Historic Downtown Walking Tour, Houston

Historic Downtown Walking Tour (Self Guided), Houston

Clean, shiny, new, and impressive, Downtown Houston – a true metropolis – rises high above the dusty plains and swamplands of Texas. Just like the other major Texan city of Dallas, Houston has been described as a concrete jungle (or a spaghetti bowl) of endless freeways. Yet, it somehow manages to tower over the stream of engines, with a glittering uber-American presence. There is much to discover in and around Downtown Houston, and perhaps best of all, the thrilling, inspiring skyline visible for 50 miles from every direction because of how flat the lands are.

Among the plethora of historic landmarks and architectural gems in Downtown Houston, perhaps the most noteworthy is the historic Market Square area packed to the brim with restaurants, shops, and entertainment options. Known as the heart of the city's original business district, this square has been a gathering place for Houstonians since the mid-19th century.

Another historical location of note found nearby is the 1884 Houston Cotton Exchange Building. This structure, once the epicenter of the cotton trading industry in Houston, showcases the city's economic significance during the late 19th century.

The majestic 1910 Harris County Courthouse is an architectural masterpiece, reflecting the grandeur and elegance of a bygone era – a true testament to the city's commitment to preserving its historical treasures.

Meanwhile, the Gothic-Revival Christ Church Cathedral has been a spiritual haven for the community since its construction in the 1830s.

Once the epitome of luxury accommodations, The Rice (formerly known as Rice Hotel) has a storied past, having hosted numerous notable guests and events over the years.

JPMorgan Chase Building: An iconic skyscraper in the Houston skyline is a testament to the city's modernity and economic prowess.

A prime example of Art Deco architecture, Houston City Hall is both an administrative center and a historic landmark in the city.

Observing these and other attractions, one can easily acknowledge that Downtown Houston is a living museum of history and culture. For a chance to witness Houston's evolution from its humble beginnings to its current status as a thriving metropolis, and to experience the heart and soul of this remarkable city firsthand, it's worth taking this self-guided walk!
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Historic Downtown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Downtown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Houston (See other walking tours in Houston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.7 Km or 1.7 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Historic Market Square
  • 1884 Houston Cotton Exchange Building
  • 1910 Harris County Courthouse
  • Christ Church Cathedral
  • The Rice (fka Rice Hotel)
  • JPMorgan Chase Building
  • Esperson Buildings
  • Houston City Hall
  • Julia Ideson Building
  • Nichols-Rice-Cherry House
  • Kellum-Noble House
  • Sam Houston Park
Historic Market Square

1) Historic Market Square

Together with surrounding buildings, this square forms the centerpiece of The Market Square District since the arrival of the city's founders, the Allen brothers, in 1836. Early city landmarks included the briefly-used Texas Capitol and White House, in addition to several City Halls that rose and fell, each destroyed by fire. Today the historic square is bordered by 19th-century architecture housing a variety of businesses, entertainment venues, nightclubs and dining establishments.

Yet the Market Square Park is relatively new; a nice, calm space to sit and just enjoy the city sights and sounds. They do hold events here like small concerts and you can always have a picnic using the wooden benches. James Surd's sculpture, “Points of View”, is a must-see in the park, or you could stop by the memorial to Lauren Grandcolas, who was on the ill-fated United Airlines Flight #93 on September 11, 2001.
1884 Houston Cotton Exchange Building

2) 1884 Houston Cotton Exchange Building

Cotton ruled as king in Houston throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century. Prominent leaders in the business community were largely cotton factors, and many of these were involved in other important fields, such as banking and railroading. In 1974 the local cotton industry decided to organize the Houston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade. It was so successful that nine years later officials began to plan a large handsome building as its headquarters.

Completed in 1885 to a Victorian Renaissance Revival design, the building became a center for business and civic events at its peak. It was enlarged to four floors and remodeled in 1907, but that still proved to be insufficient, with the Exchange eventually moving to a new, even larger location at 1300 Prairie St. In 1973, the original building underwent a massive restoration that received national recognition. One of the first in Houston to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was also designated a Texas Historic Landmark by the state's Historical Commission.

