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Interview with: Gene Slater
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Date: July 22, 1991
Archive Number: OH 406_01
LM: 00:50 Today is the 22nd, I believe.
LM: Today is July 22, 1991. We’re wide awake and ready to begin an interview with Mr. Slater. This is Louis J. Marchiafava of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. Mr. Slater, I want to thank you very much for taking time out to talk with me this morning on a variety of subjects. As I mentioned prior to beginning the interview, I always like to begin by getting some background information on you as to where you were born, some idea of your background and education, some insight into your family background and the kinds of activities they were involved in professionally so that we can better understand your position and your accomplishments here at the Houston Endowment. So let me begin by asking you when and where you were born.
GS: I was born in South Bend, Indiana, 11/25/25. I got my early school education there and went into the service World War II—Navy—came back and went and finished college at Rice University, and I got my Bachelor of Arts in 1947 and Bachelor of Science and Architecture in 1948. And in that interim I was working part-time for Mr. Jones from ’46 to ’48 then went on full-time.
LM: Okay. Let me backtrack just for a moment and get a little more information about specifics about your educational background. Were you a product of the public school system?
GS: Yes, uh-hunh (affirmative), in Indiana.
LM: And what kind of work did your father did?
GS: He was a tool and die maker of Studebakers.
LM: Okay. Did you have any idea in your early educational years as to what you wanted to do in the future?
GS: 03:06 Not really. In the early days, drafting and things like that were of interest, but when I got into high school, things were pretty much, “Well, you’re going to go in the service.” My family couldn’t have afforded to put me through college, and so really there wasn’t any planning; it just sort of happened that I got into the service. I got into the Navy Air Corps. They were too full, and they transferred me to a B-12 unit, and I was in the Parkville, Missouri, B-12 unit for a year, transferred to Rice University in their ROTC unit—why, I don’t know. There were six of us they sent down here out of 400. And that’s how I got my college education.
LM: What year were you in the military?
GS: ’43 through ’46.
LM: Where were you stationed?
GS: On this side. I never did get out of the country. Glenview Naval Air Station, and then I spent the rest of my time in school, so I was lucky.
LM: Yeah. It gave you a head start.
GS: It sure did. I graduated from college at 20, which at that time was unusual because everybody came back after service and they had to start. So at 21 I had my fifth year degree.
LM: How did you select Rice?
GS: The Navy selected it for me.
GS: As I say, I was sent here. Six of us—how they selected us, I don’t know. Threw the cards up against the ceiling, and the ones that stuck they sent. There were six of us that came down here. I’m the only one that stayed here out of the six. That’s why I said it’s all happenstance, a very thin line that I’m even here in Texas. I don’t know what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for the Navy. But at that time you never knew, because the service was going to interrupt everything, whether I’d have ever gone to school. I worked in a meat market as a kid. I might have still been a butcher in South Bend, Indiana, or something. I don’t know.
LM: 05:07 Did you actually work as a butcher?
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: How long did you do that?
GS: Oh, just during high school. Part-time summertime jobs.
LM: We know who does the Thanksgiving carving.
GS: (laughs) That’s true. That’s true.
LM: Did your family have any expectations of what they wanted you to do?
GS: No. I think I was the first one in the immediate family of my mother, her sisters and brothers—I think I was the first one to ever graduate from college as far as I know.
LM: Yeah, so was I. Do you have any brothers and sisters?
GS: I have two brothers and a sister. My youngest brother finally went to college and graduated from Purdue. I have a sister who graduated from the University of Indiana. My brother next to me graduated from the school of hard knocks. He’s a truck driver and that sort of thing.
LM: The two that graduated from the university, what did they venture into?
GS: My brother was a teacher and now works for the teacher’s organization or union, I guess, in Indiana. And my sister was a major in language—Spanish mainly—and she was 20 years younger than I am, so she’s the baby of the family.
LM: How did you find Rice? Did you like it?
GS: 06:36 Outside of the Navy sending me there, yes, I liked Rice. The thing that amazed me about Houston was how clean it was when I first got here because still in the North—St. Louis, Chicago—was very dirty because everything was still coal and oil heat. So you put a white building up and it didn’t stay that way long; it turned black. The thing I was amazed at the first time I got off the train here was how clean the city was. It was quite a change.
LM: First impression was a good one.
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative), it sure was.
LM: Now, you came still a part of the Navy, and you belonged to the ROTC here.
GS: Right. Uh-hunh (affirmative). I left the service on July the 3rd, 1946. I remember because it was the day before the 4th of July. I played baseball at Rice under Jess Neely one year and lettered and did a little amateur baseball around town. Then as I got into architecture out there, we got through about a year, and the war in Europe was over, and so they started letting us do some other majoring. We didn’t have to take all naval science courses. So I decided I was going to go ahead and try my hand at architecture.
LM: That’s an important decision. It certainly changed the course of your life.
GS: Oh, yes, definitely.
LM: What made you go in that direction? Did you have any particular strong liking for architecture because you didn’t mention that prior to—
GS: No, it was just drafting and that sort of thing. My dad always thought he wanted—talking about aspirations—he said, “You learn how to be a draftsman, you’ll make a good living.” And so I took mechanical drawing and that sort of thing in junior high school and high school. Architecture just appealed to me here, and I really didn’t realize what architecture was all about yet then anyway, that most of it was, I’ll say, 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
LM: (laughs) Who did you work under then?
GS: Here? Mr. Baty. You’ve got some of his stuff over there in the library now. He was at Rice. He graduated some time before 1920. I’m not real sure just when he graduated.
LM: He stayed on as an instructor?
GS: No, no. He was here working. He worked with Mr. Finn for years and then went to work directly for Mr. Jones, and then that’s when we started doing a lot of Mr. Jones’ work.
