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Scenic Houston

Houston History Archives, In the News

Scenic HoustonLast month Houston, along with six other Texas cities, were awarded the Scenic City Certification by the Scenic City Certification Program of Scenic Texas.  Houston, Kennedale, McKinney, Rockwall, Seabrook, and West University Place, Texas will hold the certification through 2018 indicating that citizens in these cities, “through implementation of strong scenic standards… can enjoy an improved quality of life and businesses find it easier to attract customers and employees.”  A reception honoring the cities will take place this evening at the Hilton Austin Hotel in conjunction with the annual conference of the Texas Municipal League.

Specifically, the Scenic City Certification Program commended Houston for the following:

  • Strong standards to enhance the visual character of its streetscapes including sign regulation and landscaping
  • Emphasis on establishing and protecting parks, trails and open spaces
  • Clearly-stated unity of design standards
  • Firm prohibition on the conversion of existing non-electronic billboards to digital format

Here at the University of Houston Special Collections, we preserve and make available for study the records of Scenic Houston, a chapter of Scenic Texas, Inc.  Anyone who has driven around Houston over the years will find it no surprise that much of Scenic Houston’s work has centered around efforts to reduce the blight of billboard signage around the city (a fact underscored in the commendation above).  Records available for study include a history of much of that work but are not limited to strictly local efforts.  As the title of the collection would indicate, the Scenic Houston – Scenic Texas records include primary sources related to other local chapters and state & national chapters as well.  Also included are records relevant to the Greater Houston Partnership, the Quality of Life Coalition, and the Scenic Conservation Advisory Council.

As Houston and the other cities receive their recognition this evening, it marks another step forward in a long environmental struggle outlined by other collections in our Houston History Archives.  We invite you to reacquaint yourself with Houston’s environmental history in our Reading Room at your earliest convenience.

Erasing the Past

Houston History Archives, In the News

The following continues a series of contributions from Dr. Stephen James, who works with the Architecture and Planning collections here at the University of Houston Special Collections.  Dr. James holds a Ph.D. in Architectural History from the University of Virginia and for many years was a lecturer at the University of Houston College of Architecture.

Foley’s Department Store, Houston (1947, 1957), Kenneth Franzheim, architect

Foley’s Department Store, Houston (1947, 1957), Kenneth Franzheim, architect

A part of Houston’s history disappeared last weekend. In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 22nd, demolition crews imploded the Macy’s building on Main Street in the downtown area.  The building—until 2006 the flagship of the Foley’s department store chain—had not been an important part of Houston commerce and culture for many years.  But its passing is another marker that requires us to look back, if only for a moment, at a time when Houston was a very different place than it is now.

The building’s grand opening in 1947 was a major event. With a population under 500,000, Houston was a much smaller city, and most people lived within a few miles of the downtown business district. There were no suburban shopping malls, and downtown was the focus for most shopping and entertainment.  Citizens marveled at the new Foley’s building and welcomed the convenience of a large department store.  Unlike smaller specialty retailers, Foley’s offered appliances, clothing, furniture, and many other items, all in one place.  And what a place it was! With six floors of merchandise (later expanded to ten) covering an entire city block, it was enormous—a Texas-sized store for the state’s largest city. In keeping with the company’s ambitions to be the state’s premier retailer, Foley’s hired Kenneth Franzheim, one of the city’s leading architects, to design the new building. Air conditioning cooled the store’s shoppers while the fastest escalators sped them between floors.

Architect’s rendering of entrance to new Foley’s store, c. 1940s

Architect’s rendering of entrance to new Foley’s store, c. 1940s

In hindsight, Foley’s downtown store opened near the end of the era that spawned it.  Less than a decade later, Houston began its explosive march to the suburbs.  By the mid-1950s the opening of the city’s first automobile expressway, the Gulf Freeway, paved the way for Gulfgate, its first large suburban shopping mall. Others soon followed.  And while the downtown store remained the flagship of a sprawling chain that catered to suburban shoppers, business dwindled downtown, as office workers and inner-city residents claimed the aisles.

Sadly, when the explosive charges brought down Franzheim’s massive store, the building had long outlived the business and social models that created it. The compact urban area focused on downtown was a quaint relic of an earlier day.  It was time to move on in a city unable to embrace the future without first erasing its past.

