Corporate intrigue and derring-do have always had a place at the business table in Texas. Think it’s complex now? How to succeed in business was the self-proclaimed calling card yesteryear in Houston as Glenn McCarthy and Jesse H. Jones, competing Houston hotel legends, rose to the top. Here, our vintage expert Lori Duran takes us back to the sparkling days when Texas hotels became gleaming symbols of powerful glamour.
I was always intrigued by James Dean and Rock Hudson and when my stepfather recalled growing up with his neighbor, James Dean in Indiana, and having watched the movie Giant many times, I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels. The Shamrock Hotel, built in Houston after World War II and the hotel built by James Dean’s character in Giant are strikingly similar. The stories about the fabled Shamrock and its builder, Glenn McCarthy, are fascinating. He was a wildly successful oilman who, in the middle of the twentieth century built the colossal hotel. Yes, McCarthy’s own story is big, and it embodies the legend of Texas oil men who drank too much whiskey, and ballroom brawled often, and could find oil even in dubious locales.
Beyond McCarthy, Houston became the home base of Jesse H. Jones, an accomplished businessman who built the grand Rice and Lamar Hotels in Houston and a myriad of other hotels and buildings. Tall, distinguished Jones was a generation older than McCarthy when he came to Texas in 1898 to work at his uncles’ lumber company. Jones steadily built his wealth, which came about as he focused on building and prospering in Houston. Oil greatly changed the fortune of Houston and with the ship channel, it became an international city. The Shamrock, Rice and Lamar Hotels were on top of the hospitality market while the city prospered with oil & business revenue. Jones steadily became a very wealthy and powerful man while McCarthy peaked, then plummeted, with his Shamrock hotel.
GREEN WITH ENVY
Glenn McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel was located at the southwest corner of Main Street and Bellaire Boulevard (West Holcombe Boulevard after 1963). Built in 1949 by the middle-aged McCarthy, the prodigious Shamrock seemed like it was the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s book, then film, Giant. The Jett Rink character, played by James Dean in the movie, is reminiscent of Glenn McCarthy. At age twenty-six McCarthy struck oil at Anahuac, making him an immediate millionaire. McCarthy struck oil thirty-eight times between 1932 and 1942. He discovered multiple oilfields in Texas and extended several others. In Brazoria County, he drilled the highest-pressure gas well by 1946. By the late 1940s, this triumphant King of the Wildcatters, desired to diversify his empire, so he bought and invested in a variety of businesses. He also turned his attention to building “McCarthy Center” which he envisioned as a retail, amusement and cultural center that would be anchored by a hotel, a concept way ahead of its time in the now common play/work/live spaces that dot the country. Only the hotel came to fruition and he spent $21 million to build it in 1949, a colossal sum at that time.
The Shamrock Hotel was at first the brightest star in Houston’s skyline when it opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1949. McCarthy spent over a million dollars just on the grand opening extravaganza. Widely reported by media outlets of the era, the opening included Warner Bros. star, Pat O’Brien as master of ceremonies. The party was attended by over 50,000 Houstonians and over 150 Hollywood celebrities, including major stars of the day Edgar Bergen, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Robert Preston, and Errol Flynn. Many prominent attendees were flown into Houston International Airport on a customized Stratoliner (with green interiors) airplane, which McCarthy had bought only days earlier from Howard Hughes. Others were brought in by train on a chartered Santa Fe Super Chief. Since the Shamrock was the largest hotel built in the United States during the 1940s, the grand opening in 1949 is still cited as one of the biggest social events ever held in Houston. The live radio feed to Hollywood and New York had technical difficulties, the event got a late start, and the swelling crowds were stifled by the inadequate ventilation system, yet it still remains legendary.
McCarthy’s hotel was modern and breath-takingly beautiful. The eighteen-story building had a 5,000 square foot lobby with Bolivian mahogany. The 1,100 rooms had air conditioning (very uncommon for then even in heat-drenched Texas), televisions, push-button radios, and abstract works of original art. Some rooms had kitchenettes to accommodate longer stays. These were considered new luxury amenities at the time. The swimming pool was large enough to accommodate water skiing exhibitions, which it did. The pool also hosted a synchronized swimming team called The Corkettes. Both Neiman Marcus and Sakowitz department stores maintained boutiques in the lobby, while the hotel’s opulence attracted Hollywood, presidents, heads of state, and just about everyone else.
The venue was palatial, yet remained somewhat inclusive. It organized sports clubs featuring its pool and tennis courts and even allowed non-hotel guests to make use of the pool. The Shamrock held local celebrations such as Easter egg hunts and St. Patrick’s Day parties (of course, with McCarthy’s Scottish and Irish background), thus quickly endearing itself to the community. Interestingly, it also gained a bit of a reputation as being the scene of riotous partying by celebrities, politicians and oilmen.
LUCK OF THE IRISH?
But the Shamrock proved to more than a little unlucky. McCarthy overextended himself, was in debt and nearly bankrupt by 1952. Just three years later, McCarthy was out of the hotel game and the Shamrock became a Hilton Hotels property. Apparently, afterwards McCarthy still lived comfortably, even if not a hotel kingpin anymore.