LM: 09:38 Do you remember any other faculty members at Rice?
GS: Yeah. Jimmy Chillman, who was curator of the Museum of Fine Arts at that time, William Ward Watkin, who was our head of the department, and Mr. Morehead, who’s still kicking—I’m not sure. James Morehead. I’m not sure what his status is at the moment. I’m trying to think of some of the others. Mr. Dunaway, and I’m not sure about him anymore.
LM: Give me some insight into Watkin. What did you think of him?
GS: He was to me a typical Southern gentleman, although he came down here from Massachusetts. He was with the architectural firm that did the Rice campus and then stayed on as head of the department. He was a very tall, skinny guy. You could have blown him over with a straw, I think. He was very, very thin. He was interested in everybody, very detail-minded, I guess. He did a lot of churches around the Houston area during that time. In fact, he has a book published on church architecture. He’s real staid, quiet, he was always giving you all different kinds of solutions to all kinds of your problems. He would give you a new solution every day. He’d sit down and give you a critique.
LM: Was he a student-oriented type of professor?
GS: Yes, I think so. I got through on an accelerated kind of program at Rice because first I had one semester and then when we took it over, they crammed a full year into one 4-month period and we took fewer courses, almost like summer school, to get the thing back on even keel when they were going to start off again with only school for nine months of the year as against twelve, as it was during World War II. My better recollections are of Jimmy Chillman. He was a great lecturer, a very interesting lecturer, made things live for you, where Mr. Watkin was kind of factual. He’d point out everything about something, but it was all very dry, kind of, and Chillman kind of made the Colosseum live for you. You could see the Roman gladiators in there in your mind and that sort of thing. He was a good art critic too.
LM: 12:20 That’s interesting. Besides the teaching approach of the two men, was there a noticeable difference in their orientation toward architecture itself? Did they follow different notions? For example—I’m making this up, of course, just off the top of my head to give you an example—did Watkin follow a certain school of architecture whereas Morehead would follow another?
GS: The design school at Rice then was under the Beaux-Arts out of Europe, the Beaux-Art School. They used their programs, and the problems were submitted to several juries and then submitted higher up until they were finally picked, I guess, more as a national or international winner of it, of which I was never in that group. But they did follow their— So they were more traditional, I guess. This was just before the real contemporary things. They weren’t going into that much, and I’d say Watkin was more of a classical. As you well know, he was architect on the library branch that you’re in over there. He did—
LM: Trinity Episcopal Church.
GS: Trinity Episcopal Church. He did a church over on Montrose, I think, for the Christian Scientists, I believe he did. He was very traditional, I would say. Chillman, on the other hand, was more of an artist than an architect. He knew the arts well. He took tours in Europe, I think, before my time out there with students. He was more sociable to students. He’d show up at the dances and things like that when they had them. In my core Chillman taught charcoal sketching for design, and he taught charcoal sketching, and he also was an instructor in history. And his history courses—
LM: Art history or just—
GS: Art history and architectural history.
GS: Art appreciation, I think, was one course we took under him.
LM: This is always difficult to answer, really, and sometimes it’s impossible because there’s such a coming together of ideas and a mixture of ideas, but of the men you mentioned, who do you think had the most impact on you in terms of your architectural style, your career, the way you look at architecture?
GS: That is a hard question to answer.
LM: Yeah, I realize that.
GS: 15:24 Because you’ve kind of got to go with the flow wherever you’re going, and the flow up here was still more traditional than contemporary. Contemporary just happens to be what you’re doing now; it’s a bad term. But of the modernist type things, they evolve very slowly. I’d have to probably say Chillman, I guess, over Mr. Watkin, although Mr. Watkin was our fifth year critic. We had to do a thesis for our fifth year degree. But then the whole department kind of got in on that. Morehead was more of a structural. He was not a design man; he taught structure and mechanics and things like that out there. In fact, he was the registrar for Rice for several years, I think, and his dad was a professor at Penn State, I think, and did a book on 3-point perspectives and things like that. I can’t say what had more influence on me than—
LM: Yeah, I realize it’s a difficult question.
GS: Most of the things I did here were not new; they were remedial, remodeling. We did a few new buildings, but most of it was remodeling the older buildings. They weren’t that old. I guess the Lamar Hotel in 1948 was only 20 years old because it was built in ’28. But still, my feeling about architecture was if I had a defined problem—in other words, I had this room to work in—then I could solve the problem. If you gave me a whole big space and I had to get this room out, it would probably be like losing a cast. My arm wouldn’t know what to do when you take your arm out of a cast, and some people cannot work under the defined problems that I could; they’ve got to have the wide open spaces. But that’s the way I came up, so I work much better looking at the problem and solving the problem for a specific— I’m no good if somebody asks me to design 10 houses or 20 houses all different. I couldn’t. I need the problem, and I’d just be wild with ideas. But some people can.
LM: You’re problem-oriented, which may explain a lot in our later discussion about your job here. You studied architecture for how long at Rice? Let me clarify that.
GS: It was a 5-year course.
LM: Five years. Okay.
GS: It didn’t take that long but that’s what it was.
LM: 18:19 While you were there, did you have any notion of what you wanted to do with your education in architecture when you left besides get a job?
GS: Yeah, that’s right. Not at that time, no. Morehead is the one that sent me down here on a part-time job. Here.
LM: Here at the Endowment?
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative), then known as Commerce Company.
LM: What year was that?
GS: That was in ’47. No, it wasn’t either. It was October of ’46 I came down here.
LM: Do you remember your first assignment?
GS: It was a little lease drawing. In fact, I don’t know where it is right now, but I ran across it the other day. It was an Eastern Air Line desk in the Rice Hotel lobby in one of the two entrances. All the airlines and the train stations all had hotel offices back in those days.
