Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

As Others See Us:
lighted (hence no need for windows),
with conveyor belts to move merchandise
from loading dock to sales areas, the department
store was described in glowing
terms. Time was just as enthusiastic and
began its illustrated story by saying customers
"as interested as Alice in Wonderland"
crowded into "a new kind of department
store." Business Week also found
the store innovative enough in design
and concept to devote a long article to its
opening. "The eyes of the merchandising
world are upon Texas," began the story.
"It is a shopper's dream, full of scientific
gadgets and the latest wrinkles in mechanized
selling." Suddenly Houston seemed
bold, aggressive, a city of the future, a
city to watch.
And that the national media did. The
city image suggested by the new Foley's
store seemed validated by two other
buildings within the next two years. If
Foley's represented bold innovation, the
price paid in 1947 for the lot on which to
construct a new Woolworth store suggested
Houston as a city of immense
wealth. The fact so impressed Business
Week that a breathless article about the
city entitled "Houston's Boom Hums On"
used the transaction as a symbol of the
city's mushrooming growth and prosperity.
When the glistening marble-fronted
Woolworth's opened in 1949, Time Magazine
again marked the event with an admiring
photograph of the "world's largest
Woolworth store" and described its special
"merchandising frills," including free
deliveries and a "lay-away" plan.
Big, bold, rich, futuristic, the adjectives
used for Foley's and Woolworth's
were easily transferred to the city itself.
But one more epochal building was to
open in 1949 that would complete the
stereotype of Houston; brassy, extravagant,
larger than life. That structure of
course was wildcatter Glenn McCarthy's
architectural monstrosity, the $21 million,
18-story, lavishly decorated Shamrock
Hotel. For its opening party McCarthy
sent out hundreds of invitations printed
in gold on white doeskin, chartered a
train to bring in Hollywood movie stars,
had 2,500 shamrocks flown in from

Ireland, and catered an intimate gourmet

feast for 2,000 guests who pushed and
shoved to get in to see and be seen. Time
Magazine reported the event with a sense
of awe, and Fortune reported that the
opening extravaganza "may have startled
even the Texans," and the party, the
hotel, and the flamboyant oilman all
combined to cement the national image
of Houston as the city of the big rich.
George Fuerman, a popular Houston
newspaperman who had earlier written
for Time and Life, in 1951 published a
colorfully written book entitled Houston:
Land of the Big Rich. The city finally had a
stereotypical descriptive label, and the label
stuck. Within a few years cover stories
on national news magazines spoke quite
casually of Houston as the city of "Big
Money," and a major northern press, in a
book published to dispose outsiders of "all
misconceptions" about Texas, naturally
labeled Houston "Queen of the Boom
Towns." And that is how the city has
been portrayed in the national media ever
since the late 1940s, when Foley's, Woolworth's,
and the Shamrock Hotel helped
put Houston on the national map. There
was a tinge both of scorn and envy in that
label, which partially explains why
the national media today reports Houston's
relative slump with a degree of malicious
glee.
One could hardly open a national publication
in the 1950s and 1960s without
finding headlines like "Southern City,
Northern Pace"(Business Week, January
24, 1953), or "Houston: Boomingest
Town in the U.S." (Newsweek, June 11,
1966), or yet again, "Houston Wins Its
Big-City Spurs" (Business Week, November
19, 1966). In the midst of all this,
travelers began to remark on a subtle
change in the nature of the city; it was
losing its southern or regional character.
George Sessions Perry was perhaps the
first to notice this development, and in
his 1942 book Texas: A World in Itself, had
written that "Houston ... is not so
much Texan as American. It has lost its
Texas character by outgrowing Texas. It
has taken on a great deal of the nonregional
aspect of an adding machine, of
big . . . finance. The place is full of foreigners,
from the United States, who are
perfectly all right but just aren't Texan.

Rice Institute might be Yale except for
differences in architecture and the po

tency of their football teams." (Parenthetically
note how much changes
over time. Now Yale might win on the
gridiron.)
Five years later, in 1947, the editors of
Look Magazine published a series of books
entitled Look at America, and in the volume
on the Southwest said that "Houston
is a skycraper city with a flavor closer to
that of eastern industrial centers than
of cow and cotton towns that dotted
Texas. .. ." "Its quiet suburbs," the book
continued, "suggest the ease of the old
South, but its heart beats fast and
vigorously with a spirit that typifies
twentieth-century progress." The New
York Times sent a reporter down in 1947,
having noticed that Texans had "lately
added a new note to the hymn of praise
they have been singing about their state
since it was admitted to the Union, some
100 years ago. A note of commercialism
has recently crept into the rather gushy
sentiment about the wondrous beauties of
Texas, her iron-jawed, blue-eyed he-men,
and her pretty daughters, each of whom
makes a Miss America look like an old
catcher's mitt. Texas, the claim goes, is
the biggest boom state in the country and
compared with this state the rest of
the country is economically sick if not,
podner, dead." Then the reporter focused
on Houston. "Though most Easterners
tend to regard Houston, and Texas, as
part of the drawling, Gary Cooper west,
this aspect of Texas has changed in recent
years. The saddle is gathering dust and
hangs in a slick new garage near a station
wagon. The clatter of cowboy boots has
been drowned out by the noise of pneumatic
hammers, the colorful ranchhand
songs are largely confined to the juke
box." (And today the urban cowboys
metaphorically rope their little doggies at
Gilley's, and are kickers only via the airwaves.)
Migrations of hundreds of thousands
of what Geroge Sessions Perry
called "foreigners from the United States"
and elsewhere throughout the world also
had a major hand in reshaping the character
of Houston from southern to national
to cosmopolitan and international.
Despite undercurrents of discontent now
and then about newcomers, Houston has
welcomed them and accepted their skills

and contributions. Almost forty years ago
in his Inside U.S.A. John Gunther re

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed July 25, 2014.