our books was signed both by the author and the author’s husband: Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The book, A White House Diary, was published in 1970, just after LBJ left office. It’s a published journal of Lady Bird’s own affairs while First Lady. In this first edition, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see her signature, and an inscription to a member of the Briscoe family (Dolph Briscoe was the 41st governor of Texas). However, once I looked more closely, and remembered that Lady Bird and Lyndon shared initials, I realized that it’s both *his* signature and *her signature* on top of one another. I don’t know how it came to our collections, but I have since found out that Honey Briscoe passed away in 1980, and its possible her books were simply gifted to the library as a donation after her death, without her heirs ever realizing what was tucked inside this particular book.

“To Honey Briscoe with the best wishes of her friends through the years–L.B.J. Lady Bird Johnson”

On this site…

Dr. Nicholson has been teaching a course this semester on Houston history, and I was lucky enough to get to teach her class how we do primary source research in physical archives, as well as what materials are available online. One of the resources that are especially useful to anyone studying Houston are the Sanborn Insurance Company’s maps of Houston. They were done over several years, document nearly every commercial property in Houston, and usually have interesting information on whether the place kept a security guard, or what the building was constructed of, as these would affect insurance rates.

I can use maps like this to find out more about what sat on our location at One Main Street, before the Merchants and Manufacturer’s Building was built in 1930. We know that originally, it was the site of a warehouse owned by two founding fathers of the city of Houston, Louis Pless and Samuel L. Allen, and served a role in the Battle of Galveston Bay during the Civil War.

I can use the original land use research from the 1920s to reconstruct other owners of the land, although it went back and forth between family, into probates, and out again until the early 1900s.  The Sanborn maps become especially useful when trying to piece together legal narratives into physical property lines:


From this map, I was able to learn one very important fact that I spread to anyone who would listen to me: there used to be an ice cream factory located right where the south deck is now (I am open to starting a petition drive to revive it). It’s also possible to see where the American Brewing Association was located, at the corner of 2nd and Girard. Another interesting thing you can see from this map is that there was no “Main Street”, it was First Street and it was “not paved.”

Unfortunately, by 1924 the ice cream factory is no more, and most of the land has been taken by a descendent of the Brewing Association, the American Ice and Storage Company. Main Street, and its viaduct, are now built and the MKT railroad has its first passenger depot (which predated the one we have photographs for):



Just five years later, the M&M was under construction, and has dominated the skyline on the north side of the bayou ever since.



Digging for Archives

When people use archives for research, they are usually most interested in correspondence and other first-person accounts. But when I was researching the history of the Merchants and Manufacturers building, I went somewhere a little different for information: the air-conditioning records.

Now, in some places there wouldn’t even be air-conditioning, let alone meticulous notes kept about its use. But in an 11-story building in Houston, Texas, there are good records for this. The M&M had a lot of tenants; some used the building’s AC, and some had their own individual window units. When I was looking for lease information about what companies were in the building, these records were vital.IMG_20160630_105420.jpg

The records help us see that Shell Oil was headquartered in this building, taking up a substantial portion of the fifth floor. McGraw Hill Publishing took up the rest. Humble Oil had offices on 10, the KCOH radio station was on 11, a beauty parlor and a barber shop on the third floor next to the Mid-Day Club and Luncheon Counter. The elevator girls’ lounge was also on the third floor, but later moved to N-440 (where the library’s study rooms are now).

Usually, any written history of this building goes into detail about how it was never a “flourishing” building, never full and never important, but from something as unassuming as the utility bills, we can see that it enjoyed a wide variety of tenants, and was a hub of downtown, even from across the bayou.


This blog post was reposted as “Secrets of the A/C Records” on the Houston Chronicle Gray Matters blog, July 2, 2016

Historical Detours

The UHD Archives is mainly an institutional archives, which means it holds both the University business records and other materials (like photographs or students materials) that help to round out the story of the University’s existence. This constitutes well over 90% of our collections.

However, sometimes we acquire materials which are entirely out of our scope, yet are still a piece of cultural history that “belongs” to us, because it comes from a person affiliated with UHD. Such materials can be found within Dr. Garna Christian’s archival collection. It is a collection that he built: oral histories, audio recordings, and written material on Houston’s country music scene in the Depression/WWII era.