The Wine & Whisky bar on site has great service and a very beautiful historic atmosphere.
1910 Harris County Courthouse

3) 1910 Harris County Courthouse

This former civil courthouse – the fifth in a series of courthouses to occupy the site – has come a long way since 1910, when Harris County had 150,000 residents. Imagine, if you will, a life without air-conditioning, with ventilation provided by open windows, hand-held fans and oscillating fans. Even so, many people sat in balconies to watch trials for entertainment as there were no televised shows, no video games, and no movie theaters. Water troughs were placed on the street in front of the building to give relief to the horses that had to wait outside all day while their owners tried cases or sat as jurors.

One of the last – and best – courthouses of that era, the Harris County Courthouse was rededicated in 2011, after workers painstakingly restored the structure to its original appearance, down to the plaster on the walls and mosaic tile on the floor (the latter makes use of the same color and style, but is laid out in a different pattern for each floor level). Stairs that led to the main entrances on the 2nd floor have been rebuilt, along with balconies over the showpiece 3rd-floor courtrooms. Topping off the rotunda is a new shallow-domed stained glass skylight with brilliant colorful hues.

At the entrance, tell the security staff that you are there to admire the building interior, and they will give you a little pamphlet further describing the restoration process – a marvel of historic preservation.
Christ Church Cathedral

4) Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral is the oldest worshiping congregation in Houston, and also one of the most interesting. This facility has been around since 1839, when Texas was not part of the United States, and Houston was its capital city. Members of the church – about 28 families – were among some of the first families to colonize the area.

The congregation retained its original site, which is quite significant when taking into account that the structure suffered a major fire in 1938. Largely due to the heroic efforts of an intrepid Roman Catholic firefighter who sprayed down the ornately carved rood screen to prevent the fire from spreading, the church survived with only minor damage. Later, a businessman offered to buy the church property for a hefty amount, but members voted down both the initial offer and a second bid.

The building was designed in a late Gothic Revival style, which again makes it quite unique, along with the altar inside which happens to be graced with a chalice bearing the gemstones from repurposed rings. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in the year 1979, the church is mostly known to its neighbors for the bells that toll every hour on the hour, "a sign that God is present in the heart of the city."
The Rice (fka Rice Hotel)

5) The Rice (fka Rice Hotel)

The present-day Rice building has been constructed in 1913, providing the basic concept for most hotels in Texas at that time. According to legislation, each hotel room had to have a window, and the building was designed in a U-shape so as to meet that requirement; also, every room had a bathroom, which was an unusual concept back in those days. What is more, the original architects went to Georgia and bought an entire terracotta company, which explains why the exterior is studded with gargoyles, dragons, cherubs, and everything else that could fit.

Through the years, the Rice became one of the great hotels of the South, as well as Houston's social center, frequented by the rich and famous. In the first half of the 20th century, before air-conditioning, the roof garden restaurant was the most popular place in town for dining, dancing and enjoying the cool breezes. Among the hotel's guests were also several U.S. Presidents, including John F. Kennedy, who gave one of his final speeches here just one day before his fateful trip to Dallas.

If time allows, you can visit the two-story lobby, enjoy the beautiful stained glass, and get a peek into the Crystal Ballroom filled with awe-inspiring murals and adorned with crystal chandeliers.
JPMorgan Chase Building

6) JPMorgan Chase Building

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the JPMorgan Chase Building (fka Gulf Building) is one of the preeminent Art Deco skyscrapers in the southwestern U.S. With a strikingly modern style and commanding height, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River at the time of its completion in 1929, having dominated the Houston skyline until 1963, when it was surpassed in height. The architects used a stepped profile design, which diminishes in volume as it rises.

