A Witness to History by Rebecca DeBardelaben

Cropped Longhorn Cafe

Behind the Longhorn Café in downtown Houston, a pecan tree grows out of a small courtyard. Now, a pecan tree in east Texas is not a strange sight, but this particular one is unique for a number of reasons. The area around the tree was once a grove of pecan trees where Sam Houston, in 1837, met with the Cherokee Indians in hopes of forging a peace treaty. Local Houston legend says that the Longhorn Café tree is the grandson of the “Peaceful Pecan,” a 60-foot tree that once towered over this grove. News stories from 1971 reference the “Longhorn” tree and estimated, at that time, its age to be 60 years, making the tree nearly 100 years-old today.

Longhorn TreeThe pecan tree, though 70 feet tall, is dwarfed by a 33-floor granite-clad office tower that wraps around two sides of the courtyard. The tree has still managed to grow and thrive, witnessing the surrounding land change from the dusty margins of town into a prominent area in the heart of the Theater District. The building that protects and watches over this tree, 509 Louisiana, has remained on the block for over one hundred years through growth, depression, and rebirth.

Much like the little courtyard, the whole 500 block of Louisiana, bounded by Prairie Street and Texas Street, brings together a dizzying mix of architecture. On one side of the street, Birraporetti’s serves up Italian food to all who enter. It is located on the first floor of a parking garage for the Alley Theatre, a turreted fortress of a building on the Texas Avenue corner. On the other side of the street are three early 20th-century buildings – two three-story buildings, one home to the Longhorn, and a hotel – and yet another parking garage.

Early Twentieth-Century Origins

City Auditorium, Picture Taken 1916

City Auditorium, Picture Taken 1916


One hundred and seventy years ago, this block looked quite different. The 500 block of Louisiana Street was one of the original sixty-seven blocks of the 1837 plat of downtown Houston. At that time, Louisiana Street was on the fringes of the downtown area. In the 1890s, there were only a few single-story family homes connected by dirt roads. In 1896, a two-story, female boarding house was located at 515 Louisiana, where one of the three-story buildings stands today.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the area was transitioning into a commercial district. The home of the Longhorn Café and the pecan tree at 509 Louisiana was built in 1906. The three-story, brick commercial building was unusual for, what the Texas Historic Commission has called, its brick interpretation of the Romanesque style of architecture, and is unique in Houston commercial architecture for this approach. Two twenty-five foot wide bays separated by brick quoins grace the façade of the structure.

One can walk into the Longhorn Café, which opened its doors in 1978, and still get a good look at the original construction. The two large bay doors look right out onto Louisiana Street. The ceiling beams and cinder blocks making up the walls are exposed. There are no placards. No historic markers. The waitresses seem unaware or unconcerned with the history of the place, though the décor is Texas-themed. The tables are covered with black and white cowhide-patterned tablecloths and the menu features burgers. In the courtyard, the pecan tree is ordinary in that resembles any other tree but miraculous because of its context, origins, and survival.

1900 to 1920s – Car Town

Between 1900 and 1920, the 500 block of Louisiana housed a myriad of commercial businesses, including Texas Laundry, Storerooms for Southwestern Telephone and Telegraph, Houston Paint Company, a carriage maker, Southern Brass Manufacturing and Plating Co., Hrendez and Garcia Candy Manufacturers, Star of Hope Mission, and a number of restaurants whose owners appear to be of Hispanic heritage. It was very much a working class compilation of small businesses.

At the onset of World War I, the block transitioned into an area heavily dependent on the growing transportation industry. Transportation businesses can be found along the block, in 1918, Four Sevens Auto Livery, J.M. McDade Auto Company, and Blackburn System No 2 Auto Livery & Elite Garage and Repair Shop could all be found between 500 and 517 Louisiana Street.

This automobile industry trend continued in the 1920s. The one company still catering to an earlier form of transportation, the Horse and Mule Company next door to where Birraporetti’s is today, did not survive the decade.

auditorium_hotelIn 1926, the Auditorium Hotel was built on the corner of Texas Avenue and Louisiana Street, just down the block from 509 Louisiana. The hotel was owned and operated by Michele DeGeorge, an Italian immigrant. Across the street from the City Auditorium, built in 1895, the hotel was one of the few luxury hotels in downtown Houston. It boasted that each room had its own bath, ceiling fan, and circulating ice water. The combination of a new luxury hotel and the City Auditorium raised the profile of the surrounding blocks.