The collection consists of over 30 interviews, plus a narrative with musical interludes, and a short book entitled “Stay a Little Longer: the first generation of Houston country music.” This is a slice of history that is not well-known, even within Houston. The event that ties this collection to the University (besides its creation by Dr. Christian), is a concert that was held here at UHD in 1984, entitled 50 Years of Houston Country Music.

All of the material is being prepared for upload into UHD’s digital repository, both to make it available to the public, as well as to help spread the story of some of these lesser-known country artists like Jerry Irby, Bill Mraz, and Floyd Tillman, who played with more famous artists like Bob Wills and Hank Snow, or made names for themselves while playing local dance halls like the Magnolia Gardens or Cook’s.

Part of a University Archives’ mission is usually not only to keep the history of the University as an institution, but also to help keep the work product of its faculty through the years. This small collection will help keep Dr. Christian’s research and study alive for future generations of Houston historians.


Texana, Autographs, and Forgery

The special collections at UHD have never gotten much notice, since there are no Gutenberg bibles lying around, nor any kind of “precious” books that one normally associates with such collections. However, when the collection was physically situated with the University Archives in 2013, we discovered that the core of the collection is actually very special indeed.

Most of the books in the Special Collections are “local” history: Texas and Houston, with a special focus on oil history. Not until we dove into the books and looked at them carefully did we see what all the fuss was about: nearly all the books are from the private library of James A. Clark, a prolific author of many works, the most famous being his 1952 book “Spindletop.”

Clark held different jobs throughout his lifetime, including the public relations manager at the famous Shamrock Hotel, sports editor for the Galveston News,statehouse correspondent under Governor Allred, and the author of a long-running oil column called “Tales of the Oil Country.”

Clark passed away in 1978, and his books came to UHD sometime after that, although it’s unclear how it happened. The collection includes several autographed copies of some very famous Texas history, including one which, it turns out, is a forgery. Clark clearly enjoyed buying or obtaining autographed books, and at some point must have been thrilled to buy a first edition of the now-famous Shamrock and Cactus: the story of the Catholic heroes of the Texas Revolution by William M. Ryan. It was signed by the author with the note “to my good friend H.P.N. Gammel with my best regards…Christmas 1936.”

Karl Hans Peter Marius Nielsen Gammel, or H.P.N. Gammel, was one of the first people in Texas to preserve Texas history (he saved the laws of Texas from fire in 1881 and kept them safe in his home before republishing them a few years later). He was, and remains, one of the most important booksellers and collectors in our history. Having a book like Shamrock and Cactus, signed by the author and to Gammel, must have felt like quite a coup.

Unfortunately, Gammel is known to have passed away in 1931, five years before this book was published. Ryan, if he was indeed a “good friend” of Gammel, would have been well-aware of Gammel’s death. In Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, however, forgery of Texas historical documents, including autographs and other documents, was big business. Without Wikipedia at hand to check the death dates of famous people involved in publishing, scams like this were easy to  implement. No doubt James Clark suffered more than just once at the hands of the Houston forgery rings, just as many collectors of Texana have*. But so far none of the other autographs in our collection have been proven to be false.


*To read more about Houston’s forgery community, read Texfake: an account of theft and forgery of early Texas printed documents, by W. Thomas Taylor (1991).


Select Committee on Higher Education, 1985-1987

In 1985, Governor Mark White named a “select committee” to review all the colleges and universities in the state of Texas, and make recommendations on how to increase access to higher education throughout the state while maximizing budget efficiencies. As one can probably imagine, it was a Sisyphean effort from the start.

The chair of the committee was Larry Temple, an attorney and member of the Coordinating Board of Education. After a full audit and consultation by an outside consulting group, the select committee made a recommendation for several universities to merge. Two were UH University Park and Texas Southern University. Immediately, TSU sent off a six-page letter decrying the proposal–they did not want to be subsumed, and saw the “merger” as nothing more than a convenient way of getting rid of a historically Black university which the state no longer wanted to fund. Instead, they counter-proposed that TSU should “merge” with UH Downtown, arguing that it would be a “natural” realignment. President Terry of TSU wrote that “Texas Southern should be allowed to bring the Downtown College of the University of Houston under its administration…many of the students in the Downtown College come from the natural constituency that formed the population of Texas Southern University before the establishment of that school.”