LM: So as in most cases that I’m aware of at any rate, fairly important positions or potentially important positions are gained through recommendations, and you had high recommendations from Rice.
GS: Well, I don’t know whether they were high or not, but I was sent down here for a part-time job.
LM: They didn’t exactly hire the low end of the scale now, did they?
GS: I was just a kid then. I found out I didn’t learn much in school.
LM: How did that happen?
GS: You just find out that you get out and all they teach in school is design work and history, and all of a sudden you find out you don’t know a whole lot about drafting or what makes the world go around. Of course, that’s entirely different now with all the computer stuff. They put you at making borders on sheets when you first start out and that sort of thing, tracing somebody else’s details and putting it on a bigger sheet or something like that.
LM: 20:32 In the first year or so of your job here, did you manage to work with or cooperate with the other architects who were already employed?
GS: There was only one, and that was Mr. Baty, and he was more or less in a maintenance position at that time. All through the war there wasn’t much new stuff going on.
LM: What was his first name?
GS: Russ. No, J. Russ Baty. Initial only—J. Russ Baty. Like I say, he’d work for Finn and worked on a lot of jobs up there in Finn’s office because Finn at that time was Mr. Jones’s primary person. So when I first came here, we were doing the National Standard Building which ended up C. & I. Life Building, which was wrecked here a few years ago. We were doing tenant drawings. Mr. Finn did the exterior and the design work of running it up from an 8-story to a 22-story building, and we were doing the internal work with the tenants mainly. And the first job he did that was up from the ground was the Rice Hotel garage. We did that here in the office.
LM: This is whose first job?
LM: Baty, okay.
GS: Baty’s job here—first job I know of here for Mr. Jones that had his name on it was then. So mainly it started out just as rather dull tenant work. Of course, we had a lot of tenants; he had a lot of buildings.
LM: I don’t think many people appreciate the maintenance—I call it the maintenance—architecture that goes into keeping up buildings.
GS: They don’t.
LM: They see a building that goes up and—
GS: Really that’s where the work starts. When a building is finished the first time, you’re through with it, but remodeling of that building goes on forever as long as the building is there. There’s probably more financial gain to be made out of remodeling and upkeep of the buildings as a practice rather than— But you don’t get the fame there. If there’s any fame to be had, the first designer gets it. As a matter of fact, over here on Texas Commerce Bank, after the original building was done, the leasing people employed a local architect to do the interiors over there mostly, but you never hear of him.
LM: 23:15 No. You hear a lot of Finn, of course, because he was so prominent.
GS: There weren’t many people in Houston then. You had Finn, Franzheim, John Staub and Rather and—
GS: Sullivan, Finger. Right after the war there were probably only four or five well-known people in Houston that were being used by the builders, and of course, there weren’t many builders then. Mr. Jones was probably the most prominent builder in the ‘30s and right after the war through the ‘50s probably.
LM: Do you know much about the background— Obviously, this occurred before you came here, but do you have any idea how Finn was chosen as Jones’s primary architect?
GS: No, I don’t really. What I’ve seen of the drawings, Mr. Jones was using Franzheim, and Franzheim at that time was in New York City. The reason for the old Gulf Building being with setback design is it was designed under the New York City building code with the setbacks. It looks just exactly like some of the structures in New York City. And then I think Finn became associated with him here locally, and so a lot of the drawings on the Gulf Building have Finn associated with them. And some time in there, Mr. Jones just started using Finn, I guess—I’m not real sure—because he was the architect on the Lamar Hotel. Mr. Finger did the original National Standard Building and the original Commerce Building, I think, and Finn did the additions to both of them.
LM: The reason I received from people who I’ve spoken to was that Finn somehow managed to make Jones’s architecture financially practical.
GS: There’s probably a lot of truth in that. The buildings—
LM: He was able to cut it down to a thin—
GS: 25:39 The buildings were fairly plain. I don’t think Mr. Jones built any last erections for mementoes kind of a thing. He was always very practical and wanted to cover the whole block. Right after World War II when air conditioning was coming in, we never did do a building with courts or setbacks. That came along after that. He covered the whole block. He had a lot of interior space without any exterior exposure. And people started to rebuild, I guess, on that and sort of changed things. I remember when they built First City, the existing one, not the one a block up, and they put all the setbacks in there, and people started knocking about all the space that was vacant. And I said, “Well, you can’t really knock it. The building is full.” And some other people were sitting with buildings half empty, so I said, “You really can’t knock success. They’re paying the rent.”
LM: Did you ever work for Finn directly?
GS: No, just with some of his people up there.
LM: So you really don’t know that much about him personally.
GS: Uh-hunh (negative). No, I sure don’t. He wasn’t that active either in the last years. Other people up there were doing the work up there.
LM: Do you know very much about Finn’s downfall?
GS: Did he have one? I don’t know whether he ever had a downfall or not.
LM: Well, that’s the story I’ve received. Apparently, Mr. Jones and at that time Mayor Hofheinz—the father—and some prominent doctors at the Medical Center had asked Finn to design a charity hospital. In the interval, Mr. Jones died, Roy Hofheinz apparently waffled on his verbal contract with Finn, and apparently, he wasn’t paid all that he should have been paid for it.
GS: There was a long tale about that. As I understand the story now, the contract with the county, which it was the county hospital out there, they paid no fees until the building was started or started to work. They went through months, maybe years, of design. It bankrupted Reg Taylor, a mechanical engineer, I think. It had a lot to do with his downfall because he— That had a lot to do with Finn because he had no money coming in. A lot of money was put up, and they kept changing it and kept— I’m saying they. I don’t know who they is at all. But I know over and over and over again they kept going around, and they said something about the county law or something on the books said they couldn’t pay anything until the bids were taken and accepted or something. I believe that was a criteria that they couldn’t— Mr. Cummins lost a lot of money on that—Robert J. Cummins, who was Mr. Jones’s constant advisor on things when he was with the RFC.
