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.

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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.

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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.

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What is that?

Perhaps, as you are walking up the Main Street Viaduct, you have noticed this weird metal door halfway up the bank between Buffalo Bayou and the One Main Building. Perhaps you have wondered what, exactly, that weird thing is. Fear not, gentle readers, for the University Archives is here to help.

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The weird thing in question

 

 

It is in fact a cargo entrance.

When the M&M building (what we now call the One Main building) was built in 1929, it was built in exactly this spot for a specific reason: it sat at the confluence of two railroads and two bayous. It was meant to take advantage of both railroads *and* waterways. Originally, that door was the cargo entrance for anything that came into the building via river barge. In fact, if you look on the left side of this photograph, you can still see the pilings for the old loading dock.

Now, you may be asking, how did they get cargo all the way from the bayou to the first floor of the building, up that slope? Well, the short answer is that they didn’t. Behind that metal door is a tunnel which leads directly up a gentle slope to the lower basement of our building (yes, we have a basement. In fact, we have a basement and a sub-basement, which is where the door’s tunnel came into). Once inside the building through the sub-basement’s tunnel, there was a big freight elevator that would take goods up to the basement or up to the first floor, where they could be offloaded for transport by train, or by truck through the Girard Street entrance.

But they didn’t carry stuff through the tunnel; that would have been a job for two or more men, or even impossible in some cases. Instead they used carts, like these, which are currently stacked on top of each other in the basement.

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These handcarts are waiting to find a good permanent home, perhaps on display

It had to be slow work, but there was really no other efficient way of offloading cargo up such a steep slope. There is also a theory that the sub-basement and tunnel are actually remnants of the original warehouse which stood here since the 1850s, and which was used as a holding area for Union POWs for a time during the Civil War, after the Battle of Galveston Bay. The current door is clearly not that old, but was probably added once shipping was fully routed to the Ship Channel and upstream commercial traffic stopped.

Looking Up

Since the One Main Building is a rather old gentleman of a building, it has many strange features and nooks and crannies that are often left unexplored. One thing I have noticed generally is that people rarely look up. But you can read the story of our nearly-90 year history of renovations to this building if you go into one of One Main’s many stairwells and just…look up.

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The ceiling is concrete, even though it looks like wood joists covered by planks.

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Nearly every staircase has a gate that prevents you from going up to the roof. Which is probably for the best.

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Lots of piping, still-existent access points in the masonry for long-lost beams or pipes that have since been removed.

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Found a brick, too. A successful Friday excursion!

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.

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

Exploring the M&M, 11th floor

This blog has explored some of the history of the 11th floor of One Main, and its time as a radio station. But there is another “eleventh” floor that I discovered the other day. I have started calling it “the cathedral.” It sits at the top of this staircase:

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When you get to the top of the 10th floor, you might expect a door or just a continuation of the same stair, but instead you see this:IMG_20160520_075154

The staircase that goes up to the catwalk above is a suspended staircase, helping to hold the stairs against the wall and also up to the top of the tower.

From the outside, you’ve probably seen this tower but never really noticed it before (the full tower is visible from the Girard and Second St side but people rarely take pictures there):UHD Academic Building facade pattern colering detail - teleshot

I’m told it’s just access to the elevator machine rooms. It was built, I believe, when the Academic Building was built, as a combination of staircase and two elevator shafts. But it’s also another one of the hidden spaces within the University that draw us to explore the nooks and crannies to find the hidden history of the building.

Update, August 29, 2016:

Found this in a 1986 edition of the Dateline; the tower predates the Academic building by nearly 10 years!

Circulation tower 1986

 

The bathrooms of M&M South

After the ridiculously wild success of the post on Confluence on the bathrooms of the One Main Building’s north side, we decided to document the south side as well.

Starting at the top, we have the 10th floor, which has to be from the late 1980s, with its contrasting pink and brown (this is the men’s room, very soothing):IMG_20160520_075642

The eighth floor clearly did not have anyone of creative genius designing it. Or at least, no one who understood how important it is to have *interesting* bathrooms:

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Seventh floor south is a recap of my favorite image from the north side gallery, red sinks with bright yellow everything-else:

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Sixth floor south is actually really interesting to me–that’s a wood panel on the front of the sinks, and I actually kind of like the tiles on the floor. It’s very cozy, for an institutional bathroom:

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We are all agreed that fourth floor south is a mess and needs something to pick it up immediately:

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The glory of third floor south:

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And a surprisingly interesting bathroom we found on 2nd floor south! There is a chair back there on the other side of Sink Island!

