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Interview with: Ralph Ellifrit
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: September 26, 1979
Archive Number: OH 265_01
RE: My training was at the University of Illinois. I got a degree in landscape architecture with a major in city planning. At that time they didn’t have a separate city planning degree. It was during the depth of the depression in 1932 when I got out. I was very fortunate to win a traveling fellowship, and spent the rest of 1932 and part of 33 in England, France, Italy, and Greece. I studied the cities and studied the states in those countries. When I came back in 1933, it was really the depth of the depression, and for a while I pushed a lawnmower—they didn’t have power lawnmowers in those days—when I could get a little work. Finally, I got a job planning with the National Park Service.
LM: Now, where was this? Was this in your hometown?
RE: Yeah, I lived in Kansas City. I was born and reared in Kansas City, but when I got the job that I got it was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was just being opened up at the time. We were planning campgrounds, trail systems, road systems, trying to adapt the new highway to the ecological conditions to preserve the natural scenery, and I also later worked in connection with the restoration of Fort Pulaski National Monument at Savannah. In early 1935, business began to pick up, and I wanted to get out of the government work, although it had been very interesting. I was employed by Hare and Hare in Kansas City as a landscape architect, and also working on park and city planning work.
LM: Let me just go back and pick up a little more information on your course work in college. What precisely did you major in, and what areas did you specialize in?
RE: Well, in those days we didn’t—education wasn’t as highly specialized as it is today where you get a general degree and spend 2 years concentrating on a specific narrow avenue. My work at the University of Illinois was in land planning and city planning. The land planning ranged from the old idea of large private estates elaborately developed, and included small parks, large parks, airports, and it included several courses in city planning. From the most elementary planning—rather generalized—but having to do with the statistics of planning and the methods of approach and this type of thing.
LM: (5:28) Then you said you went to Europe?
RE: Yes, I went to Europe on the Reyerson Traveling Fellowship, which was a competition within the big schools—about 5 schools within the big 10—and I took a competition for a development for the park of the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1936, it was, of course, a student’s problem. It wasn’t something that was developed at the world fair, but on the basis of that work and also submissions that we made of our schoolwork and problems and reports that we had made, and they selected an architect and a landscape architect, and I was the only landscape architect. Being the depression I started out with a thousand dollars, and spent 9 months there and came back with $250.
LM: What impressed you most or what affect did your European travels have on your viewpoint of landscaping?
RE: It was primarily an education in city planning, because an education in observing what had happened to the cities of Europe—that is the cities of the 3 countries I was supposed to travel in. I was only supposed to travel in England, France, and Italy, but I did go to Greece, because it got so cold in southern Italy in the winter. Of course, Paris in itself was a magnificent thing to see. I spent 6 weeks in Paris, and the layout that had been developed under Baron Haussmann, and the great boulevards and grand plazas and parks gave a feeling that made me—when I came back to the United States—feel that we just didn’t have any grand conception at all. We did little things here and they’re from a practical standpoint. I did go to Vienna. I wasn’t supposed to go to Austria, but I went to Vienna for a while. I spent 6 weeks in Rome. London and Paris and Rome were the three great impressions I had. I had studied the history of architecture, and of course, was very interested. I had one of the best history of architecture professors, I think, that had ever lived. I had never had such an enthralling course.
LM: What was his name?
RE: Rexford Newcomb. He later became head of the architecture department, but I recall I used to write hundred-page typewritten reports. He would correct the spelling all the way through. I mean—he read them and was interested in them and was a great lecturer. To have had this course by such an inspiring lecturer then to be able to go there and spend time, and to really go up on the Acropolis and sit and lie in the sun day after day and absorb the feeling of the thing. This type of a trip was a great experience, and it was a time when I would have had nothing to do, because the big architectural firms in Chicago were working out of their home. People today just can’t realize the state of business and professional people at that time. Therefore I consider myself extremely fortunate, and I think that trip had more to do with me finally channeling into nothing but city planning, and directly into city planning.After working for Mr Hare in Kansas City—
LM: (10:53) Let me just—excuse me. How did you first get employed by Hare and Hare?
RE: I had met Mr Hare before I went on my fellowship, and of course I’d heard of him, and I’d gone down to his office and talked to him. Mr Hare was ,even then, involved in the business as consultant in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Oklahoma City, and many of the smaller cities of the Midwest, as well as Kansas City. He was a consultant in park work and in city planning, primarily, and they also had a branch of the firm that did home grounds and this type of thing.
LM: What were your responsibilities when you joined the company?
RE: Well, I was very much a junior member with Hare and Hare. They were just coming out of the depression. There was Mr Hare and two other men in the office, and they had been with him for 15 or 20 years, and I was the first one he employed after the depression.
I2: Who were the other two men?
RE: Ralph Reinhart and Donald Bush. Donald Bush was a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
I2: Did Bush die just recently?
RE: He died last March.
I2: I think I talked to Bush at one time. He was in this area, I believe.
RE: He was living in St Louis.
I2: I was trying to locate at that time where Kessler might be relating to Houston, and there was the name of a lady who had worked in Kessler’s office. I forget who that lady was that he referred me to. Basically, it was Hare—his father had died or retired by the time you were in the office?
RE: (13:48) No, Mr Hare was, I guess, about 50 or 55 when I joined the office. His father, Sid Hare, who started the business and who laid out the original Bellaire Farms out here was retired then. I came to Houston in 1939 with Mr Hare when the first housing project was being developed. We were the site planners, and did all of the planning for the architectural parts—the roads, the walks, the grating, the drainage, this type of thing.
I2: Had you worked on projects having to do with Houston before you actually moved to Houston?
RE: Yes, in fact, one of the last things that I worked on before I came to Houston was the development in front of the city hall. The pool and the walks and the second area, which at one time was very handsome, but in the hedge there are literally hundreds of thousands of yaupon, and for many years it was quite beautiful, but due to age and lack of maintenance and so forth it has gradually fallen apart. But I worked on parks before I came here, and did some work after I came here to fill in. I had an office down at 2017 West Grey that development at Shepherd and Grey on the second floor there. Before any of the rest of it was developed it was all woodland where the theatre and other stores are located.
LM: You mentioned you worked with other parks, specifically, what other parks did you work with?
RE: Well, we were doing work in connection with rehabilitation and improvement in Herman Park, and a great many of the other parks scattered over the city. None of it—that I did at that time—was major planning. I do remember at that time we were planning for the University of Houston and for the old stadium and for the first quadrangle that was built at the University of Houston. Mr Hare was consultant to them at that time.
I2: Did Mr Hare actually do most of the design himself or did Bush have a major role?
RE: Bush was a very able designer and a very able man. While Mr Hare was a liaison with the client Mr Bush had a great deal to do with it. For subdivision development, Ralph Reinhart did that, and at one time they had done a lot of cemeteries, and Ralph Reinhart worked on those primarily. When it came to park planning, estate planning and this type of thing Donald Bush took the lead.
I2: And Hare more or less ran the office in the sense of clients—
RE: (17:51) He was away quite a bit of the time, because he was consultant at Fort Worth. He did a lot of park work in Fort Worth and Dallas. He did park work here, and then he was consultant to city planning commission at various times, and he directed the work and told them what he had in mind.
I2: Were there any civic leaders that Hare was particularly close to—at one time, evidently, he and Will Hogg worked very closely together, and I imagine Hugh Potter as well. Were there other people during the 40s and 50s that he had a special relationship with?
RE: Well, I know he had good contacts with Mr Flem, the architect, and I’m sure there are many others.
I2: People like civic leaders or politicians other than—
RE: Well, of course, Mr Holcombe and then Mr Brock, the park superintendant thought a great deal of Mr Hare and didn’t let any development occur without his guidance.
I2: Was Hare himself and architect?
RE: No, he was a landscape architect. He was a graduate of Harvard in landscape architecture and he worked under—and at that time landscape architecture encompassed city planning, and I’m not sure that Harvard had an entirely separate planning course at that time. I don’t believe any of the other schools had a separate planning school. Harvard may have had, but Mr Hare when he got out of school about the time of the First World War, I believe, worked in the east some place in connection with some of the town planning that was being done as part of the war effort. Then he came back and took over the business in Kansas City, which hadn’t amounted to very much. It was more or less cemetery planning and park planning on a limited basis, although they did do the plan for Bellaire and Westmoreland Farms, yes. The original Mr T was quite an unusual man and quite a botanist. He and Mr Hare were quite good friends, and that is perhaps how they—because Mr Sid Hare was pretty much a botanist too.
I2: Let’s see—there was a project that sort of fascinated me that in going through the files of the parks department there was, evidently, a proposal for the—well across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts for a Museum of Natural History and also an Institute of Art or something of that nature that would have taken in Shady Side, the estate plus two other—well I guess actually it would have taken in three or four lots some of them in Shady side and some of them—did you work on that project?
