Hidden Houston

In Houston, History Hides in Plain Sight

The city’s most important movers and shakers aren’t always where you’d expect to find them.

By Katharine Shilcutt and Adam Doster October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Infamous 8F Group and the Lamar Hotel

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Of the 88 privately-held rooms at The Lamar Hotel, Suite 8F wasn’t especially noteworthy: two bedrooms, a dining room, and a living room, all in need of updates. “Don’t touch it,” George Brown used to say. “Just leave everything the way it is.”

Who cared about the appliances, anyway? It’s the discussions inside Brown’s corner pad that mattered. In the ’50s and ’60s, 8F was known to some as the secret capital of Texas. Bankrolled by Brown & Root, it’s where Houston’s most high-profile business and civic leaders relaxed, played cards, and shaped the city’s development, electing to meet in an even more private setting than the nearby, already-quite-private Houston Club or Petroleum Club.

Brown was often joined by American General chairman Gus Wortham, Governor William Hobby, First City Bancorporation chairman James Elkins, Jr., developer Jesse Jones (who built the Lamar, and lived there for the better part of 30 years), and others whose priorities were economic growth and more fully developed civic institutions—art museums, universities, medical facilities.

Physically, the Lamar is long gone, bought by developer Gerald Hines in the 1970s and imploded in 1983, but the legacy of the men who met there remains visible today. —AD

The Albert Thomas Office at Bayou Place

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Walk up the Sundance Cinema steps, but bend to the right just before you hit the entrance, then pivot 90 degrees. You aren’t seeing things; behind the pane of glass ahead of you is the perfectly preserved office of one Albert Thomas.

Thomas was Houston’s Democratic congressman for 29 years, an LBJ protégé instrumental in bringing NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center to the Bayou City. A year after his death, in 1967, the city opened the Albert Thomas Convention and Exhibit Center, in the structure Bayou Place now occupies. It cost $12 million and, in true Houston fashion, closed a mere two decades later upon construction of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Thanks to preservation efforts when the convention center was reborn as Bayou Place in 1997, you can still see a replica of the room in which Thomas wielded his power, complete with photos of the congressman chumming it up with President Kennedy. A U.S. Congressional seal hangs on the back wall, while an old red book rests in the middle of his wooden desk; appropriately, it’s titled Science in Space. —AD

The NASA Manned Spacecraft Center

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Clockwise from top left: The Farnsworth and Chambers building on Wayside Drive, 1962, which for a time served as the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center and looks almost exactly the same today; Mercury 7 Astronauts Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gus Grissom, along with center director Robert Rowe Gilruth; the mid-century marvel has a little-known past.

The year was 1962, NASA’s Mercury Program was underway, and the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake was still under construction. Luckily, the mid-century marvel at 2999 S. Wayside Dr. was available, and for three years, through 1964, the low-slung building amidst rolling lawns and sprawling live oaks was the first Houston home of NASA.

The large campus that housed NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center was first built in 1956 as the headquarters of the Farnsworth and Chambers construction firm, whose staff didn’t get to enjoy their palatial offices for long: Founder Dunbar Chambers was killed in a hunting accident in 1957, and the IRS took down what remained of his company in subsequent years.

The Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired structure was eventually sold to the Gragg family—distantly related to Howard Hughes by marriage—who deeded both the building and the land to the City of Houston in 1976. A year later, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year; see p. 40) moved in, and it’s occupied the site ever since.

A Texas Historical Commission plaque outside is all that remains of NASA’s tenure here, but you can always spread out a blanket on the grass at Gragg Park and contemplate the heavens from the place that once sent the first Americans into space.

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