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A History of Willow Street

We all know that Willow Street Pump Station used to be, well, a pumping station. Some of us even know that it also was the city’s main trash incinerator. What probably very few people realize is that it was also the site of the first mill in the city of Houston, and at the epicenter of the history of the city’s growth throughout the years.

In the late 1980s, when the Harris County Jail was set to expand its facility into the Houston Terminal Warehouse and Cold Storage, there was an archaeological and land use survey done of the surrounding area. Since this land happens to be right across from Allen’s Landing, the most historic site in all of Houston, it should have been no surprise that there was a lot of historical use to cover in this nearly 50 page report. A copy was sent to the University of Houston-Downtown, probably as a courtesy, since we were already interested in the pumping station and it was generally included in the report. The details are quite fascinating, and negate the idea that the area north of the bayou was not important or historic.

In the report, they cannot resist the account of the first time someone mentions visiting Houston (June 1836):

“There was so much excitement about the city of Houston that some of the young men  in our neighborhood, my brother among them, visited it. They said that it was hard work to find the city in the pine woods; and that when the did it consisted of one dugout canoe, a bottle gourd of whiskey and a surveyor’s chain…they said the mosquitoes were as large as grasshoppers…the bayou water was clear and cool, and they thought they would have a bath, but in a few minutes the water was alive with alligators. One man ran out on the north side and the others got a canoe and rescued him. He said a large panther had been near by, but that it ran off as the canoe approached.”

There was also the first documented use of the land where the pump station now resides:

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Listed as “M. Bakers Mill Tract,” it would later come to be called Allen’s Steam Saw Mill, and is the reason that the street it still called “Steam Mill Street” today. Although the area looks like it is inhabited, in 1854 it was really just surveyed–there were very few buildings on the north side of the bayou at this time. Incidentally, is also known that at the foot our own M&M building, originally the area was used to repair boats and ships away from the main port at Allen’s Landing.

By the latter part of the 19th century, that mill was gone, but the pump station was put in place in 1902, as part of many water control projects through the years.  In 2001, there was discussion of whether to tear the building down or renovate it, and a comprehensive investigation of the building’s challenges was undertaken by a group of outside engineers and architects.

The buildings were in serious disrepair:IMG_20160226_121903

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From the introduction to the 2001 study, we learn that the pump station was actually in use until the 1980s, and the adjacent incinerator building, while not original to the 1902 site of the pumping station, was built in 1917 and expanded in 1925. The red bricks used in the construction are also considered quite historic, coming from a brickyard near Nacogdoches.

In the end, since the buildings were becoming an eyesore but presented a unique opportunity for adaptive reuse, the University went forward with its renovations and subsequently beautified an integral part of this area, which, though part of the history of Houston from the earliest days, was too long ignored.

The bathrooms of M&M North

If you have stepped foot into the M&M building, our main building here at UHD, you know that we have some *really* mind-altering bathrooms. Obviously, everyone knows about the third floor north bathroom:

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Why was it tiled like this? Was it the 90s? Just someone’s art project? No way of knowing.

 

But a lesser-known bathroom that really deserves a visit is 8th floor north:

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Why are the sinks red and everything else is yellow?! A mystery for the ages.

Some other bathrooms of note:

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6th floor north (same design as 4th floor north, so you’ll be excused if that is where you thought this was)

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9th floor north. All pink with navy blue grout.

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10th floor north is surprisingly classy, I like that blue stripe.

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First floor north never gets any love but it has a wonderful emerald green stained concrete thing going on.

 

I do not know why nearly every set of bathrooms on each floor is tiled in different colors. It really defies explanation, actually, because why on earth would they order new and different tiles each time a renovation was being done? At any rate, it is now a quirk of this place that I particularly enjoy.

Explore our bathrooms! They are treasures!

 

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.

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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).

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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.

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