LM: 29:10 This was after he died though—after Jones died this happened.
GS: The hospital?
LM: The downfall of the gentlemen.
GS: I’m not real sure because Mr. Jones died in ’56, and I remember this was all kind of going on. I’m not sure if my timetable is off.
LM: That’s interesting. See, I hadn’t known that part of it, that Finn was not the only one who was dragged down in this.
GS: When I first was here, they had a mechanical engineer in the building, Reg Taylor, and Robert J. Cummins and Finn, and so we all three worked—we were all right here up and down the building. We didn’t have to go outside to talk to anybody; they were all here in the building. Robert Cummins, when Mr. Jones was with the RFC and they were going to do the Oakland Bay Bridge, I think it was, in California, Mr. Cummins recommended they build it a two-level bridge, which they did. And he was pretty much his constant advisor on structurally and architecturally, I guess you might say, because some of our first buildings we did were on Robert J. Cummins’s paper or title block, and Russ Baty was shown as the architect, but the title block was Robert J. Cummins. In fact, you have the tracings on 1114 Texas Avenue that are that way. That was the first office building I worked on.
LM: So that story then holds up pretty well as to what happened with Finn and the others.
GS: Yeah, it was a— The downfall not doing the work, it was—
LM: No, I didn’t mean that.
GS: —a fluke in the county regulations or whatever.
LM: Yeah. Apparently, there weren’t written agreements; everything was on a handshake. This is something you might clarify too, whether it’s just one of these rumors that get started or tales or fables, but Mr. Jones did most of his work with agreements on a handshake.
GS: 31:07 That’s right.
LM: It’s really true? That’s amazing.
GS: He said if you couldn’t trust a man’s handshake, you might as well not do business with him.
LM: Let me turn this off.
[end of 406_01] 31:21
LM: [beginning of 406_02] 00:06 Continuing the interview with Mr. Slater. Side 2.
GS: What were we talking about?
LM: That Mr. Jones actually did seal deals with merely a handshake.
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative). I remember we used to have an old chief engineer over at the Gulf Building that would handle a lot of the engine room. One time all the engine rooms and all the buildings were under this one man, Mr. Booker. And he one time told me he went up to talk to Mr. Jones about Otis Elevator Company, and they hadn’t fixed something, and they wanted to get paid. And Mr. Jones said, “Did the man tell you they would do it?” And he said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, if that’s not any good, we’ll have a lot of trouble anyway if they won’t do it.” People were that way then. They’d tell you they’d do something, and most of the time they did it. They only got a chance not to do it once. If somebody backed off one time on you, then he was pretty well through with you for the rest of the time.
LM: It’s hard to believe that a man with such business understanding would actually trust large agreements made on a handshake. It’s so different from today.
GS: Back then if people got together— Of course, now they say they’re running the town if they try to do that, but back then there was a handful of people in Houston—the Browns, Wortham, Mr. Jones—that got together—and Mayor Holcombe at the time—and they would pretty well decide kind of how we’re going to try to do this thing, and they did a good job for Houston. But they could do things like that. He came back, and he brought the ’28 National Democratic Convention to Houston because he told them he would build it. He just told the committee, “I’ll build it.” And he did and raised the money.
LM: 02:03 Yeah. We have the plans here.
GS: Yeah. You’ve got the seating plan anyway.
LM: That’s right.
GS: I think I’ve still got a bunch of copies of that. I don’t know what to do with the rest of them.
LM: Don’t throw them out.
GS: I haven’t. They’re still in the file.
LM: We’ll take them. I’m a soft touch on having materials thrown away. Just slightly altering our focus while we’re on the subject of Mr. Jones, did you work with him directly very often?
GS: Yes, in the middle ‘50s. My boss, Mr. Baty, was sick for a few months, and we were doing the Houston Club Building at the time. So he used to come down. He’d stand right back there, and we’d look at things, and there wasn’t anybody else here, so I was doing it and made a lot of sketches and things for him. He was very easy to get along with, as far as I was concerned anyway. I found out one time when he told me, “When you get time, do this sketch for me”—it was on the Lamar Hotel block. He wanted to play with putting the whole block together. And I was working on something else, and 30 minutes later he called down and wanted to know how I was getting along with it, so I found out then that what he meant when he said, “When you’ve got time,” he meant to get on it. He was impatient. He played checkers with the columns and footings and was always— We’d do no set number of schemes. We could grind those out by the yard more or less.
LM: Was he good with figures? Could he look at what you would give him, and could he pretty well estimate what the cost was going to be?
GS: I don’t know about the cost, but he knew what he was looking at.
LM: 04:04 Because I’ve heard rumor that there were people that surrounded him who really knew what was going on and advised him and that he took advantage of their knowledge as his own.
GS: Maybe so, but he made the decisions though. In his book though—the biography—he said that he hired conservative people to run his properties because he was the one who took the chances and made the decisions, and so he had a lot of conservative people running his various corporations. And all the chances that were taken, all the gambles that were made, Mr. Jones took them. He had a lot of advice, I know, but he still was the one who made the decisions. Mr. Fred Heyne ran his everyday in and out of the business, but Mr. Jones made the decisions. He was still in Washington when I first came here in ’46. He hadn’t moved back yet from Washington. He came back some time maybe early ’47 or something like that or maybe late ’46—I’m not sure now.
LM: Was Mr. Heyne the second most important person in the hierarchy?
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative). Yeah, he had the authority.
LM: What kind of relationship was it? How did that develop? Did you ever learn?