There is a massive stained-glass window over the entrance on Travis Street that should not be missed, depicting the Battle of San Jacinto and quite impressive to see. The rest of the banking hall is equally interesting, particularly the fluted pilasters that define the walls, the ceiling with all its ornamental décor, an the artifacts displayed in an alcove nearby. Another feature to see is the Main Street lobby, richly decorated with eight frescoes illustrating the history of Texas and Houston, painted by New York artist Vincent Maragliotti, with vaulted ceilings, and with fixtures of decorative polished nickel and etched glass in panels of raised arches, scrolls, rays, and chevrons.

Located at the corner of Main Street and Rusk Avenue, in the downtown financial and petroleum business district now dominated by glass, aluminum, and concrete, the building remains a treasure of Houston's past. Both the banking hall and the lobby are open to the public during usual banking hours.
Esperson Buildings

7) Esperson Buildings

Downtown Houston's only complete example of Italian Renaissance architecture, the Neil Esperson building was designed by theater architect John Eberson and was lavishly decorated with massive columns, great urns, and terraces. Its crowning glory, a grand 'tempietto', bears similarity to one built in the courtyard of San Pietro in Rome in 1502, and is best observed standing by the front door and looking at the reflection in the glass building across the street.

This first neo-classical building was commissioned in the 1920s by Mellie Esperson for her husband, Niels, a Texas real estate and oil tycoon whose name is carved on the side, above the entrance, in large letters. The name "Mellie Esperson" is carved on the accompanying structure – a nineteen-story annex to the original, which is newer in the public's eye and not as tall. Also, instead of it being of neo-classical design, this annex was constructed in Art-Deco style.

Joined together as they are, the two buildings are certainly among the most recognizable in the downtown core. Small part of their fame is also due to rumors of hauntings by the ghost of Mellie Esperson. In 2007 both buildings were sold to Seligman Western Enterprises Ltd., a San Francisco-based family-owned real estate investment firm.
Houston City Hall

8) Houston City Hall

Houston's center of government oozes Texas with a fossilized limestone facing and multiple friezes depicting Texas themes. Flanked by Tranquility Park and the Houston Public Library, it stands in wonderful contrast to some of the newer metal-and-glass skyscrapers that now loom over it. The builders used aluminum at a time (1938-39) when it was still a fairly new material; appropriately, too, it was one of the first major downtown office buildings to have air-conditioning.

Politicians and bureaucrats spent 15 years haggling over the building's design. While, eventually, the exterior was done in a stripped classical style, inside the Hall was fitted with a private elevator for the mayor (which may still be in use), as well as private showers for each of the city council members. By contrast, the lobby floor is themed around the government's protective role; e.g., a sculpture above the doors depicts two men taming a horse, which is meant to symbolize a community coming together to tame the world around them. Elsewhere, such as in the grillwork above the main entrances, are medallions of "great lawgivers" from ancient times to the founding of America, including Thomas Jefferson, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar and Moses, as well as an outdated city seal that adorns the interior doorknobs.

Why You Should Visit:
Definitely worth a walk through, including the grassy grounds, the reflection pool, and the beautiful city council chambers.

Be sure to walk the City Hall grounds in springtime, when the multicolored azaleas are blooming.
Julia Ideson Building

9) Julia Ideson Building

First opened in 1926, this stunning building – the original location for the Houston Public Library – has an urban legend as being haunted by the ghost of its former groundskeeper and that of Petey, his dog. In the evenings, Cramer, who lived in the basement, would go up to the third floor and play his violin, accompanied by the German Shepherd. In November of 1936, the 79-year-old was found dead by the librarians, and not much is known about the dog's ulterior fate.

Sitting right next to City Hall, the three-story Spanish-Renaissance style building has since been named after Julia Ideson, who served in her role as the city's first Head Librarian for forty years. Following a multi-million dollar restoration project, it currently houses the Metropolitan Research Center that holds a massive collection of millions of historic photographs, thousands of volumes of rare children's books, a 1520 edition of The Odyssey, and a 1615 edition of Don Quixote.