Not only was TSU’s representation of UHD entirely wrong (UHD was no longer a “college” at this point, nor was it a branch of UH University Park), but it seemed to be wrong on purpose.  Anyone involved in higher education in the mid-80s in Houston would have had intimate knowledge of the changes at UHD over the preceding 10 years. Especially someone who was president of a university that was in direct competition with UHD in many areas. But also, they would have knowledge of the reputation of UHD as a kind of “bad egg”; the school was routinely dismissed or punished by the Coordinating Board in the years after the unapproved merger with UH.

The select committee thought a TSU/UHD merger was a viable and attractive option, and so suggested it to the UH System. The system, understandably, was infuriated. Subsuming TSU was one thing; losing a university of the system in order to be subsumed was quite another. The Chairman of the Board of Regents, Debbie Hanna, sent back a scathing statement to the select committee (without, it seems, knowledge of the original TSU letter–there is no mention of the fact that TSU actually proposed this; it lays the blame squarely on Mr. Temple). “We find this recommendation extremely difficult to justify in any terms: economic, social, or educational…to merge this unique and extraordinarily successful institution into any other is to destroy something of enormous and irreplaceable value to the people of Houston.”

Ultimately the merger (and most of the other mergers suggested by the Select Committee) was abandoned. In the final report in 1987, no mention is made of it at all.

To see and read all of the correspondence and reports from the Select Committee, visit the Legislative Reference Library’s file on the committee.

Radio Penthouse, KCOH AM

In 1948, the M&M building group signed a lease agreement with a very special new tenant: a radio station. Call sign KCOH (for City Of Houston), the station billed itself as  a “good music” station with limited commercial interruption, and aired at the 1430 frequency on the AM dial.

kcoh ad 1948

While the antenna was housed elsewhere, according to the FCC history database, the studio itself was on the 11th floor of this building (where the painting studio is now), and the station called itself “Radio Penthouse.”

In 1953, the entire station was bought by Robert Meeker and other investors, and announced that they were changing the formatting to be “Houston’s First and Only Negro Radio Station.” It was the first Black-owned radio station in Texas, and kept its studio here at One Main until the original lease ran out in 1955 and they moved their station to the Third Ward, at Almeda and Wichita (their “jewel-box” studio was famous in Houston for allowing the audience to look in the windows and see the DJs at the board).


The KCOH service and news fleet, circa 1963.

Willow Street Pump Station

Excerpt from August 2011 Skyline article:

The Allen Brothers, the founders of Houston, originally planned to build a steam saw mill on that spot, but the plans fell apart in 1837 as leaders of the planned mill, the Texas Steam Mill Company, fell victim to shipwreck or yellow fever.

The tract of land remained empty throughout the 19th century, and Buffalo Bayou was used for transportation, drinking water and waste disposal—and not necessarily in that order.  By the end of the century, citizens were complaining about the waste. The federal government threatened to no longer fund construction projects on the Houston Ship Channel unless the city cleaned up the bayou.

In 1902, the city responded by building the city’s first waste and sewage treatment facility:  the Willow Street Pump Station. The original upper building was for storage and the lower building on the banks housed the pump system, built into the steep slope of the hill. In 1915, an incinerator to burn solid waste was built adjacent to the storage building and helped to successfully clean the bayou.


American Brewing Association

There are several great accounts of brewing in Houston (probably the best one thus far is Ronnie Crocker’s Houston Beer), and all make mention of the American Brewing Association, which sat right here where our Academic Building now resides.

The American Brewing Association was founded here in 1894 by Adolphus Busch (yes, of Anheuser Busch), and made beer until Prohibition took effect in 1920. Busch bought the land, which sat right next to the railroad tracks, for $18,000 from the McGowan brothers.

Now, after Prohibition took effect and the building was razed, many forgot all about the brewery, but in 1996, when preparing the ground for the new Academic building, land use studies revealed that there had once been a brewery on site.

Taken from “American Brewing Association” Houstorian Blog . Accessed August 18, 2015. Access: