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Interview with: Herman Pressler
Interviewed by: Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton and Deidre Denman Glober
Date: March 8, 1982
Archive Number: OH JL20 D1 and D2
This tape was produced on March 8, 1982 by volunteers of the Junior League of Houston at the Houston Public Library. It is one of a series on the history of voluntarism in Houston. This series is a segment of the oral history collection in the Houston Metropolitan Archives at the library. The interviewers are Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton and Deidre Denman Glober. The subject of our interview is Mrs. Herman Pressler.
I: [00:35] Mrs. Pressler, have you lived in Houston all your life?
S: I believe, yes, since I was 8 years old and went to Montrose School, as I’ve grown up with a lot of the people that are working on various things here.
I: Where did you live when you were a child here?
S: I lived in Rossmoyne which is in Montrose. It’s Yoakum. When Yoakum crosses Richmond, it becomes Rossmoyne. Miss Ima had a house next to us. There was a vacant lot between us, and across the street the Governor Ross Sterling lived. And the Frank Sterlings lived down a little bit. There were a lot of friends along there, so we could skate out at night on the street, ride bicycles, and have a good time.
I: Were your parents involved as volunteers in community affairs at that time?
S: [01:37] Well, to a small extent I guess. My father was always very active in the United Fund and in the church, and he was a very busy man, but he gave as much time as he had. And my mother was on the YWCA board and head of her DAR chapter and head of the Pi Phi alumni chapter, but she was very busy with 4 children.
I: What aspects of your early life and your adult experiences have motivated you to give your time and energy to volunteer activities?
S: Well, they just always thought you should do those things. And in the university, I was in a number of different organizations that you thought you could make a contribution to, among them, Mortar Board.
I: [02:26] So your parents had given you the idea pretty early that it was appropriate to have that kind of involvement?
S: Uh-hunh (affirmative). And they thought you could get up and get to work in the mornings. And even the year I made my debut, one of the rules was that I get up and drive my father to the office every morning. So that settled that.
I: Did your education prepare you for your work and interests as a volunteer?
S: No, I really just have a BA degree, but I did take a lot of psychology, and I was very interested in that and interested in people and what you could do about them.
I: So the psychology has entered into some of your later work?
S: I guess so.
I: And I guess Mortar Board is part of your education program. It really was—
S: Yeah, it was very good, too. It made you have a sense of responsibility.
I: Before you were president of the Junior League in 1943/1944, you served as chairman of the admissions committee, chairman of the hours committee, and of course first vice president. What responsibilities did those positions carry?
S: Well, of course you had to know people and you had to study the girls that were working and decide who was doing a good job.
I: [03:53] Now, on the hours committee you were responsible for making sure everybody did their work?
S: That is right, making sure they did their work. And we were always very strict, and it was very good for me my first year. I worked three times a week. We were supposed to work regularly twice a week in the Stewart building and then in the Luncheon Club—not the Stewart building, the University Club—and then in the Luncheon Club. And one time, I forgot to go. The fine was $5, which was just about like $25 now, and my husband was making about $250 a month, and that impressed me a great deal, and I was never late again. And we enforced those rules. Other people make rules, and they forget to fine you if you’re late or don’t get there. But those rules were enforced, and that was good for us.
I: Did everyone have an obligation to work in the Luncheon Club and then some people also did other volunteer work beyond that or generally what were the requirements?
S: Well, everybody had to work in the Luncheon Club. When we were in the basement of the University Club, we worked twice a week. When we moved to the new building, we worked once a week, but we could also work in the clinic, which I did. And then they later started other things—set up a chair of adult education at the art museum, and we had a group that worked there. We set up a memorial fund, so we had someone working on that. There were a lot of things we could do. Of course, there were style shows, and each one was called on to model at some time. And then of course we had chairmen of the music committees. There was a lot to do.
I: Were the style shows something that was sort of new to Houston that other organizations were not necessarily doing at that time to raise money?
S: Yes, that’s right. And we started them, and it brought bigger crowds for the luncheons, and of course it helped the store owners too.
I: On the admissions committee, they were responsible for finding people who were appropriate and who you wanted interest in the league to invite to be members the following year. Is that right?
S: Yes. Well, of course they were proposed by members, and they were voted on by the membership, but we had to pass them first, and they were—you really wanted to get the best members. We didn’t take that many people.
I: It sounds like you were looking for people who would work pretty hard.
S: [06:42] So we really had to be sure that they were able and willing. And I know one of my friends wasn’t taken the first year possible, as I was, because she was pregnant and was going to have a baby. Well, she would really have had that baby in time to go to work, but they thought that first year she would be too tied down with the baby, so they didn’t take her. They took her the next year.
I: It seemed like there were very few employed members at that time. Was there a policy of not inviting many people who were employed for the same reason that they just didn’t have time?
S: That’s right. They thought that if they were busy—had a fulltime job—they wouldn’t have time to work for the league. And it was no problem at that time because very few people were employed. Now it’s completely different. Everyone that gets out of college wants to have a job. But then, you didn’t think about that when you graduated from college. You mostly got married.
I: How did the positions you had before you were president prepare you for the presidency of the group?
S: Well, I had really worked with a lot of the different committees and had so many friends working with all the committees, and then I was on the board ahead of time, and so I really understood it—the workings of it pretty well.
I: What effects did World War II have on the Junior League and on its members?
S: It had a great effect because so many of them moved away in the service with their husbands, and then we gave up a lot of girls to travel as aide, and they worked on a regular basis with that. And then three of our members—Catherine Moore was head of the Red Cross bandage department, I guess you’d say. And so (s/l Mariah Gregory 08:38) and Katherine Calhoun worked with her and had a whole group working down at the Red Cross building. And then we had some who drove for the Red Cross. And another interesting thing we did—we knew that all those young officers were lonely—out at Ellington and stationed in this area. So during my year, we—Caroline Wiess, now Mrs. Ted Law, had a chairman committee to entertain these officers, and we had parties on Saturday nights at the Junior League building.
I: Every Saturday night?
S: [09:13] Yes, for quite a while. And they really enjoyed that. It first started by Travelers Aid wanting us to help by coming to some dances they were putting on for the soldiers. And then we decided that we’d do better to entertain the officers in our own building, and they were very successful, but they also took a lot of manpower.
I: Right. Did you have to shift some people away from your regular projects to do the Travelers Aid and the Red Cross work?
S: No, they just did that in addition.
I: They took it on in addition to the regular projects?
S: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: I found some conflicting information about the ward program at Hermann Hospital. There was an implication that the children’s theater volunteers sort of started the ward program partly because of gas rationing. Do you remember that?
S: Yes, I do remember that, and it was very successful in the wards. And before that, they had tried to take the plays around to the different schools, and I think it really worked out very well in the wards.
I: And the taking them around to different schools was just impractical at that time?
S: Yes, at that time.
I: Did you find that more league members became professionally employed during the war?
S: Well, a few did, not a great number because, like I said, so many of them went with their husbands. There were several. I’m trying to think of their names. But not a majority of them at all because they just took on more volunteer work, and everybody helped.
I: So it wasn’t sufficient really—enough change in the number of professional people in the league to sort of change the attitude towards professionals doing volunteer work?
S: No, it didn’t. No.
I: What was the Central Volunteer Bureau which the Junior League helped organize in 1941? It continued for some years. Do you remember what it was?
S: [11:17] No, I really don’t. That was during (s/l Laura Bruce’s ?? 11:22) time, and I guess I could’ve asked her about that. I saw her last night, but I really don’t remember that. Sorry.
I: It’s okay. One of the landmarks of the Junior League Clinic’s history occurred during your presidency when it moved from the Stewart building to Hermann Hospital.
S: Yes, and we were very interested that it joined the health center at Hermann Hospital, and then later it became a part of the medical center when they employed Dr. (s/l Blattner 11:56) to be chief of Junior League services at Hermann Hospital, and that was in ’47 that they did that. And it became a part of the Texas Medical Center at that time. But my husband wrote the contract when we went into Hermann Hospital.
I: To what was the basis of that agreement? What was the idea behind it as far as the league being interested and Hermann being interested in doing it?
S: Well, it was a much more convenient location for people. And then we felt that the doctors were much more available. The facilities were better. They were glad to have us. It took a lot of pressure off of them, and we could see more people there.
I: Was the working relationship with Hermann—do you remember how the responsibilities for the clinic were shared, what the league was responsible for and—?
S: What they furnished and what we furnished?
I: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
S: I’ve forgotten. Isn’t that terrible? Well, I think we took all—of course, we had volunteers that took all the case histories and took the temperatures and did all those things, and I think they had one supervisory nurse. I think we had some doctors on a regular basis then, so that helped, too. But I don’t really remember the rest of it.
I: How did Dr. Blattner’s affiliation with Hermann change the relationship?
S: Well, I guess because he was—it just made it official somehow. Because he became chief of Junior League services, and I guess since we had one doctor head of all their services, it made it official, and that made us a part of the Texas Medical Center because Hermann Hospital was a part of Texas Medical Center, and I guess that is what did it.
I: [14:10] Was there a children’s hospital under discussion in the league that you remember at that time?
S: No, the children’s hospital—
I: I mean just the idea of a children’s hospital.
S: In 1946/1947, the Junior League gave the money from the horse show. They put on the horse show at that time. And so they gave the $42,000 that they cleared for the horse show to help establish the Texas Children’s Hospital Foundation and Hospital. And I should remember the exact date of that hospital because—
I: It came along in ’54 is when it happened.
S: Yes, well they worked on it for a long time, and my husband worked with Mr. Abercrombie and Mr. Meyer and the board for several years before the Texas Children’s Hospital was finished and was on the board and then wrote the contract for the Junior League Clinic that began operations there.
I: Before 1947 and the horse show, was there a feeling within the league that you’d like to have a children’s hospital in town? Had it been discussed for a long time?
S: Well, it was building up because of the great interest in the clinic because I think the clinic has always really been their main reason for being.
I: In 1948, the league set up the Children’s Welfare Fund which had a separate board of trustees from the Junior League’s board. It received the $22,000 proceeds of (s/l Fanazalea ?? 15:49) that year. Could you tell us a little bit about the Children’s Welfare Fund and what the purpose of it was?
S: Well, I think they wanted that fund so they could give glasses or treatments or furnish nurses and do things for the children, and all of that takes so much money. That’s why they set it up, so the money would be available to children that needed it.
I: Why was it felt that it needed to be a separate board and sort of a separate organization in some sense from the league itself?
S: Well, I guess they had hopes of making it into a large fund, and it needed to be separate because it was to be used just for the children, so it really needed to be separate.
I: [16:40] I see. What was your involvement in the Welfare Fund?
S: I wasn’t involved in the fund. I mean I helped—contributed to it, but I never was on the board of the Welfare Fund.
I: I see. You had mentioned working at the Children’s Welfare Fund when we were talking a little bit earlier.
S: Oh, at the clinic?
I: Oh, you mean at the clinic?
S: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: Okay, and seeing the children come into the clinic. What was that like?
S: Are you talking about the original clinic in the Stewart building?
I: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
S: Well, that was before food stamps and before Aid to Dependent Children, and a lot of them were so pitiful that you almost couldn’t stand it. And we would dress them and undress them and take their temperatures and take their case histories. And then they would look as if they needed so much that it was a great temptation to give them money. And so the workers down there finally had to leave their purses at home because you can’t do any permanent good by doling out a few dollars at a time, and you couldn’t dole it out to everybody. So we couldn’t give to them on a cash basis there.
S: But it was so interesting, and you felt like you were doing a little good when you gave them the medicine and sent them home.
I: So the horse show and then Fanazalea were an effort to raise substantial sums for children’s health. The horse show was sponsored by the league for just 1 year, and then it was turned over to other sponsorship. It was so successful that 1 year, I wondered why we turned it over to somebody else.
S: [18:20] I don’t know why that was. I don’t know.