According to Miki Lusk Norton, the granddaughter of Mr. DeGeorge, whose family still owns the Auditorium Hotel (now the Lancaster Hotel), her grandfather owned quite a bit of property in downtown Houston including the block across the street from City Hall, which was sold to the city and where the City Hall Annex sits today. Furthermore, the DeGeorge family also owns property on the east side of Downtown, near present-day Minute Maid Park, where the DeGeorge Hotel now stands. Ms. Norton remembers when she was a child that when her grandfather returned from collecting rent checks from his various properties, he always had a bag of pecans. She found later from her mother that those pecans were from the tree behind 509 Louisiana. “I hated every nut I ever ate in my life except pecans,” she recalls.

1930s to 1940s Decline

Businesses moved in and out of the 500 block of Louisiana during the depressed economy of the 1930s, including a school of beauty, the YWCA Colored Branch, and a number of engraving companies. The auditorium and hotel fell into disuse. By the end of the decade and into the World War II years, the majority of the block sat in vacancy and disrepair.

Mural of the Stage Canteen in the Basement of the Auditorium Hotel, 1981

Mural of the Stage Canteen in the Basement of the Auditorium Hotel, 1981

One small bright spot during World War II was the Stage Canteen, “Houston’s Littlest Theater.” In the basement of the Auditorium Hotel a small theater was built which played host to U.S. military personnel either returning to or passing through Houston. The theater hosted live bands, traveling musicals, magicians, and other acts . The theater was decorated with murals hand-painted in 1942. At the end of the war, the theater closed its doors, however the murals remained in place until 1981 when they were painted over during an extensive hotel renovation.

1950s – Race-mixing, Demolition, and Rebuilding

During the 1950s, the building at 509 Louisiana was used primarily as a storage warehouse for the Auditorium Hotel. The block in general, became an area of tailors, restaurants, and bars, including Ciro’s Night Club located at 517 Louisiana. Ciro’s was a blues club that allowed both white and black patrons to sit together at the same table – a shocking practice for its time. The centers of prominence in Houston shifted to different areas of downtown, culminating in the 1963 razing of the City Auditorium.

1950s_city_auditorium
1950s_blues_club

In the later half of the 1960s, Louisiana Street and the surrounding blocks began the transformation into the center of Houston’s emerging fine arts district. In 1966, the new Jones Hall for the Performing Arts opened on the site of the old City Auditorium. Jones Hall became home to the Houston Symphony and the Society for the Performing Arts. The Alley Theatre was completed in 1968 at the corner of Louisiana Street and Texas Avenue, across the street from the Auditorium Hotel. Through all the demolition and building, 509 Louisiana sat vacant.

1970s to 2000s – Return to Use

1970s_view

In 1970, both of the buildings next door to the Auditorium Hotel, 509 and 517 Louisiana, were purchased by its current owner, the Guseman/DeGeorge Family, and new tenants moved into the spaces. The 1970s and 1980s signaled a return to prominence for the 500 block of Louisiana. The three-story building at 517 Louisiana Street became Charley’s 517, an upscale cocktail bar that catered not only to the Theatre District, but also the patrons of the Auditorium Hotel, which underwent an extensive renovation and in 1984 was renamed the Lancaster Hotel. In 1972, 509 Louisiana became the Greenroom Club, another hotspot for the theater goers. Finally, in 1978, the Longhorn Café Restaurant moved into 509 Louisiana, a place that it still calls home today, thirty-one years later. The block has remained almost the same since the mid-eighties, the only casualty being Charley’s 517, which closed in 2003. Today, the building at 517 Louisiana remains a storage facility for the Lancaster hotel.

A Layered City

The 500 block of Louisiana Street has witnessed the ever changing urban landscape of Houston. In just over one hundred years, the block has changed from a residential street, with only a few houses, into a working-class commercial district, a center for liveries and car garages, for tailors and soldiers, for magicians and musicians, for a fancy hotel and a blues bar that welcomed all races; into a deserted and decrepit place, and a partially demolished place; and finally into a place of international-caliber architecture and fine arts. The ability of the block to evolve without a complete loss of its historic fabric has enabled the area to prosper.

The building located at 509 Louisiana has remained the one true constant on the block for over a century. For a city like Houston, which does not have many century-old buildings, it has unique architectural qualities. From the standpoint of preservation, it is a testament to the ability of a space to adapt for new use and remain a viable commercial building. Finally, this building has witnessed the complicated history of Houston. The competing narratives for the city – how it was built, who it belongs to, what its core identity is – are evident in the brick and the granite, and the stories we can tell about them.

Houston’s own history mirrors this block’s evolution, from a dirty, damp city founded on a bayou to one of the most prominent cities in the United States. And don’t forget that lone pecan tree that stands in the courtyard of the Longhorn Café – now endangered by the crushing weight of concrete on its roots — that serves as a symbolic reminder of the history of not only the immediate area, but the history of the city of Houston as well.

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