RE: (22:19) No, I didn’t work on it, but I have a recollection of it, and my recollection was that the Hobby’s owned the key piece of property, and that Mrs Hobby wasn’t at all interested—I think they lived there at the time.
I2: This would have been 1948, more or less.
RE: This was at a time when I was, of course, not connected with Hare and Hare, and therefore I just had general knowledge of the proposal.
I2: I was wondering if that was instigated by the Hobby family or who was actually behind the---
RE: Well, I believe it came about as a natural feeling that this was the major opportunity for expansion, is my recollection. That these were large older homes, and that there is more opportunity for continuous space in this location. It would be a better location. I have a recollection that Mrs Hobby was opposed to it and that just killed it, because they couldn’t—now this is just a hazy recollection—and that just wiped it out.
I3: Mr Elligrit, you mention that Hare and Hare engaged in subdivision planning. During the time you worked for them what if any subdivisions did they plan in Houston?
RE: The primary work then was Garden Oaks, and they did all the planning for Garden Oaks. I think they did a little bit in Oak Forest—just the beginning, but not much. Prior to that they did planning in River Oaks, of course, and the development behind the Shamrock—
RE: Breezewood. Aside from that there were a number of subdivisions that were 50 or 75 acres, but not prominent subdivisions.
I2: The original plan by Hare and Hare was buffaloed by a parkway extending all the way from the civic center down to Memorial Park, and the land acquisition for that was never completed. The parkway sort of ends just past—
RE: Mr Potter opposed it.
I2: Oh, he did?
RE: (26:05) He opposed cutting through. At that time that was the only piece of land, I believe, that was undeveloped in the River Oaks ownership, and I’ve always felt that Mr Potter was the best-informed layman in Houston in planning. Mr Potter was a very opinionated man, and Mr Potter was interested in Mr Potter. So, we had several run-ins with Mr Potter—I did as a planner—because he didn’t want anything to impinge on anything that he was doing. He knew more than anybody else. (laughs)
I2: Well the original plan showed a right away both on the south side of Buffalo Bayou and on the North side—
RE: And joining just beyond Shepherd.
I2: Connecting that part with Memorial Park, and as I understood it the land on the north bank was not really owned by River Oaks Corporation only the land on the south bank—and in fact, the Hogg Bird Sanctuary was evidently acquired by Will Hogg as part of an effort to assemble land along the north bank.
RE: There were several patches of land and several tracks of land between Shepherd and the park that had been picked up for the parkway back while Mr Hogg was living, and when I came to Houston, and we tried to make the connection, but the land was being held at such great value and he was opposing us and it was just never able to be put through.
I2: Did Potter actually intervene to try to buy up some of that land himself or?
RE: No, not that I know of.
I2: What kind of opposition did he offer?
RE: He just wasn’t willing to sell it, and he was going to get lot prices for it, and at that time it seemed a great deal of money. The council just wasn’t interested in spending that kind of money.
I3: Well, he was also chairman of the city planning commission at this time, wasn’t he?
RE: No, he wasn’t at the time we were trying to get it. He had been chairman of the planning commission.
I2: When would this be that they were actually trying to finish assembling the land?
RE: Yes, well the key to the whole thing was getting across, because there was nothing of any value on the north side, because it practically went into the Bayou, and Mr Potter was—it was unfortunate because he was an outstanding leader among—in the Urban Land Institute and was head of the Urban Land Institute, and was a man with a great deal of knowledge. He had a very sharp mind, but he didn’t get along with people in Houston, because he just knew better, and it was just an unfortunate thing.
I2: You say the land on the north side was actually cheap and could have been bought?
RE: Oh, yeah, but the key to it was getting across. The key was getting across Shepherd and across the Bayou and back into Memorial.
I2: The better connection could have been achieved just on the north bank, could it not have or was that thought about?
RE: No, we had to go through. The parkway comes in after Kirby in such a manor that you had to cut through that last section—
I2: But you would have to get up to the north bank—
RE: To get across, yeah, because the Bayou—the configuration is such that there is no way you could get across without either crossing on the eastside of Shepherd or cutting through that land of River Oaks.
I2: But the land on the north side could have been assembled, and some of it was as a bird sanctuary.
RE: Yes, it could have been acquired, because it didn’t have any great value.
I2: Why was it not acquired?
RE: Because the crossing—oh, you mean as parkway?
I2: In other words (audio ends 31:54)