I: We did Fanazalea the next year. What was that?
I: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
S: Well, it was a charity ball, and it was very successful, too.
I: Did it have a style show as part of it?
S: I think it did. That was during (s/l Julia Hubbard’s ?? 18:51) time, and I think it did.
I: What kinds of projects besides the clinic were funded by the Community Welfare Fund?
S: Well, I’ll tell you that year,’48/’49, we did give $2000 to the book and puppet fair. And that year, Mary Phelps was very interested in the civic theater, and we gave a great deal of assistance to them. And because of that, they got her interested in putting on this book and puppet fair at the city auditorium. Many publishers sent books—thousands of books—and then the books that we had left over—a donor, a man in Houston—maybe he was anonymous—bought all the books that were left and gave them to the public library. And so that really helped the library. And the puppet fair was a great success because school children entered into that. And there were little booths all around the city auditorium which made it so much fun. It was a great success.
I: Little puppet show booths?
S: Little puppet show. The children had made the puppets in the schools, and then they put on their own little puppet shows around the auditorium, and the boxes were built up—I don’t know if you would remember—in a circle around the auditorium down below the boxes. Each one had this little booth. And that was a very interesting thing. I asked Mary why they didn’t continue it, and she said, “Well, it really was so much work,” and she couldn’t find anybody else to take it over, and she just couldn’t do it again.
I: Did they judge the various puppet shows or did they give prizes or anything like that?
S: [20:49] I think they did. I don’t remember that. I just remember the puppet show.
I: There was an organization called Hedgecroft that also benefited from a couple of gifts from the Children’s Welfare Fund. Do you know what it was?
S: Yes, it was a hospital. They did therapy for children, I believe. I never did work there, but it really was a very, very worthwhile thing. We were glad to help it because it was for children too, so it was in line with our interest.
I: And it provided some kind of medical care?
I: What happened to that hospital?
S: I don’t know. I guess when the Texas Children’s Hospital came along, it vanished. But I wish I had known to find out about that because I have a feeling that at one time they were in the old Masterson house on Montrose near the Plaza Hotel. Wasn’t that Hedgecroft?
I: I think so.
S: And you would see children out in wheelchairs. I mean they did a wonderful work for children—maybe the Shriners Crippled Children’s Hospital took it over too. It might have merged with that.
I: We’ve talked a little bit about fundraising through the luncheon room and special events like Fanazalea and the style shows. What other means did the league have to raise funds?
S: Well, we had a lot of different ways through the years. One year, we said that each one was responsible for so much money—I don’t know whether it was $50 or what—and so we got together in groups and did different things to raise money. I know that one group, (s/l Camellia Gregory Hartman and Mariah Gregory 22:28) and a group put on a horse show—a horse race, rather—at the city auditorium—a group of about six. And so they had the men be the back of the horses, and they raced. It was just the greatest thing you ever saw because here were the—the fronts of the horses were the girls dressed up in horse’s head, and the men were the backs, and they had races in the city auditorium, and they charged for people to come, and it was the funniest thing, and it raised a lot of money. And then another group put on another show in the city auditorium, but it was a lot of different funny acts. One of them was where they were trying to use a telephone and the cord wouldn’t reach—I don’t know—they just did lots of silly things. But the individual groups really raised their money, and they had fun doing it.
I: [23:28] What about the shops in the league building. Were there several shops that were available for lease?
S: Well, there were some architects that had two offices in there, and then the other shop was the corner shop, and they had gifts, wedding gifts, and all kinds of things. It was run by some Junior League members. And they had very nice things. It was just wonderful because you could go to work and then you could go down to the corner shop and send your wedding presents. So it helped everybody.
I: And there was some space available for exhibits of some kind?
S: Well, I don’t remember about that.
I: Well, at one time I think (s/l Sumans 24:14) had a shop there but maybe before John Staub’s architectural firm.
S: I guess so. I think it was before the architects moved in probably.
I: I found references to exhibits, particularly from out of town stores, like Saks for instance and Marshall Field’s. Do you remember where they came from?
S: No, I don’t remember those. Sorry.
I: What led to the decision to have the first Junior League charity ball in 1948/1949?
S: Of course it was to make money. It was a big success. Everybody worked on it and enjoyed it, and I guess that’s—it’s too bad, but the ball seemed to be all in all probably the easiest way to make a good deal of money.
I: When it was put on for the first time, was there an expectation that it would be a continuing thing?
S: I think it was.
I: Was it called the First Junior League Charity Ball at the time?
S: [25:20] Well, I think they did. They thought if it was successful, they would continue with it.
I: Because it seemed as though before that, there had been so many different projects. And then starting from that time, that became an annual thing that was repeated each year, I guess.
S: Well, I guess it’s an easier thing to work on. It doesn’t take quite as much imagination as some of these other things.
I: The efforts were not diffused as much. I mean everyone was working—
S: Well, that is right.
I: Could we move on to talk about the River Oaks Garden Club a little bit?
S: All right.
I: I know that it was founded in the 1920s.
S: 1927, I believe.
S: I think so. That is right. It was founded in 1927 by a small group of people. Of course River Oaks was very new then, and there were a lot of vacant lots, and some people put gardens on the vacant lots. And so a group formed it, and they really wanted to beautify River Oaks and beautify Houston, and so they published in 1929 the First Garden Book for Houston, and they have continued to publish it through the years. It’s been revised four times, the last time in 1976, I think.
I: And it served both to teach neophytes how to garden in Houston and—?
S: That is right. They wanted people to learn how to garden.
I: —advise the experienced people who moved to Houston how?
S: Yeah. And it’s still a good book. It’s still recognized, I believe, as the best book for this climate.
I: [27:06] What was the first beautification project that the club undertook?
S: Well, they, in 1934, they felt that their gardens had come a long way, and so they opened 12 gardens to the public and charged 25 cents each admission. And with that money, they beautified the River Oaks school grounds. They landscaped it, put some trees, and put red bud trees around the driveway in front, and they’ve continued their interest in the River Oaks school grounds.
I: That’s the elementary school on Kirby Drive?
I: Would you say that that was sort of the beginning of the Azalea Trail as well when they opened those gardens?
S: Well, I guess it was, though the first regular Azalea Trail was not until—I don’t quite remember—I guess it was probably 1950 or something like that, I would think. In 1955, too, they put in memorial gardens around the forum, and they were professionally landscaped, and they are still beautiful. And they are open to the public 4 days a week from 9:30 to 4:30. And then they had an experimental Spuria Iris garden, too.
I: What was that?
S: It was in the back, west of the other gardens, and they just planted all kinds of Louisiana Iris and various kinds to experiment and see what grew best here and to make people interested in growing the Iris.
I: Now this is at the forum you’re talking about?
S: That’s at the forum, uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: And it’s the building—does it belong to the Garden Club?
S: It belongs to the Garden Club.
I: It’s on Westheimer?
S: It’s on Westheimer and Kirby.
I: [29:08] It’s a very old building, isn’t it?
S: It was kind of a Smith County school house. It’s a 19th century building. I can’t remember the date of it, but it is a 19th century building that was first owned by the Hogg brothers, Mike and Will Hogg. And the garden club got it from them because Miss Ima was always a very interested member of the Garden Club, and she wanted us to have it. And we have a small library of books there. It’s available to the public for wedding receptions or meetings—something like that. We have their meetings there. And we’ve really enjoyed the building through the years and the gardens. And members work in the gardens there, too.
I: Right. You were telling us about Miss Ima’s interest in the Garden Club. Can you tell us a little about the work that the Garden Club has done over the years at Bayou Bend, her home?
S: Well, yes, throughout the years we had given various plantings to Bayou Bend. But then in 1961, I believe it was, we assumed the permanent supervision of the Bayou Bend Gardens, and we’re the official supervisors of them. And we engaged a head gardener, Kenneth Burkhart for 3 days weekly and (s/l Virgie Longhorn 30:41), (s/l Mrs. J. G. Longhorn and Mrs. Hal Houseman) were the first chairmen of this project. And this is a project that has grown through the years. We now pay more gardeners. We have given them a greenhouse. We planted the Carla Garden. We’ve given them a topiary garden, and we do keep fresh flower arrangements in the house on a weekly basis. We have committees that do it and put the flowers in every Tuesday morning, and that way they are fresh through Friday or Saturday. We buy the flowers.
I: [31:20] Excuse me just a minute.
S: —supervision and paid the head gardener and furnished plantings of various gardens at Bayou Bend. Then in ’67, we established the Bayou Bend endowment fund because we saw that this was becoming such a big project that we had to be prepared for the future. And that endowment fund has grown until now. It’s worth over $200,000.
I: How have funds been raised for that fund?
S: Well, mostly by contributions from the Garden Club and from individuals.
I: [31:56] Are the friends of Bayou Bend gardens separate from that or do they make contributions to that fund?
S: They contribute to that fund. I guess they are a part of the—they give to the permanent fund. And I guess their $25 memberships go to it. I’m not sure.
I: And then does the Azalea Trail also contribute to that fund?
S: The Azalea Trail does. They give Bayou Bend all of the gate proceeds from their gardens, and they always have the biggest gate of any of the houses opened on the tour.
I: Is there also a pink elephant sale?
S: Oh, yes, we have the pink elephant sale, and that’s gone on for many years now. I think that was started in about ’50 or ’51, and it is a very big project now. It’s hard to believe that you can get that many things from the members each year to raise these huge amounts of money. But it’s fun to work at the pink elephant sale. The whole membership works. It’s a hard job, but it’s well worth it.
I: You’ve worked on the men’s clothing booth?
S: Yes, that was my thing—the men’s clothing (both laugh). I worked very hard on the men’s clothes, and it took a long time to get someone else interested because that’s not the most glamorous part. The most glamorous part are the lady’s clothes because we get so many beautiful lady’s clothes that you want to buy them yourself, and everybody wants to work in the lady’s clothes. Then we take things on consignment. But at last, (s/l Daddy Glouser and Lader Suttles 33:33) became interested in men’s clothes, and they have a group now that really worked on them. But it’s fun to sell men—we would get some very large suits. Well, there aren’t that many large men to sell to, so you would have to find other ways of selling them. And I’d take the shirts, and I’d say, “Now, look at this beautiful, beautiful material. You could buy this shirt and make baby clothes from it.” And it’s just wonderful to find out different uses for men’s clothes. And the girls can wear them for nightshirts. We had lots of ways of selling them.
I: At Bayou Bend, you’ve been responsible for the cut flowers in the building at times?
S: Yes. It’s very interesting to do those cut flowers. The chairman of the day goes early in the morning and buys them at the wholesale place and gets the flowers to Bayou Bend by 9:00, and then four others come in to help arrange them. And through the years, the flowers have gotten more expensive, so the other day when I was working there, we didn’t have quite enough, so they let us go out in the back garden and cut a few azaleas, and they looked pretty.
I: [34:51] In addition to the gardens at Bayou Bend, there have been some other particular landscaping projects that the Garden Club has undertaken at times. You mentioned Florence Crittenden and the DePelchin Faith Home.
S: That’s right. We have done things at the Florence Crittenden Home and then especially at Faith Home. We’ve done a lot of landscaping and planting there. And every Christmas at our meeting instead of giving each other presents, each of us takes a beautifully wrapped gift for a Faith Home child. And we have done a lot of planting for Faith Home. And we even supervised some children’s gardens for a while, and that was fun for them.
I: Where the children were keeping their own gardens?
S: Yes. I don’t know whether they are doing that right now or not.
I: What about the planting along Buffalo Bayou? Has the club been responsible for a lot of that?
S: Yes. Many years ago, they planted trees along Buffalo Bayou. And then in—I don’t remember quite—I guess about 15 years ago, they planted azaleas along Buffalo Bayou. And at various times, they have given money to replace plantings that have died. They keep an eye on it and work through the Parks Department.
I: Are there other aspects of the club’s work that you’ve been particularly involved in that we haven’t mentioned?
S: I’m trying to think what other work we’ve had beside the pink elephant sale and the Azalea Trail and Bayou Bend.
I: You were president of the Garden Club?
I: Of River Oaks Garden Club.
S: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: [36:41] And when? That was in the’50s?
S: That was in ‘59/’60. Oh, in that year was one that we planted over 300 oleanders and magnolias and other shrubs at Faith Home. We’ve consistently kept that up and given also through the years to the River Oaks school grounds. And we put in the butterfly garden at Bayou Bend, and we replanted the Carla Garden, and we gave the topiary garden. You’ll see that on the Azalea Trail. And then we furnish docents there in the gardens for the Azalea Trail and a lot of different events when people go through. We supply docents to take them through the gardens.
I: [37:12] Right. Mrs. Pressler, on May 7, 1954, the Harris County Heritage and Conservation Society, I believe is what it was called at that time, was organized expressly for “the preservation of historic landmarks, documents, pictures, names, natural beauty, and whatever is distinctive of Houston and Harris County.” It is our understanding that the impetus for organizing the society was the plan by the city to tear down the Kellum-Noble House because of its dilapidated condition. What do you remember of the events surrounding the founding of the Heritage Society?
S: Well, Mary Phelps was writing articles for the Post at that time, and she wrote one about the Noble House and its condition. It had been used as a zoo for one time. It had been used for a lot of different things. It had been built, I think, in 1847 for a man named Kellum who came from New York. So it was an historical place. Someone who read Mary’s article phoned her and said, “If you’re so interested in the Kellum-Noble House, why don’t you do something about it?” And she is awfully good at instigating things, so she called together a group at her house one afternoon. And I was there and Miss Ima Hogg, Mr. Kenneth Franzheim, Harvey Moore, Mr. and Mrs. (s/l Babby 38:54). That may be all. There were just about 10 of us there—Mrs. George Hill. So we discussed it, and we all got so excited talking to Mary we thought we must do something about it and start raising funds immediately. So we had to go to the city first and get their permission to do it. Unfortunately, I left town then, and we went to Washington for most of 3 years. So they really worked and raised the money. I came home to help them work on the opening. We cleaned the house, and we placed furniture, and (s/l Margaret Kavit 39:47) lent us a lot of old Texas furniture that she had. It was the last time that Mary Hill worked at anything. She lived over on Kirby, if you remember, and she worked down there a whole week because she was so interested and she had temperatures the whole time, and that was the beginning of her last illness. She never recovered. But she worked down there until she had that house ready to open. She had lent us an old tin bathtub from her home in Victoria, and we had a lot of very, very interesting things that had been lent to us. So then we had to get to work and try to get some things for ourselves. We were able to buy a few of the things, and then others we had to wait until people gave them to us.
I: [40:40] Mrs. Pressler, on March 11, 1955, the Noble House burned. The society had to raise $10,000 by mid-April to convince the city council that the society could remove the public hazards around the site. What do you recall of this emergency effort?
S: Well, I’m afraid we were in Washington at that time. Sorry.
I: Do you know how close the society came to losing the house? Did anyone tell you that?
S: Well, it was a bad (s/l find 41:07). It was very close because the city wanted to just tear it down.
I: In August of 1956, Mrs. Merrick Phelps, president of the society, and Miss Ima Hogg appeared before the city council to ask that Sam Houston Park be designated by the city as an historic site for the location of architecturally-worthy buildings more than 100 years old. The council approved the request subject to the approval of the city planning commission. How much of a role did Miss Ima Hogg play in the formative years of the society?
S: [41:37] Well, she was always ready to help us, but she was really busy with her own project at Bayou Bend. She was very helpful like in going to the council, and she was helpful with advice, but her time was limited.
I: In December of 1959, a tea was held in the home of Ms. Blanche Foley at the corner of Capital Avenue and Chenevert to raise money for the restoration of the interior of the Cherry House. Earlier parties had been held in the Cherry House itself to raise money to move it to the San Houston Park. Were these typical of the society’s early fundraising efforts?
S: Yes, I guess they were.
I: In the fall of 1964, you sent a letter to the membership which raised money for the acquisition of the Pillot House and its removal to the park. Was early fundraising done on a project by project basis?
S: Yes, and the interesting thing with the Pillot House, the Pillot’s had given the lead dogs from their house on McKinney to the River Oaks Garden Club, and they used them for many years in front of the club building. And then when the Pillot House was completed in the park, they gave them to the Heritage Society to put at the Pillot House again.
I: [42:36] Also in 1964, 93 contributors donated $26,500 for restoration of the San Felipe Cottage. And in 1967, a $15,000 grant from the Fondren Foundation helped to fund the reconstruction of the Long Row. Do you recall how these contributions came about?
S: Well, we ask for them. We sent out letters. But the exciting thing about the San Felipe Cottage—there was an article in the paper about it saying that Mrs. Hadley had built it and all. And it was the most wonderful encouragement for me because (s/l Mr. Fort Flowers 43:32) phoned me that night, and he had read this in the newspaper, and he said, “Mrs. Hadley was a collateral ancestor of mine, and I will give you $5,000.” And this is the way we got our money from various people. Now when we wanted the Rice-Cherry House, I know we were at a cocktail party in the garden at the (s/l Babby’s 43:55), and Mary Phelps and I were standing there together, and she turned to (s/l Gus Wortham 44:02), and she said, “We need this house to move to the park. Gus, why don’t you buy it for us?” And he said, “I will.” And so he paid $5,000 for it. And then she turned to Wesley West and said, “Now Wesley, why don’t you move it?” And he said, “I will.” And so he gave $2,000 to move the Nichols-Rice-Cherry House to the park. Well, when they got ready to move it, great problems. This was its third move, and they realized that it couldn’t be moved without falling to pieces, so it had to be taken apart board by board. Each board was numbered, photographed, and then it was put back together in the park. It was hauled out in just pile, board by boards, and then put back together.
I: That must be terrifically expensive.
S: And it was very, very expensive.
I: Is that more than $2,000?
S: That’s right. And then when it was put back together, you see, there was so much to do to it. And it had this turkey feather graining is what they call them on the doors and the woodwork inside. Well, there was nobody down here to do that, and we brought a man from New York State to do that turkey feather graining on the woodwork in the house.
I: To restore in the areas where the woodwork was missing?
S: No, it was just a way of painting it.
I: I see. It was already painted that way?
S: [45:26] It was painted that way, and so we left a lot of the original paint, but a lot of it had come off.
I: I see.
S: You know, chipped off. So the original paint is in the doors—the sliding doors that you can close. Down there, they can open it and show you the original paint. But a lot of it had to be replaced—restored, I guess you call it.
I: When the society found itself appealing for funds for more than one individual major project in one year as you did in 1964. Did this present problems?
S: Well, anytime you appeal for money, it presents problems.
I: I know, but especially when you have one project and then you come up with another one and you’re appealing to the same general—
S: You are. But we had to finish the Nichols-Rice-Cherry House because there it was started and it was an important building in Houston and it had such a wonderful history. And then when we—Jim (s/l Nunamaker 46:25) saw the San Felipe Cottage, and it was over just about two blocks away, and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity, and you can’t wait for these things because they were going to destroy all those old houses. So if you want something bad enough, you can get it usually. And then we had a really wonderful group of people down there. When I came in as president, we were having a lot of difficulties, and Jim Nunamaker, the director, took his vacation beginning the day after I was elected president. Well, that was a good thing because I went down there at 8:00 every morning. I stayed until 4:30 every afternoon. We had no secretary. We had no paid person except Jim Nunamaker who was really very nice, but he took a long vacation, and so I spent the summer down there. And in fact, most of my 2 years as president, I was down there from at least by 8:15 every morning and never got home before about a quarter to five because there was so much to be done to get people interested in a project. People had kind of forgotten about us or they were mad at us or there was something, so I brought in the Junior League girls as reinforcements, and that was great.
I: Now, what kind of problems did you have when you took office? I mean besides no secretary and so forth.
S: [47:26] Well, just a lot of people had lost interest for various reasons, and so we had to get the public interested in it again, and this is why I have this cookbook. It’s not a wonderful cookbook. It’s good, but it’s not wonderful. But the great thing about it is—all night long I would think what can I do to get people interested in the Heritage Society? And that’s a difficult thing. So I thought, well everybody will buy a cookbook. And what we did was organize a committee of about 12 I think it is. Mariah Gregory headed it. It was a lot more than 12, you see?
I: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
S: And they phoned old Houstonians and said, “We want to print this cookbook, but the importance of it is that we will give you a page to make a little write-up, a history of your family, and then put a recipe.” So every page has the history—well, an anecdote or a history, something of interest about early times in that family. Then it gives their favorite recipe. So when you have all these pages—about 140 pages of write-ups about various families—you have a ready market because the matriarch of the family would put it in, and then everybody would have to buy it and give it to all their children and all their friends. Well, the great thing about it—one day when I was sitting by myself down there in the office, someone came from (s/l Jawski’s 49:30), and Jawski’s had just opened here, and they wanted to know what they could do to help the Heritage Society. And this was fabulous because we didn’t approach them, but they needed us, and we certainly needed them. So we decided that they would give a tasting party for the cookbook free of charge if we would sell tickets to a thousand people, and we did. And so they gave the tasting party, and we sold enough copies of the cookbook that Sunday afternoon to pay for it completely. So everything else was pure profit.
I: Do you think that it also interested the people who contributed to it to do other things for the Heritage Society?
S: Yes, because they think, oh the Heritage Society, well, I must go down and see it. And then when they would come through, they’d see things that we needed. And most of these people were able to do something for us. So here, we just had a readymade group of friends. Then we would have others that wanted to do things. Well, if they showed an interest in the Heritage Society, why I would think up a committee I could put them on. Somebody was looking over our list of committees. They couldn’t believe it. They said, “That is just terrible. How in the world do you go to all those committee meetings and what do they do?”
I said, “Well, if anybody is interested, we organize another committee.” And that is the way you get your friends. But we just had so many wonderful people that would work, and that’s what gets you the money.
I: [51:02] Does the society frequently ask for in-kind contributions such as paint, wallpaper, etc., to help in the restoration and the maintenance of the houses?
S: Well, Mr. Butte has given us wallpaper several times and paint, and Mr. Alnett has given us paint, too. I don’t know whether they’re doing that now.
I: But before you went out to buy the paint, you would see anybody (speaking at same time) first?
S: Oh, yes. Oh, we never bought anything we had or couldn’t get any other way.
I: Do you recall when the (s/l Feydeau Show 51:33) began benefiting the society?
S: I don’t remember the first year. I should because they had just been so helpful to us, and I wish I could. They probably started while I was president because several of the Feydeaus, you see, worked so hard with us, and (s/l Lotta Suttles 51:54) came down and worked. We had a wonderful accessions committee that worked, and there were a lot of Feydeaus helping us, so it probably started then.
I: When did the society begin holding an annual charity ball? Was that later?
S: I have that—I that it was—I think it was the year before I became president.
I: Which you became president in ’63.
S: Yes. And the interesting thing about that—we had to have some money, and we decided we could get it that way. And (s/l Bedford Shaw 52:31) was married. His second wife was Juliana, and she like to sing. She wanted to be a professional, singing. So Bedford Shaw underwrote our first charity ball so that his wife could be the entertainer, and it was very successful.
I: Is the ball now the main source of operating revenue aside from membership contributions?
S: Yes, I think so.
I: [53:06] When you were president of the Heritage Society in 1963 and 1964, what do you consider to have been the major accomplishments of your administration? I guess you’ve already told us, the cookbook probably.
S: Well, I think to get people to be interested in it and to work for it. Like I say, we set up committees for everything, and we had a garden committee to supervise the gardens. The Garden Club planted the rose garden.
I: The River Oaks Garden Club?
S: The River Oaks Garden Club did, and Vergie Longhorn and (s/l Lenora Haman 53:37) supervised that.
I: Did you ask for the (speaking at same time)?
S: Yes, we applied for that. We did get a lot of people interested in it that hadn’t been before, but more than that, it became fun to work down there. And we organized the docents, and Jim Nunamaker was a good teacher of the docents.
I: Did the docent program begin under your administration?
S: Yes. We didn’t have any paid. Now they have paid docents, weekends and all. But we didn’t have any paid. I know we’d be having Sunday dinner here, and the doorbell would ring, and it’d be 1:00, and two of the docents would come by to get the key to go down and open the houses. We really had so many dedicated people that worked at it all the time.
I: In 1965, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and Christ Church Cathedral offered to provide the construction with old materials of a replica of the 1854 Christ Church that existed on the site of present day Christ Church Cathedral. What happened to that plan?
S: I can’t remember what happened to that plan—why they didn’t do it.
I: Well, I’m wondering if perhaps they decided to—that they had access to the St. John’s Church instead or something.
S: Well, that’s right. They had access to this church that they have down there now, which is the St. John’s Lutheran Church that was built back in about, I guess, 1880. I’ve forgotten now. But I guess it was because we had an authentic old one that would be given to us and moved.
I: [55:16] In 1966, you were chairman of the advisory committee of the Heritage Society. What responsibilities did the advisory committee undertake that year?
S: Well, the advisory committee is always glad to assist in any way if they’re wanted. And of course, the advisory committee is supposed to be composed of past presidents. I don’t think it’s operated now for about 8 years probably. But it’s just to kind of keep in mind the reasons that the society was organized and the way it should represent the original settlers of Houston.
I: In 1966, you and Mrs. Newton Ray, who was at that time president of the Heritage Society, both served as members of the Municipal Arts Commission. Were the two of you considered to be representatives from the Heritage Society to that commission or was your involvement of a more general nature?
S: We were both invited. They did not say it was because of the Heritage Society, but I imagine that had something to do with it.
I: What decisions of that commission did you participate in?
S: We went out to—that was when they were beginning the international airport, and we discussed what they would do on the long walkways after the planes and things like that. And then we had some contests of people for beautification of their property and gave prizes to them.
I: Are you talking about private individuals?
S: Yes, private individual homes in older sections of town, and it was to try to get them to upgrade the neighborhoods. That was the main thing.
I: On August 8, 1972, the accreditation committee of the American Association of Museums announced that the Harris County Heritage Society had met the standards of operation established by the museum profession. The society was the first museum in the Houston area to become fully accredited and only the sixth museum in Texas to receive this distinction. What attributes did the Heritage Society have at that time that other Houston museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, did not have?
S: [57:40] I’ve forgotten what they said about that. I remember so well because we were so excited. But I think everything we did was so authentic and we had (s/l approved 57:52) for it, and we did have such great people working with us in the interest of the community. And I guess it was partly the people who were interested in it. Carl Detering and Charlie Bell came on the building committee when I got to be president, and they were so dedicated. The building committee met all those years at 8:30 every Tuesday morning, and then in between Charlie Bell would come by and supervise everything all during the week. And I guess there were just so many people that were really dedicated in working. That may have impressed them. And the buildings that we were restoring were authentic, and I guess we filled a need.
S: [58:36] Everybody was so dedicated that worked with us, and we had such fun. And after the building committee met at 8:30 on Tuesday mornings, the accessions met at 9:30. And one day when we were walking around and went to the San Felipe Cottage, Jim Nunamaker had found a tea set of copper lustre that he really wanted for that house, and he said, “What will we do? We really need this, and I want it so much for the house.” Well, every member of the accessions committee spoke up, and together we contributed the amount of the tea set. And this is the way we got things—by being there, by having other people be there, and by showing our needs.
I: In 1973, in response to a criticism that great gaps existed in their interpretation of the area’s history, Mr. Peter Rippy, who was at that time director of the Heritage Society, once stated in writing that the Harris County Heritage Society is basically an artifactual type museum which relates the history of this area through objects. He went on to say, “We have used those things which we have and let the cards of history fall where they may.” Do you feel that important aspects of the early history of Harris County, such as the fact that the first president and vice president of the Republic of Texas lived here at the time that they were in those positions, should not be included in the society’s educational program simply because the society has no artifacts that belonged to those people? How do you feel the society should deal with this kind of situation?
S: Well, the society was organized to represent the original settlers of Houston and to show life at that time. I was talking to Mary Phelps yesterday. We went to dinner last night. And I said, “Mary, what do you think was the purpose of the Heritage Society?”
And she told me your purpose, and she said, “What we really always wanted to do was to have a blacksmith shop and a carriage museum because the Cullinan’s and (s/l Jack Ray’s 1:01:22) have all of the carriages and things of early times, and this we haven’t been able to do.” Peter Rippy came to us from a museum, and he was mainly interested in museums as such, and so he was maneuvering—it was at his instigation that they were maneuvering into this museum-type thing. Originally, we had thought when the city would give us the building down there—the old (s/l Filon 1:01:53) building—part of it’s going to have to be torn down as you know—that we would have our museum in there because we didn’t know how many authentic things we would have of early Houston. But it’s all changed a little bit, and so now they want a big museum which isn’t—I’m not saying that’s good or bad—I’m just saying that it’s changed a little bit from our early intent—was to show how life was in Houston, and that’s why we wanted a carriage museum and a blacksmith shop and those interesting things.
I: [1:02:29] In March of 1975, the Harris County commissioners court voted to redesign a proposed county office building to avoid demolishing the historic Pillot and Bergheim buildings on the block bordered by Main, Congress, Fannin, and Preston. Mr. Rippy took an active role in saving the two buildings. Later, he stated that he had had the support of the Heritage Society’s president at the time that the buildings were in danger but that her successor had asked him to avoid such controversy in the future because it lost money for the society and lost the support of the business community. How do you view the Heritage Society’s role in situations of this sort?
S: Well, I don’t see why we couldn’t express our approval of old buildings and projects to restore them.
I: In 1978, the Heritage Society was hoping to have the area bounded by Main, Franklin, Louisiana, and Texas declared an official historical district. Do you know how far they got with this plan or why nothing came of it? This is the area where the old banks—
S: Yes, I know. It’s now been restored. And I imagine it was financial.
I: The reason why it didn’t—
S: I would guess that because we have a big project in the park. It’s hard to realize how much that costs. And so I phoned to talk to the president. They (__ ?? 1:03:58) to ask her about how things are going now, and she wasn’t there so I talked to Gary Schumann, our paid director, and I said, “Now Gary, how many staff do you have now?” Well, as I say, when I became president, we didn’t even have a secretary. We had one paid director, (sic) mighteously paid.
He said, “We have 18.”
I said, “18!”
And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “Well, does that include Tammy Lee?” who was the (__?? 1:04:30) cord cleaning woman we had from the very beginning. And Tammy Lee is still there, but she has an assistant now, so that’s two of them. And then they have two maintenance men which they really need to keep the buildings in good shape. And I didn’t ask him who the other 14 were, but it did seem like a lot of staff to me. And then I said, “Well, what is your budget?” And it was so large that I hesitate to repeat it. But you see, this is how it’s grown and developed.
I: [1:04:36] But these funds that they have to pay these people, I gather, are coming from the ball and from membership contributions, and what else?
S: Yeah, from membership and of course donations. They always ask for year-end donation and I’m sure get a lot of them, too. And of course they did have the party at the Shamrock that made some money for them.
I: To get back to the fire alarm building, in our research we saw that in 1967 Mrs. Ralph Ellis Gunn, who was president at that time, had asked the city council to include the fire alarm building in the park area. I gather nothing happened at that time. Then in 1971, Mr. Searcy Bracewell made a similar request on behalf of the society. Finally, the city agreed, and the society began considering the different plans either to tear down the building and build in its place a museum of Houston history or to renovate the existing building into such a museum. Can you explain the different positions held by groups on the board of the society with regard to this matter?
S: Well, I think that’s a hard thing to explain because some—like I say, Peter Rippy was interested in museums, so he wanted a larger museum building. Originally when Elizabeth Bracewell asked for it, I think we thought we might be able to use that as a museum. But of course they did it in the large building. And half of it will have to be torn down because the foundation is so poor that it’s really dangerous and there’s no way to replace it on that poor foundation. So that would not give us enough space for a museum. It would house what we have now, but not permanently. And they did have the architects draw up a plan for that building and for a museum.
I: We gather that there were some differences of opinion, and we’re wondering if these differences were largely responsible for the defeat of the six candidates for the board of directors in 1978 when you were chairman of the (speaking at same time)?
S: Well, I don’t think necessarily so because there was difference of opinion in that a lot of money was spent before they knew what they could do, but I don’t think anyone really—there was that much difference of opinion. I think the whole thing about that was that this is—I mean this is a different generation, and it’s a new era, and the ones who are running—the ones that started the Heritage Society were people that were established in the community. And the people that are running it now are probably new to the community, and they wanted to get rid of the establishment. I shouldn’t say this probably. Cut it off.
I: [1:08:17] In spite of this unfortunate situation, you did manage to work with all sides and to remain on the board until this past year. Do you think that your Junior League training stood you in good stead in this situation and your psychology and so forth? Is that how you—?
S: Well, they wouldn’t like me to say that. But what we have to recognize is that a project is bigger than any of the workers. And what you have to realize whenever you’re working for something, you don’t make any progress at all by being mad and fighting. The only way to make progress is to work together. And the project is worth people’s working together, and that’s the only way it will continue.
I: And you’ve clearly shown a lot of understanding of that idea and of all of the people involved.
S: And you have to understand people and why they’re doing what they’re doing and that really if you want something, you have to be patient and work for it. So that’s all.
I: We have a few just general questions about how you would go about—about what you have learned from all of your experiences on different boards of directors and so forth. When you are responsible for nominating persons to serve on a board of trustees—and I’m not talking about any particular board of trustees at the moment—what criteria do you set? What list of things are you looking for in a person?
S: Well, the first is responsibility because you don’t want anybody to come on the board that isn’t going to go to the meetings and take part in them, and you don’t want anybody on a board that’s not going to learn all he can about the project and how it can be improved. So I guess that’s what I’d look for.
I: Some boards have made board membership contingent on a person’s ability to give or to raise a specified minimum amount of money. How do you feel about this type of policy?
S: Well, of course it depends on the board. But I don’t think that should be a requisite. But everybody feels differently about these things, and some people need money more than others, so it’s hard to say that.
I: [1:10:14] Can a policy of this sort that I just mentioned cause an organization to lose the interest of persons who might otherwise make valuable nonmonetary contributions?
S: That’s right. Definitely. It can change the whole aspect of the situation.
I: If you were solely responsible for forming a board of trustees for a major arts organization—or actually you haven’t been as involved in the arts as perhaps other things—but how would you structure the board, and some of the things we’re looking for are these: Would you limit the number of members? Or how long would each term last? Would the members have to rotate off or could they succeed themselves? And what would the conditions of board membership be? I can go over that again if you want.
S: [1:11:29] Well, I think a 2-year term is good because sometimes it takes you almost a year to become a valuable member. And I’ve just been through this with the Colonial Dames because I’ve been head of it for 3 years, and I will give up my position in May. And I think 2 years is a better term because you kind of slide the third year. It’s just a normal thing.
I: In conclusion, we would like to ask how your experience as a Junior League volunteer has carried over into the rest of your life, especially in the areas that we have been talking about today. And I think we mean generally or specifically if you want to be specific.
S: Well, I think it makes you willing to work for anything that you believe in. It makes you very responsible. Don’t you think so?
I: I do.
S: It makes you work with other people, and that is the most important thing is getting along with other people because even though we think differently, we each have a right to have an opinion. And so you have to get people that understand that.
I: Well, do you have anything else you would like to talk about? Any of your other activities or anything?
S: Well, I guess not. Thank you.
I: Thank you so much.
[tape ends 1:13:11]