Comment of the Day: When Houston Chilled Out and Grew Up

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHEN HOUSTON CHILLED OUT AND GREW UP AC“I have 3 words that explain why Chicago developed as a ‘modern city’ well before Houston: ‘winter’ and ‘air conditioning.’ Think about it . . . Heating a big tall building to make it comfortable is easy. In contrast, cooling that same building is not so easy — especially in the post Civil War and 1890-1920 time frame. Now, the development of commercially viable air conditioners in the 1920-30’s was an expensive luxury. Then the WW2 years and rationing, and voilá — [only] modest growth of ‘big city’ until the late 1940’s and 1950’s. So when did Houston really start to grow? Yup, you guessed it: post WW2 and the 1950’s, when most middle class people could afford air conditioning in their homes and businesses. So if you want cool ‘old’ pre-war buildings, go north and east towards cooler weather. But if you want a modern or post-modern or even contemporary building, just look at Houston, or Atlanta, or Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. (And thank Mr. Carrier for his invention of air conditioning as we know it.)” [In the Doghouse, commenting on A Brief History of Houston’s Future Historic Preservation Culture] Illustration: Lulu

7 Comment

  • Well, Houston’s growth was on fire in the early 20th century before air conditioning was widespread (still a movie theater novelty in the 1920’s). By 1930 it had one of the tallest skylines in the country outside of New York or Chicago – taller than Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia. My three words for why Houston didn’t grow until the 20th century are “slavery,” “Civil,” and “War.” First you have an economic model that is antithetical to entrepreneurialism and industry, then you have the devastation of conquest and occupation. The three words for why Houston did start growing after all that disaster are “cotton,” “port,” and “oil.”

  • I’d also add that distance was a huge factor in the days when Europe was your only major market for raw and finished goods. Chicago is ~1,200 miles closer to London by sea, after all.
    Furthermore, Houston wasn’t the only port, nor the best one on the Gulf Coast, and all were competing with one another. New Orleans was the major city of the South, and had many advantages over Houston, most of which were squandered by local mismanagement. Galveston too was a better deep water port, and Indianola had serious money backing it before its destruction.
    If anything, I’d ascribe Houston’s late rise to cheap land and less expensive development costs compared to New Orleans, along with a nouveau riche civic class that promoted development and the inclusion of the newly successful, unlike NOLA’s stagnant Creole old money that systematically excluded perceived parvenus.

  • A/C had little to do with it. Chicago out-paced Houston because of its location as the geographic nexus of industrial transportation during the industrial revolution. It connected the east through the Erie Canal-Great Lakes and the west with the ever-growing railroads. A linchpin city grows. A growing city builds.

    A basic thought experiment: imagine an 19th century industrialist saying to himself “I need to build a warehouse distribution center but Houston’s going to be so uncomfortable in summer, so I guess Chicago it is”. That’s not how industry works. Similarly, New Orleans has plenty of old buildings because it was a linchpin city during that period. It didn’t have air conditioning then either. The A/C theory is wrong.

    Houston had no such geographic importance and had a hurricane not made Galveston nonviable Houston would probably still be a modest town. We had to build our port to earn any geographic value.

    It’s impressive that we did so. Houston shouldn’t exist. We made it exist. Now, that’s cool.

  • Sassy in-your-face misinformation makes comment of the day? All hail the swamp.

  • Houston doubled in size from 1920 to 1930. Chicago just had a big head start on Houston because it was perfectly located on the rail road lines between the the east and west coast and grew into a city of over a million before the turn of the century. By contrast, the MKT did not make it to Houston until 1893.

  • Oh goodness, give it a rest! Houston had plenty of “pre-war” buildings in its time. The difference? It decided it didn’t care to protect them and instead stupidly decimated the majority of them. These delusional excuses Houston fanboys come up with for why the city is “this way” or “that way” when compared to real cities, is laughable at most.

  • Here’s why Houston started to grow after 1900:

    1) In 1890 Galveston was larger than Houston. It was destroyed by the 1900 Storm; by 1910 Houston was twice its size
    2) 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop. By 1911, the forerunners of both Texaco and Exxon had relocated their headquarters to Houston because of its connections to the nation’s rail network.
    3) In 1902 Congress approved funds for the ship channel, which was dredged to 25′ in 1914.

    Houston’s population grew over 5% a year from 1890-1910, and never looked back.