GS: I think Mr. Heyne was the head teller at a bank down here on North Main, one of the banks that Mr. Jones bought and later merged into National Bank or Commerce. And as I understand it, whenever that happened, he made Mr. Heyne kind of a general office manager and from there on he had the power of Mr. Jones, power of attorney and everything else for years and years. There were, like, three people we knew up here in the corner office on the second floor here— When Mr. Heyne, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Simpson or Mr. Doherty from the bank got together, then that’s where a lot of decisions were made. I would have liked to have heard some of their conversations. I never did get the opportunity to.
LM: I’m sure you would have. (laughs)
GS: Because I kind of knew how some of the decisions were made. It was kind of offhand or just, “Yeah, we’ll go ahead and do it.” Mr. Jones used to prowl the jobs when they were going up.
LM: He used to?
GS: 06:53 He’d check them. He’d wander by and he’d stick his nose in. Sometimes people didn’t know him, and they’d tell him he was going to get hurt and he better get out of there or something like that. He’d wander around these buildings.
LM: Were there any new buildings that went up after you arrived that were significant enough to warrant his input in the actual design of the structure?
GS: A lot of the buildings went up— He generally always had a primary tenant he’d build a building for. 1114 Texas Avenue was the telephone company. They now own that building, but that was the first building I worked on. The Rice Hotel garage was up because the Rice Hotel had no place to park cars, obviously. In ’47 and ’48 they built the two buildings back here. They were both Gulf Building additions. Finn did those two. I think he made primarily all the decisions on things that were— Like I say, we generally had a major tenant he was working with, or we did a lot of schemes on tenants that never developed. He never did really just build a full speculative building. He would always build it, take care of the people, then build additional floors and generally put the foundation down for more. We did an Oil & Gas Building in Fort Worth that was for Standard Oil Company, I think—Standard of Indiana. We built a garage up there for the Fair Store in Fort Worth. He owned quite a bit of property in Fort Worth. We had the Worth Hotel, Electric Building, Medical Arts Building, Fair Building, like I say the Oil & Gas Building, Fair garage. Mr. Jones’s brother John was how he got connected into Fort Worth. That was his. He enjoyed that. I never knew him, John, the senior. His funeral was the day that my wife and I got married in 1946.
LM: You don’t hear very much about his brother.
GS: Uh-hunh (negative). No, he wasn’t—
LM: Very little. So you didn’t know him at all.
GS: No, uh-hunh (negative), never met him. I know his son, John Jr., but never did know his dad. And then he had a lot of property in New York City.
LM: Right. Did he sell some of that off?
GS: I think it’s all gone now. He never sold it. The only thing he sold in his life was the Commerce Building here on Main and Walker, and Tennessee Gas, as I understand, kept bugging him, wanting to buy it, and finally he set them a price, he didn’t think they’d take it, and they did. So I think that’s the only one he ever really sold. The rest of them in his lifetime he kept, like the Mayfair House in New York. He had some other apartment buildings and office buildings up there.
LM: 10:09 So many stories develop after a man like Jones dies that sometimes it’s hard to discern what’s reality and what’s fable. But it’s been widely said that he had more than just a financial interest in the buildings. He looked upon them as sort of a personal extension of himself, that he really took pride in them.
GS: Oh, that’s true, I’d say. Yes, yes, definitely. He wanted to make money, but he didn’t—
LM: He could have gone into oil, for example, and he never really did.
GS: That’s right. He never did. He was one of the original founders of Humble, an original investor, but he got out because he was not in the oil business; he was in the building business and banking and of course, then newspapers. I don’t know whether you know when he first came here, he opened up Jones Lumber Company on the Lamar Hotel block was where it was.
LM: That was his uncle’s business, wasn’t it?
GS: No, it was his. He opened up that. His uncle’s business was in Dallas. He came to Houston and opened up Jones Lumber Company, and he put it on the Lamar Hotel block. The whole block down there was Jones Lumber Company. And then when they built the Lamar Hotel, he moved it out to where it is now on Polk Avenue.
LM: Personally, what kind of a man was he? I know you worked for him, and that’s a difficult question to ask. Was he a likeable man?
GS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. He was likeable. He was tough, but he was likeable. He took care of people. He befriended a lot of people. Of course, back in those days nobody made big salaries working for somebody else. Things hadn’t escalated like they are now. Like in his book he also says he didn’t think anybody was worth over $25,000 a year. Of course, back then $25,000 was a lot of money. But he did a lot of things for lots of people, and people were in his organizations higher than I was. They were given opportunities to invest or get bank stock. In fact, one time I did. He came around and told us the National Bank of Commerce was going to expand—a capital expansion—and he was not going to buy his shares, and we were given the rights to buy ten shares at $45 a share, and then they financed it for us. They loaned us some money to do it, and I ended up with around $8,000 or $9,000 for me when I finally sold the bank stock over the years, just taking the stock options and what have you. So he did things like that. That was the only thing that I really personally benefited outside of my own job in association with him.
LM: 13:15 Yeah, because I’ve heard that Heyne, who did a lot of his legwork, really didn’t get paid all that much considering the jobs he did.
GS: You’re probably right. I don’t have any idea.
LM: I was just curious about that.
GS: None of his people got paid much, but there were bonuses and other things that people didn’t know about. It didn’t show up on the salary list, I’d say. And they had a lot of privileges that didn’t show up on the salary list. They had use of most all of the facilities—hotels, whatever. They didn’t have to—
LM: Pay for it?
GS: Didn’t have to pay for it in full or whatever. I’m probably talking out of school, but there were a lot of things that could be done then that you can’t do now, sort of, you might say, perks of the job that went along with a lot of those things.