The hotel remained a Hilton property until 1985. It’s been said that it was the Shamrocks’ location that led to its eventual demise. Things had looked promising in the early 1950s. But the hotel was in the wrong location for Houston’s future growth and highway construction. The Texas Medical Center (TMC) was the only big development taking place in the Shamrock’s vicinity. Plus, other rival hotels were springing up in other areas around Houston. Besides outlying competition, the Shamrock declined because of its distance to an airport, a business district, and from the lack of development down the South Main corridor. Then, in 1985, Hilton Hotels donated the Shamrock to the TMC, who found it too expensive to renovate. The grand hotel was demolished in 1987 and the land where the hotel’s landscaped gardens and pool once occupied is now a parking lot for the TMC. Some furnishings were auctioned off, but the chandeliers were saved. There are few traces that remain of what was once so resplendent. McCarthy died eighteen months later. Some say due to a broken heart over the fate of his hotel. Many other Houston residents were upset by the loss and credit the demolition of the Shamrock as the impetus that galvanized Houston’s current preservation movement.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES’
Jesse Jones’s Rice Hotel, at Texas Avenue and Main Street in Houston, was built in 1911 on top of the original site of the Republic of Texas’ capitol building. The wood-frame building had served the Republic since it was built in 1836 until the capitol was moved to Austin. In 1881, even though it was the most important historic site in the city, the capitol building was razed, and the Capitol Hotel was built on the same spot. The Capitol was a five-story hotel that was considered a big deal at the time. In 1911, Jesse Jones bought the Capitol Hotel and demolished it to build the more extravagant 17-story Rice Hotel. Jones had long wanted Houston to have a world class hotel. Years earlier Jones tried to get hotel magnate E.M. Statler to build one in Houston. When that failed, Jones built the 500-room Bristol Hotel in 1906.
Aside from the Bristol, it was the Rice that gave Houston its first prestigious hotel. The Rice Hotel was one of Houston’s first steel-framed high-rises with two large wings extending out from a main section. Jones continually improved and updated his hotel and the Rice Hotel was plush. It sported the finest mahogany, and air-conditioned grand ballroom and a large indoor pool. Fortuitously, it launched just before the opening of the Houston Ship Channel. Jones had been one of the people that can be credited with bringing the Gulf 50 miles closer to Houston, which empowered Houston to become a major port, providing more commerce, and thus, more customers for hotel businesses. Many of the visiting potentates in for the 1928 Democratic National Convention, that was held at the nearby 20,000 Sam Houston Hall, stayed at the Rice which served as the convention’s headquarters. “It was so hot during the convention that everyman humorist Will Rogers remarked, “the Rice Hotel is so packed I have reached and mopped three other perspiring brows before I could find my own.” That was when the population of Houston was 275,000, boasted 60,000 telephones, and 234 miles of pavement.
Originally, Jones came from a family involved in the lumber business, but he then diversified into construction, ownership of the Houston Chronicle newspaper and banking. He became one of the most prolific builders in Houston by constructing some of the city’s first multi-story edifices. Jones was also a builder in Fort Worth, Dallas and New York City. He was a force to be reckoned with, pushing oil companies to move their headquarters to Houston where he leased buildings to them. His business dealings accelerated growth and prosperity for all of Houston, as well as for himself. He was particularly powerful during the 1930s through the early 1950s, when Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson both referred to him as Jesus Jones because of his talents to get things accomplished. The Rice Hotel was popular, and it was expanded in the 1920s, bringing the capacity up to 1,000 rooms. It became a Houston institution with its Capitol Club and the lavish rooftop garden. It was the site of both local and nation-wide celebrations for decades, as well as the site of Houston’s biggest social functions. In 1951, an 18th floor was added just to host the exclusive Petroleum Club and in time the Club became the sole occupant of that floor.
Jones, the extremely successful businessman, came to own about one hundred buildings in Houston. After Jones’s death in 1956, the Rice was stable for a while, but the 1970s was not gracious to the old hotel. In 1974, a new fire code implemented by the City of Houston required bringing the Rice Hotel into compliance. Upon determining that it would cost over a million dollars to update the venerable hotelUnfortunately, instead, the hotel closed, and the property changed hands multiple times while it was sat decaying. By the 1990s, it seemed likely the hotel would be demolished. Fortunately, it was renovated and has started a second life as a luxury apartment loft-style building now known as The Rice.
THE LAMAR? LAUDABLE.
With all the success of the Rice Hotel, Jesse Jones’ Lamar Hotel located downtown at Main and Lamar was built by him because he reportedly wanted a home in the downtown area where he could be close to his other buildings. Jones built the residential hotel in 1927 and kept a 16thfloor suite as a home for himself for nearly three decades. The Lamar did not book conventions and instead, became an elegant retreat for the wealthy.
Other suites were permanently held by major players in oil, politics and banking. There was Suite 8F which was occupied by George Brown of Brown & Root Company where Brown and a group of wealthy and powerful men met there routinely. They were the people who reportedly ran Houston in that era. LBJ came regularly, and he and Lady Bird Johnson often stayed there. H.L. Hunt, the Dallas oil billionaire, enjoyed sitting in the lobby to read newspapers and observe the non-stop action it provided. During the ’50s and ’60s, Suite 8F at the Lamar Hotel was known to insiders as the secret capital of Texas. Bankrolled by Brown & Root, it’s where Houston’s most high-profile business and civic leaders shaped the city’s future development. They preferred to meet in an uber-private setting of the Lamar suite over other possible locations. The 8F Crowd reportedly wielded extraordinary influence in state and national government as well as over the oil industry.
After the 1960s, things changed in the hotel world and within a few years the Lamar had closed. Now, it’s physically gone. There was an auction where anything from wine glasses to crystal chandeliers were sold before the planned hotel demolition and implosion in 1983. But, the legacy of the men who met there remains visible around the city today.
Both Glenn McCarthy and Jesse Jones were leading business figures in their day. Houston’s booming economy created the perfect opportunity for their exalted hotels to set the stage for the celebrations and conferences of Houstonians for decades that still exist to this day.
For a closer look into these men and their historic hotels of Houston, the author consulted Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism and the Common Good by Steven Fenberg, Lost Houston by William Dylan Powell and a Texas State Historical Association web article also provided research on Glenn McCarthy.