Houston, county seat of Harris County, was founded in 1836 by brothers, A. C. Allen and J. K. Allen, who had come to Mexican Texas from New York City in 1832. They located their townsite at the head of navigation on Buffalo Bayou, a small river that empties into Galveston Bay, ensuring that their speculative real estate venture was located at the point where transshipment of waterborne goods would have to occur. To enhance their prospects for success, J. K. Allen, a member of the first Congress of the Republic of Texas, secured the designation of the new town—which A. C. Allen's wife, Charlotte Baldwin Allen, named for Sam Houston, the first president of the republic—as the provisional capital of Texas. From 1837 until 1839, Houston was the capital of a nation, endowing it with a sense of self-importance that never diminished. Like Galveston, but unlike most towns founded in the Gulf Coastal Plain of Texas in the 1820s to 1840s, Houston was a city from its founding. In the 1850s, the merchants of Houston outmaneuvered Galveston's merchants to make Houston the railroad nexus of the Texas Gulf Coast. Houston surpassed Galveston in population by 1900, and by 1930 it surpassed San Antonio and Dallas to become Texas's largest city. By 1950 it surpassed New Orleans to become the largest city in the South. And in 1984 Houston surpassed Philadelphia to become the fourth-largest city in the United States.
Houston's rise in the twentieth century from a city of regional to international significance was based on the eagerness of its economic elite at the beginning of that century to make it the headquarters for oil exploration, refining, and marketing, and eventually for oilfield equipment manufacturing, natural gas production and distribution, and petrochemical production. The construction of the fifty-four-mile-long Houston Ship Channel between 1902 and 1914 made it possible for oceangoing vessels to bypass the Port of Galveston and connect directly with Houston, where “17 railroads meet the sea,” as Houston's Chamber of Commerce boasted in the the second decade of the twentieth century. The incremental construction of a freeway network between the late 1940s and the early 1980s reinforced Houston's role as an economic gateway to the midcontinental United States, and to Mexico and Canada.
The Allen brothers' original townsite of sixty-two blocks—surveyed by Gail Borden (the inventor of condensed milk), his brother T. H. Borden, and Moses Lapham—did not match the scale of their entrepreneurial ambitions. The city grid, eleven degrees east of north to align with Buffalo Bayou, was soon extended south and east across the flat coastal plain and, by the 1840s and 1850s, the gridded additions to the city to the west and to the north (on the opposite shore of Buffalo Bayou) changed to make a true north layout.
Electrification of the streetcar system in 1891 precipitated the pattern of discontinuous suburban development (“leapfrogging”) that, in the 1920s under the impact of the automobile, would turn into full-fledged suburban sprawl. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Houston's municipal limits encompassed more than six hundred square miles of territory. Its suburbs spill out of Harris County (territorially one of the largest counties in Texas) into Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, and Montgomery counties. Because Houston is the only major American city never to have adopted a zoning code (despite five efforts between 1929 and 1993), there is little to inhibit this pattern of sprawl, despite the traffic congestion, infrastructure extension and maintenance costs, air and water pollution, and flooding problems that sprawl exacerbates. In Houston, especially since World War II, the primary responsibility of local governments has been to facilitate real estate development, not regulate it.
Houston's architecture of the twentieth century reflects the ambitions of its foremost cultural leaders and entrepreneurs to act on a national, even international, stage. Since the 1910s, nationally prominent architects have been commissioned to produce buildings in Houston. Consequently, the city—though often visually trying—is an architectural treasure house. The competition that these well-known architects presented stimulated the architects of Houston to produce buildings of comparable quality. John F. Staub, Birdsall P. Briscoe, and William Ward Watkin in the 1920s; MacKie and Kamrath and Donald Barthelme in the 1930s–1950s; Hugo V. Neuhaus Jr., Howard Barnstone, Burdette Keeland, Anderson Todd, and John Zemanek in the second half of the twentieth century; and Taft Architects and Carlos Jiménez in the 1980s and 1990s had practices of more than local consequence. Caudill Rowlett Scott, a Texan firm that moved to Houston in 1958; Morris Aubry Architects; Lloyd, Morgan and Jones; and Neuhaus and Taylor were corporate firms whose practices expanded, in some cases globally, with Houston's rise as energy capital of the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Houston is a city of extremes, even in a Texan context. Its hot, humid, subtropical climate and its insufferable flatness and tawdriness can drive newcomers to despair. Yet despite an apparently monomaniacal commitment to suburbanization, Houston remains a city. It possesses an architectural culture and a dedicated if frequently embattled corps of historic preservation advocates who value it as a place rather than just a deal in the making. Houston possesses cultural depth, but it is often elusive and must be sought out. Architecture is one important medium for searching out and experiencing the city's historical layers and diversity.
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