LM: I’m going to ask you a question now because you were around at the time and you might be able to shed some light on it. The two opinions I have already are not very objective, and yours may be more balanced. Apparently, when Glenn McCarthy wanted to open up his hotel as he actually did, Jesse Jones supposedly was very much opposed to expansion in that direction—South Main direction—and saw that as a threat to his own properties downtown. Do you recall any controversy about that or any remarks made about that?
GS: I recall some opinions I think were his; that he didn’t think a hotel anyplace outside of downtown Houston would work. In other words, he wanted to control his own stuff. I remember one time he did say in a certain length of time he’d buy out McCarthy twenty-five cents on the dollar or somebody would. But it all worked out well. The downtown at that time kept prospering, and McCarthy’s hotel did all right, I guess, until they did go bankrupt once. Prudential took it over.
LM: 15:34 It’s a question of whether that was bad management or location. Probably bad management.
GS: Probably somebody on a personal toot. McCarthy was a lot different than Mr. Jones was. He wasn’t near as practical.
LM: That’s pretty obvious.
GS: He did a lot of things that Mr. Jones never would have done.
LM: In addition to the importance of maintaining these properties, were you involved in any original work in any of the new construction that came on later on?
GS: Yeah, quite a bit. Quite a bit.
LM: Which ones stand out in your mind most significantly?
GS: The new buildings were 1114 Texas and the Rice Hotel garage was the first building I worked on, but I was making borders, I think, back in those days. The Houston Club Building and the garage. The garage was built in ’51, and the Club Building was added to the top in ’54, I think. The Oil & Gas Building in Fort Worth, the Fair garage in Fort Worth. We did a couple little bank buildings around, like MacGregor Park Bank, which I’m not sure whether the original building is even standing. The bank is not there anymore. Some things like that we worked on. And then the major remodeling that came up. That came up after Mr. Baty was gone, like the Lamar Hotel and the Rice Hotel—those were just continuing—and the Chronicle Building, of course.
LM: Obviously, at this point you’re the head honcho here.
GS: If there’s anything to be head of anymore. We don’t have much property left.
LM: How did you progress? Was it based solely on experience, or were you taken under the wing of one of the other architects under Mr. Jones, or did you just manage to progress on your own?
GS: I was just here, I guess. Yeah. I was working under Baty. When he retired, well, they gave me the job. And then there was a time of a lull in there, and Mr. Heyne was getting older, and then when he retired, Mr. Creedmoor (??) 18:30 took it over. I’ve done no new work at all under my name. The Bar Center Building across the street, which was the old Russ Building, and the Lamar and then a good bit of the Rice but not all and then the Chronicle was all under my practice, I guess you’d say.
LM: 18:55 When did that transition take place for you? Was it gradual, or was there a sharp division?
GS: It was kind of gradual, probably about the late ‘50s—’57, ’58. In ’57 we built the Rice Hotel Drive-In Building. I guess I’d probably say early ‘60s, I guess, it started to change and started to shift.
LM: You mentioned that many of the properties that belonged to Jones were sold, and the Endowment really has very little left in terms of property.
LM: Whose decision was that to—
GS: The IRS. The ’69 IRS law.
GS: It said foundations had to get out of business. They couldn’t own over a certain percentage of a corporation, they couldn’t own rental property, they couldn’t own hotels, we couldn’t own the newspaper, and we had ten years to get rid of the property and twenty years to get rid of the Chronicle. The IRS was the primary—
GS: Instigator, right. The 1969 IRS law. (chuckles) I have some opinions on that.
LM: Well, I’ll be willing to listen.
GS: I think downtown Houston is not near as well off as we’d have been had it not been passed.
GS: 20:23 I really think that we would still have been operating the hotels and things like that, but they, in their great minds, didn’t think that was the right thing to do.
LM: You think it hurt the city overall?
GS: I think downtown it did, yes.
LM: This is another toughie because I’m asking you to pry into the brain of a deceased man. Did you note any long-term plans that Mr. Jones had for the downtown area? Let me say this: By that I mean did he ever conceive of the downtown area being residential high-rise as well as business?
GS: I think so because a lot of his background came out of New York City. How that happened, I don’t know, but the Lamar Hotel was built with apartments and with the hotel part. The McKinney Hotel that at that time was called the Lamar Annex was an apartment type hotel. Oh, yeah, I think so, because he lived downtown.
LM: Right, I know.
GS: So yes, I think he was— I don’t think he had any long range total plan. I don’t think he ever had any long— If he did, we didn’t play with block after block after block. At that time we kind of worked on a block. We wanted to see what we could do with a whole block maybe, but he didn’t have any great—that I know of—city planning other than he was obviously very interested in the city and was going to watch it prosper. I guess he could have because at one time I think we had something like 52 pieces of downtown property or maybe more.
LM: That was in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s.
GS: Yeah, uh-hunh (affirmative).
LM: You must have had a tremendous job taking care of all that property.
GS: Well, a lot of it was vacant. A lot of it at that time was land. We owned things like the Houston Terminal Warehouse. That was kind of self-ongoing over there. Some of these other things around there, like the Gulf Building, they were under different management. Over here we did not take care of the things like the Gulf Building, and the hotels had their own engineering staff and everything. We did mainly the remodeling work and major maintenance, and if things went wrong, we had to jump in and replace equipment and that sort of thing.
LM: 23:12 As of this date, 1991, approximately how many buildings are still under the control of the Endowment?
GS: This one.
LM: The only one?
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative). This is the only one. We have disposed of everything else.
LM: Okay. So the money was invested in other areas when the property was sold.
GS: Invested in other areas and primarily for the charitable operations of the foundation.
LM: I assume the foundation was Mr. Jones’s idea.