If you're looking for a repose downtown and actually enjoy reading, go to the second-floor reading room, or just climb to the third floor (now occupied by the Tudor Gallery) and check out the view, which has to be seen to be believed.
Nichols-Rice-Cherry House

10) Nichols-Rice-Cherry House

Visitors to the Sam Houston Park will see the house of a wealthy Houston family in the 1850s – that decade prior to the Civil War when the city was becoming a regional center for the shipping of cotton by rail and water.

The first occupants of the two-story Greek Revival structure were the family of Ebeneezer B. Nichols, a retail merchant and shipper who oversaw construction of high quality, including white pine and hardwoods brought in from the north-east on his own ships. Nichols did not live long in his new residence, however, moving away by 1856. He sold Massachusetts-born William M. Rice his share of the business, along with the house as well. Both families were served by slaves, who almost certainly lived in an outbuilding above or near a detached kitchen in the back garden.

Rice vacated the house in 1863, following the death of his wife and the effect of the Union naval blockade on his business. After three decades of use primarily as a boarding or rental property, the building was in danger of demolition, until Emma R. Cherry – a talented local artist – came to its rescue. Not only did she convince her husband to purchase the house, but also had it moved from its original location. Today, it is one of the most recognizable buildings in Sam Houston Park.
Kellum-Noble House

11) Kellum-Noble House

Houston's oldest surviving building, the Kellum-Noble House stands on its original foundation and retains its original brick walls made with mud from Nathaniel Kellum's brickyard. The house was built in 1847, when Houston was still a young city in the Republic of Texas. It later was home to the Noble family, and during this time Zerviah Noble and her daughter Catherine operated one of the area's earliest schools on the premises.

In 1899, the City of Houston purchased the structure as part of the property for Houston's first municipal park, and repurposed it as a showpiece and a residence for the park keeper. For a short time, its grounds were the site of Houston's first zoo. The Heritage Society was founded in 1954 to save Kellum-Noble, and its place in history, for future generations. As the city grew around the area, concerned citizens decided to save the house from demolition, which marked the beginnings of the Houston Heritage Society in 1954 (check for their guided tours!).
Sam Houston Park

12) Sam Houston Park

A tranquil green oasis in the thick of Downtown, this is Houston's oldest park, surrounded by old, beautiful oak trees and housing numerous monuments and historic buildings. For tourists and locals alike, it's an excellent place to get a better understanding of how the city looked like during the early years while at the same time absorbing the exceptional panorama of its stunning modern skyline. This clash of old & new is outstanding from a photographer's viewpoint.

The park is friendly and there are organized events hosted by the Heritage Society, the organization that here operates ten historic structures (dating from 1823 to 1905), all destined for destruction as a more modern Houston was evolving. The result is now a treasure trove of several different styles of older housing that would have otherwise been lost forever – including a rustic log cabin (The Old Place, 1823), Houston's oldest brick dwelling (Kellum-Noble House, 1847), the first house in town built with an attached kitchen (Pillot House, 1868), and the first to have electric lights (Staiti House, 1905).

St. John's Church, is still a functioning ministry right in the heart of the park, and from its door the city's skyscrapers are in full view. Other historic buildings now relocated to the park include the Greek Revival-style Nichols-Rice-Cherry House (1850), the Yates House (1870), and the Fourth Ward Cottage, which may predate 1858.

Most people have experienced this park before/after a race or for a beer/wine fest but you should make the most of a gorgeous day and just head on your own for a self-guided walking tour or a picnic – yes, a picnic, while enjoying the sites and the sun, or the occasional tunes and performances. The Heritage Society also has a small museum on the site, which, apart from telling the story of the city's development, operates a "general store" with plenty of things to look at and touch.

Make sure to come during the day, as the park does close down after dusk. Entry is free and you can either walk around the outside of the buildings or pay a fee for the museum and tours.

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.4 Km or 2.1 Miles