THE SPACE RACE (1965-1970)
The barest essence of what happened to Houston from 1960 forward can be distilled into one word—aerospace. Boosters probably would not readily admit that sheer political clout gave the city its future, but it did. Had it not been for Texas Congressman Albert Thomas, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy, who spent the last evening of his life at a Houston testimonial dinner for Thomas, the final chapter of this sesquicentennial commemorative might be altogether different.
Houston already had a leg up in the adventure when President Kennedy in 1961 challenged the United States to be the first nation to put men on the moon.
"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out," said Kennedy, "of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
Vice President Johnson, the former public speaking teacher from Sam Houston High School, was chairman of the federal government’s space council. A twenty-five year veteran of Capitol Hill, Thomas was chairman of the House subcommittee controlling the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s (NASA) purse strings.
When Congressman Thomas learned that NASA was looking for a site to locate a manned spacecraft training and mission center, he exerted his considerable political influence to bring the site selection team to town.
In the meantime, Morgan Davis, then head of Humble Oil, had given Rice Institute—later re-named Rice University—a thousand acres from a 30,000-acre tract the company owned on the north shore of Clear Lake. The land had been part of a ranch owned by "Silver Dollar" Jim West, the colorful and somewhat eccentric oilman who gave generous silver dollar tips.
George R. Brown was chairman of the Rice board of trustees, which subsequently offered the university’s thousand acres to the federal government as the site for the space center.
The announcement of Houston’s selection was made in September 1961. Herman Brown, George’s brother and head of the engineering/construction giant, Brown & Root, Inc., got the contract to build the center. Humble Oil, through its Friendswood Development subsidiary, built an ideal American community. Many would liken the NASA neighborhoods to Beaver Cleaver’s television hometown. A daisy chain of bedroom communities and office complexes soon filled in the grassy ranch lands between Houston and Clear Lake, and Ellington Field became the airfield of the astronauts.
Houston welcomed the original seven astronauts and their families in 1962 with a sweltering July Fourth parade on Main Street and a barbecue in the Sam Houston Coliseum. Somewhat nonplused by the Lone Star hospitality, the astronauts donned Stetsons and went Texan.
The influx of government employees and families, and technical support businesses prompted the chamber of commerce to tout Houston as "Space City, U.S.A." New York’s Times Square had gotten a taste of Texas crowing the year before when several local media bought a huge billboard to brag about the city’s sixth place population ranking. The city had jumped from fourteenth place in 1950, with its 1960 census count of 938,219.
There would be more crowing in the years to come. With the arrival of the Johnson Space Center, so named after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s death, there were many more proclamations from Houston. "Energy Capital" and "Air Conditioning Capital" soon were joined by "Center of New Knowledge," "Headquarters City," "Corporate City," and "World Class City" as phrase-makers sought the title with the truest ring.
The 1960s and 1970s belonged to the builders and developers. Up and out, as far as the eye could see, Houston was building, building, building. Kenneth Schnitzer began the master-planned Greenway Plaza that symbolizes what zoning might have done for Houston. George R. Brown announced plans for Texas Eastern Transmission’s thirty—three—block Houston Center, a major renewal in the urban core east of Main Street that now has Cadillac Fairview as a partner. Trammell Crow and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company built the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the 1100 Milam building. Schnitzer took over Trammell Crow’s Allen Center across Smith Street and built it around the Antioch Baptist Church. The black church shares the distinction with Annunciation Catholic Church of being one of the oldest Houston churches in use.
Gerald D. Hines built the Galleria complex, inspired by Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, and the immediate area became known as the "Magic Circle." Hines built a fifty-story office tower downtown that eventually headquartered Shell Oil. He also was responsible for the trapezoidal Pennzoil Place, designed by New York architect Phillip Johnson. In the next decade or so, Hines would develop the Gothic style RepublicBank tower and the lnterfirst Plaza, and I. M. Pei would design the pencil-slim Texas Commerce Bank, rising more than seventy stories in downtown.
Gus Wortham, the founder of American General Insurance Company, and his wife, Lyndall, were devoted patrons of Houston’s arts organizations. His American General complex was begun on Allen Parkway in 1965 with the American General Tower, to be followed over the next twenty years by four more towers, the fourth being a forty-two-story edifice. The story goes that Wortham bought a location for his mausoleum in the adjacent Magnolia Cemetery so he could be buried where he could keep an eye on his company.
By the mid-1970s, New York Times architectural critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, surveyed the skyline and pronounced: "Houston is the city of the second half of the Twentieth Century."
Industries moved in along the Port of Houston. Humble Oil changed its name to Exxon and developed the Bay-port Industrial complex on Morgan’s Point near Clear Lake.
The Port of Houston Authority installed a container crane on the wharves near Long Reach and it was not long before container marshalling yards dotted the landscape up and down the ship channel. The state of Texas built the first high-rise bridge across the channel, completing the last link of the 610 Loop, and in its shadow were gigantic distribution yards filled with foreign automobiles.
Foreign businesses, consulates, trade offices, and banks began arriving weekly. By the early 1980s, there were more than 550 foreign operations, and the city was a melting pot where languages spoken in the home ranged from Urdu to Arabic.
he pivot Houston now turns on came in 1969. That year, the Eagle landed on the moon and the city was launched in another orbit. Early in the year, Stanford Research Institute approached the city and chamber of commerce officials with a request for an in-depth study on Houston. The report would go to SRI’s anonymous client, which was considering a corporate headquarters relocation. The SRI team made it plain the competition was tough.
Months of intrigue ensued as the SRI team kept narrowing the field. The culmination was a report that pinned down, for the first time, what Houston had to offer. Through the medical center, the space center, the petrochemicals complex, and the ocean nearby, all the vital sciences converge in this city. Blind ambition, dumb luck, and genius combined to create an interface that is uniquely Houston’s. That discovery in 1969 was the perfect ending to a decade that began with the arrival of the space age. More importantly, it was the perfect opening to Houston’s future as a corporate center.
Occupying the corner office on the third floor in City Hall as the "transitional" mayor was Louie Welch. He had defeated Lewis Cutrer in his third bid in 1964. Welch had promised not to raise water rates. The charmingly spunky mayor picked up the reins on projects Cutrer and Oscar Holcombe had begun—Lake Livingston, Houston Intercontinental Airport, and the civic center complex—and got them done. He initiated numerous other projects in his unprecedented ten consecutive years in office—the first city-owned ambulance service, the new Central Library, Tranquility Park to honor the lunar landing, and the first effort to transform Buffalo Bayou into a scenic asset near downtown. A fiscal conservative, Welch is remembered for building the city’s coffers to give it a safety net admired by bond-rating services.