GS: Yeah. I guess I’d have to assume that with you. I heard the tale it was brought on by the estate tax law that Roosevelt I think was the daddy of, and that was one way that he could at the time preserve an organization. But when it got all through, he willed all of his stock in Commerce Company to Houston Endowment, and it was the one way to keep it together was through a foundation like, I guess, the Rockefellers and places like that that had done similar things.
LM: With the sale of the properties, and this was in the ‘60s, was it?
GS: In the ‘60s up through— We had until ’78 or ’79 to get rid of other things. Some was given away. Some was given to approved receivers, I should say. We gave the Rice Hotel to Rice University to get the landowner and the building owner together. We gave the Texas State Hotel and the Bar Building to the Moody Foundation in Galveston. It was a Methodist foundation. Is that Moody? I’m not sure which one it is now. And then we sold some of it. But by and large, they gave a good bit of it away. We sold the Lamar Hotel block, sold the Chronicle.
LM: 25:45 So that vastly reduced your responsibilities.
GS: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to be replaced when I retire. I’m the end of the line.
LM: That’s been a distinguished line. You’ve seen a lot.
GS: I’ve seen a lot happening downtown. I sure have.
LM: Do you have any reflections on the changes that have occurred downtown since you came on as a young man?
GS: Not really, I guess. I sort of plug along day after day. I’ve seen a lot of schemes come along that have gone by the boards, like some of the downtown traffic ways and aerial ways and things like that that didn’t get anyplace.
LM: What do you feel is the future of the downtown area as opposed to areas like The Galleria and Greenway Plaza? Do you think Houston’s center of town has been splintered severely?
GS: Definitely, I think it’s been splintered severely. It’s a trend that I don’t know whether they can even reverse or not. More and more and more people are getting out. I think downtown, like a lot of the other major cities, stores are moving out of downtown. They just don’t have the traffic down here, and at this end of town there’s no place to stay in this end of town for out of town guests. I just don’t know. It’s not just eroding; it’s not just moving south or moving west; it’s just moving out.
LM: With that occurring, what is the future of the downtown that Jesse Jones envisioned? Is it dead?
GS: It’s pretty bleak, I’d say. I don’t think he ever in his wildest dreams thought downtown Houston would deteriorate or would move up. I really blame the ’69 IRS law for a lot of that because we just—not we but everybody just couldn’t do anything. Of course, then the banks changed hands. We had to dispose of the bank along with—
LM: 28:49 I didn’t realize that.
GS: Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not saying that’s bad. The bank now is a real good financial institution, but a lot of these people are not downtown advocates. I’m a downtown advocate. I guess I probably never will forgive American General for moving out of downtown or going over and starting their own little area. Of course, that’s not very far from downtown now in Allen Parkway, but people like that— The Houston Light and Power Company stayed downtown; they didn’t move out. They’re not being attracted back to downtown. I don’t think the transit system is going to change that much either. I don’t believe it will. You’re never going to get people out of their cars. It’s like LA; they never got people out of the cars out there.
LM: You have more than just an architectural perspective; you have a realistic financial perspective on the situation as well. What do you think of the efforts by groups to revitalize the old Market Square, to preserve historic downtown Houston if there’s anything historic left to preserve? Is it feasible?
GS: Yeah, it’s feasible. They almost did it once down there, and then the landowners got greedy and started raising their rents and ran everybody out. They started making a little success down there in the old brewery area. There were some nice restaurants down there. They started redoing some buildings down there, and that was the place to go. You’d go into the old Market Square area at night, and if a convention was in town, it was a fairly safe place to be.
LM: This is a good place to change the tape.
[end of 406_02] 31:10
LM: [beginning of 406_03] 00:09 Continuing Slater interview. Side 3. We were talking about the revitalization or the preservation of downtown Houston, and we’ve already discussed something about it. Is there any way that the advances that seemingly were made earlier can be regenerated?
GS: It all involves money. The dreamers have got to come along, but then people have got to be able to put up hard cash to do it. The Brown thing over here that now sold with the Cadillac Fairfield or whatever, they had a great thing over there at 32 blocks. That’s probably the biggest thing that anybody has ever even attempted to do in downtown Houston, and yet there were people fighting what they were trying to do over there. They only had a 50-foot frontage on Main Street, which was the old Southern National Bank Building and that spread out as it went back eight blocks deep, I think, or something like that down to 59. In fact, there were a lot of things. There was a lot of argument about where the Convention Center was located. I kind of personally thought it should have been over where the city has its investment involved with the arts and everything rather than where it went. But there again, that’s my own opinion.
LM: 01:55 The Endowment is not in any way involved in any of that land or any of the development in that area.
GS: No, uh-hunh (negative), either place. No, as far as I know, we’re not involved in anything like that. It seems like with all of the addition, where it’s growing it’s growing over in the Jones Hall and this area over here as against over there. Since the Convention Center was built, I don’t know what else is going up over there anyplace. There’s nothing I know of. Hotels are not there. I just don’t know, obviously. I wish I did. I’d like to see Market Square get picked up again, but people can’t get greedy. They get greedy, they’ve had old buildings down there, people go in there and spend money on them, and then all of a sudden their leases are up and they try to double the rent, so they’ve folded.
LM: So you believe that’s one of the reasons for the failure.
GS: Yeah. Everything has got to be economically feasible. I question the use of the old Albert Thomas. They’re talking about putting some sort of recreation area, for want of a better word, in there. As far as I’m concerned, one thing about the city of Houston is they don’t maintain things when they get them. They build this stuff new and they do nice things, and I can walk around any of these buildings and show you how badly they’re being maintained, including the planting. They never have taken care of Albert Thomas. The planters they had out there, they were always just full of weeds going down Prairie Avenue or whatever it was. They didn’t maintain the work, the building. I don’t know what they’re doing over in the park now or over in the Square over here. They’re tearing a lot of stuff up over there now. But the city of Houston, it seems like once they get something, they don’t maintain it. They don’t go back and keep it going for some reason.