Shoppers packed the aisles of Foley’s downtown store in the late 1940s

Shoppers packed the aisles of Foley’s downtown store in the late 1940s

The University of Houston preserves the history of the Foley’s building and the company that created it in the Foley’s Department Store Records, housed in Anderson Library’s Special Collections Department.  The university’s William R. Jenkins Architecture and Art Library holds the Kenneth Franzheim Collection, which contains many of the architect’s drawings and papers.  See also an earlier entry by Gregory Yerke in the Special Collections blog, “Foley’s and Houston: A Century of History”. For further information, researchers should consult Foley’s by Lasker M. Meyer (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).

Mama Ninfa (and the Fajita)

Houston History Archives

“I don’t look at the business in terms of money. I look at it in terms of the fulfillment that I’ve been able to give myself and give to others.” — Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo

mama_ninfaI suppose we have to wait a few more weeks for summer to officially begin, but I can already hear the sizzle from the grill.  Savory beef, char-grilled.  Roasted peppers.  Savory, grilled onions.  The ice is clinking.  The condensation is beading and rolling down the sides of chilled and overflowing glasses.  Yes, those of us born of a certain era, and raised in Houston on a certain diet, know what a debt we owe to the one we called, affectionately, Mama Ninfa.

The year was 1973.  Struggling to keep the family tortilla factory solvent following the death of her husband, Maria Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo had a dream and opened up a little taco stand on the factory site as a way to bring in more revenue for the struggling business.

Fast forward through some difficulties getting bank loans for expansion, capital being pulled from unlikely sources, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Wildly successful, the coming decades would see a plethora of Ninfa’s restaurants sprout up in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and anywhere else stomachs were grumbling for authentic Mexican food or evolving Tex-Mex cuisine.  All from this one, humble “taco stand,” 40+ restaurants would soon be serving diners under the “Ninfa’s” banner in 1990s, spreading and popularizing a cuisine now synonymous with the American Southwest.

Mama Ninfa would point out how she was an example of what anyone can do in America, the fulfillment of an elusive American Dream.  But, as she said, she did not view it solely in terms of the money, and over time the iconic family business and restaurants emblazoned with the “Ninfa’s” brand would sadly experience a rough period of financial difficulties replete with botched partnerships and business arrangements.  As one brand became licensed and spread thin, however, another emerged.  Her family continues their prominent role in the Houston restaurant scene through El Tiempo Cantina (including a location in the old neighborhood) and, their namesake, Laurenzo’s Prime Rib (it should be noted that Domenic Tommy Laurenzo, Ninfa’s late husband, had quite the mastery of Italian cuisine and this eclectic and expansive culinary repertoire seems to have continued the family tradition).menu_cover

Mama Ninfa passed away shortly after the turn of the century (June 17, 2001) and, while her culinary legacy lives on, ironically it may be that she is remembered as much for her charitable contributions and service to her community as she is for those mouth-watering smells and tastes.

An interesting resource here at the University of Houston Special Collections, the Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo Papers, as part of the Houston History Archives, provide a framework for this uniquely American, uniquely Houston, story of Ninfa’s.  The collection is highlighted by documents related to the family business interests, including business plans, correspondence, and some financial documents.  The more personal side of the family can be seen through the photographs in the collection (most from the 1980s and 1990s), personal correspondence, and documentation of her philanthropic engagement as well as general service to her community.  Be sure to consult the detailed finding aid for more information.

graciasOwners have changed, times have changed, but the “Original,” old-new, Ninfa’s still stands on the site of that bygone tortilla factory and their website still seeks to wake up the echoes of that old Ninfa’s charm, reminding visitors that down on Navigation Boulevard “Mama Ninfa first stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla and launched the national fajita craze.”

Oh, those incredible tacos al carbon (or, fajitas, if you prefer).  With apologies to our herbivore friends, what would summer be in Houston, if not for the fajita?  Thanks Mama Ninfa!

Not quite fully sated?  Come feast your eyes on the Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo Papers.

Foley’s and Houston: A Century of History

Houston History Archives
Foley Bros. on Main St. (1906)

Foley Bros. on Main St. (1906) – available for high resolution download at our Digital Library

Too often the city of Houston has a tendency to discard or wash away its history.  The perpetual buzz of construction around the sprawling metropolis has become our recurring soundtrack.  We seem to relish in pulling down long-standing authenticity so we can build the artificial over it again with a restlessness that results in a sort of amnesia for long-time residents and a disconnect for newly-arriving transplants.