LM: 04:28 Looking back over all these years, what was the nature of the Jones era? What typified it most?
GS: As far as the city was concerned, I’d say the city fathers, really, the so-called 8-F Suite or wherever down at the Lamar Hotel where these people got together and they decided who they were going to back for mayor, who they were going to have do this or do that, and they pooled their money there. They helped each other more or less do things. You do that now and they holler about collusion. They run the roads through their own property. I never have really understood why if you got a road you’re going to build why you couldn’t build it through a friend’s property. Why in the world build it through an enemy’s property? Holcombe did a lot of things for himself, but he also helped Houston in a lot of ways with his terms as mayor.
LM: I realize you weren’t a political figure in this period, but did you ever have access to the 8-F crowd?
GS: No, uh-hunh (negative). There again, that’s stories.
LM: Oh, yeah. We’re trying to get facts. I want you to be factual if you can.
GS: Yeah, that’s what I said. Of course, in 1949 they tried to pass zoning here, and at that time, Mr. Jones was in favor of zoning. I was in favor of zoning personally. They had a big scrap about it. Since then, one thing I’ve learned about an architect is I felt like when I got out of school I could probably redesign the world. I’ve found out since then I can’t do it. I can’t redesign a block that will last a long period of time. I’m not smart enough to do these things and not turn them into a political football. I think zoning now is going to turn out to make some people rich, and it’s going to break some people; it’s going to ruin some people’s property. They all start out that they’re going to do good. Urban renewal—I was all in favor of that. I thought that the people could go in and tear down things like over here on Allen Center and replace it. Sure, you can do nicer things to that area, but where are the people going to go? You’re just shoving them off someplace else. You’re creating another slum or another bad area someplace. They built some in St. Louis, 10-12 story apartment buildings—3 of them, I think—that never were occupied, and then they finally were wrecked. They never had a soul in them. So obviously, I’ve changed my opinions of how things get done or don’t get done, and the grand plans just don’t seem to come off.
LM: What were Jones’s views on urban renewal?
GS: 07:50 I don’t know about urban renewal, but at the time, he obviously was in favor of zoning. Zoning back then would have been an easier thing to do than it is now because Houston is a whole lot bigger now. I don’t know personally about his urban renewal. I think he did it a block at a time. He had a block, he wanted to do something, and he did it. But that’s kind of a form of urban renewal. I think that came along probably after he was— Maybe he wasn’t as concerned about it as he might have been at one time. But urban renewal never worked. You just don’t shove people one place to another and say, “Here this is. This is nice for you. Come back and live here.” It just doesn’t seem to work.
LM: No. Of the drawings and plans that we have added to the collection at the library, which ones do you personally feel are the most critical or that tell us the most about the period we’re studying?
GS: I really don’t know. There’s a lot of history there, but that’s a tough question. I really don’t know.
LM: Are there any areas that I haven’t brought up with you that you would like to discuss that should be added to the historical record here? I’ve asked you a lot of questions. We’ve covered a great deal of territory. Have I left out detail questions that you think should be answered?
GS: I really don’t know. I’ve sort of lived on the block so long here that in a way you forget a lot of things that have happened. I really don’t know. All I know is, of course, Jones was a great political influence and was a great financial influence, an influence in the newspaper and did most things, I think, for the good of his fellow man as well as himself. I think until this day his operation of the RFC is the only government function that’s ever turned a profit and didn’t lose money during the war. He always tried to make things stand on their own feet, each building or each property stand on its own feet. I think we’ve pretty well— I’m not all that great a political influence myself. I’ve just been a bystander to most of it, watching.
LM: Sometimes bystanders have interesting observations. I think you’ve given us some. I think there are some areas we’ve covered that no one has really bothered to answer, such as urban renewal. I don’t know of anyone that’s inquired about his feelings on that.
GS: Uh-hunh (affirmative), and I really don’t know how he felt about it because his property was not in a— It was urban; it was all downtown. It was all in the areas of heavy population except for the land at that time he had on the Ship Channel. You know he pretty well promoted the Ship Channel into Houston and the process. He owned a lot of land along the Channel. A lot of the industrial developments out there were Mr. Jones’s. There may still be some property out there the foundation has, but I wouldn’t know what it was. I’d have no reason to.
LM: 12:35 Was he close friends with the Hobbys?
GS: Yes. The governor and Mr. Jones were close friends. The papers were always saying rivalry, but they still were friends though. They still worked back and forth and things like that.
LM: There were rumors that Jones actually set Hobby up in the newspaper business.
GS: I’ve heard that too, but I really don’t know what the story behind it was.
LM: If it’s true or not. Yeah, that’s a curious one.
GS: Yeah. I don’t know what that would be.
LM: If it’s true, he created a rival.
LM: It just doesn’t sound—
GS: The old Houston Post-Dispatch Building was down here on Travis and Texas right across the street from the Chronicle building.
LM: Did he design it? Did he build it?
GS: No, I don’t think so.
LM: (chuckles) That would be the final ironic twist.
GS: You probably could dig up some of that back in his— He’s got two books. You’ve seen one of them, I think.
LM: Oh, yes.
GS: Or both of them—I don’t know.
LM: I want to thank you very much for giving freely of your time. I think it will add to the collection of materials that we’ve accessioned to have a narrative to go with it.
GS: Well, I hope it’s of some use.
LM: Oh, it will be. It will give us a little more insight. You know, history is a great puzzle, and the more parts you fit into it, the more of an understanding you have of it—any complexities—and you’ve provided some interesting information. So again, I want to thank you very much.
GS: You’re welcome.
[end of 406_03] 14:38