In short, Houston is a city where it can be difficult to hold onto the thin threads of history.

Foley's Jewelry Counter

Foley’s Jewelry Counter

For just over a century the Foley’s Department Store served as a cornerstone in Houston, serving the needs of the population beyond simple commercial interests.  Paul and James Foley founded their Dry Goods Company in 1900.  By the twenty-first century, the shifting sands of business had seen Macy’s take over operations of the iconic building down on Main Street and, shortly thereafter, the registers ceased their chiming as Houston’s old department store was shuttered.  In-between those one hundred or so years, however, the Foley’s Department Store would be witness to and participant in the evolution and growth of Houston — and we have the records to prove it.

picketing against segregation (July 1960)

Picketing against segregation (July 1960)

Part of the Houston History Archives, the Foley’s Department Store Records may seem like an unlikely source for the interested scholar.  As one of the rare long-standing entities in Houston, however, the store’s records provide insight across a number of disciplines and attract scholars of different feathers.  With materials representing the operations of marketing, legal, financial, and public relations departments inside Foley’s, there is a little something for everyone.  Some are interested in studying the process of desegregation in the store’s dining facilities.  Others may be inclined to watch the changing trends in fashion.  Still others will want to look at the evolution of advertising and consumerism as it explodes in the post-World War II years.  The construction of the “store of tomorrow” will no doubt please those interested in architecture.  Studying transit and urban sprawl?  Foley’s planned expansions into the developing Houston suburbs are documented in studies analyzing, among other things, transportation.

This collection is a genuine cornucopia for the famished scholar of Houston history.

Given the recklessness with which we treat our history at times, those more interested in a simple look into Houston’s past will feel fortunate to be able to view it from this singular window over these many years (Never you mind that the revolutionary building design of Kenneth Franzheim wasn’t real big on windows!).

Modernism as showcased in the Foley's building - the lack of windows serving as accents to the climate-controlled function of the building

Modernism as showcased in the Foley’s building – the lack of windows serving as accents to the climate-controlled function

In typical Houston fashion, the late twentieth century saw a new “uptown” shopping district being developed out west of downtown.  The Galleria would go on to become synonymous with Houston, its commercial industry, and tourism.  As other downtown power players jumped at the chance to leave their urban center, Foley’s seemed to understand that the view from Main Street is different than that from the fringe.

We invite you to come share this historic view of our city.

This Is Our Home, It Is Not For Sale

Houston History Archives

this is our homeWith one major gift from Julius Settegast and Ben Taub, the University of Houston found its permanent home in 1936.  The gift, 110 acres of overgrown and largely inaccessible land, set the stage for something big in Houston.  Ten years later a gift from Hugh Roy Cullen saw new neighbors move in and together, throughout the twentieth century, these twin universities would bear witness to the unique evolution of neighborhoods in and around Houston’s Third Ward.

One neighborhood in particular, Riverside Terrace, presented an unusual case study in how race, resistance, and real estate help shape the soul of a city, block by block and street by street.

flyerIn 1987 Jon Schwartz took on the task of telling the decades-long narrative of Riverside Terrace and its residents in his 190 minute documentary, This Is Our Home, It Is Not For Sale.  Flush with home movies and photographs serving to complement interviews with residents, the film gives a direct, unembellished voice to those who have called Riverside Terrace home.  The result allows for an honest and unflinching look at race, religion, and socioeconomics in Houston and the difficulty of reconciling these weighty constructs with a concept of home over the years.

Scenes from the film may be sampled here, but we are pleased to offer the entire documentary for your viewing pleasure (minus the refreshments, unfortunately) in our Reading Room.  In addition to the film itself, we also have available for study Jon Schwarz’s papers relating to the progression of the film from fundraising, to research and production, as well as press coverage and information regarding film festivals and awards recognizing the film.  Be sure to take a look at the detailed finding aid for more information prior to visiting.ticket

Even today Riverside Terrace has much to say about us, and Houston will certainly cast a furtive glance in our direction to see what the years have wrought as well as what is next as Riverside continues to tell its story.

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