by Amber Ambrose, Lauren McDowell, Lauren Patterson • June 1, 2019
50 years in Downtown Houston
Humans walked on the surface of the moon for the first time in history, and it was cause for celebration. What better way than an epic ticker tape parade in NASA’s hometown of Houston? Close to a quarter million people lined the streets of Downtown to cheer on the nation’s new heroes, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. It was the summer of 1969, and everything seemed possible.
This July marks a full half-century since that fateful Apollo 11 mission put the first man on the moon – a milestone that calls for reflection on where we’ve been and where we’re going. What events – good and bad – were pivotal in shaping what Downtown is today.
From the 1970s through present day, take a stroll through the last 50 years of Downtown’s evolution.
Disco was in, Nixon was out, and the oil and gas industry was fueling more than Camaros, Datsuns and Pintos – it was a huge time of growth for Houston and Downtown. Louie Welch ushered in the decade as the city’s mayor, serving the last of his five consecutive terms, followed by Fred Hofheinz (‘74-‘78) and Jim McConn (‘78-‘81).
The Astrodome was only five years old when 1970 rolled around and an architectural marvel of the day. A marvel of its own kind, the non-denominational Rothko Chapel opened in Montrose in 1971, featuring a series of 14 canvases painted by abstract artist, Mark Rothko, for whom the space was named.
Equally memorable was Elvis’ 1970 performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as was the fact that the organization also launched its inaugural barbecue cook-off in 1974. Other notable performers gracing the famous HLSR stage in the ‘70s included Johnny Cash, Freddy Fender, Eddy Arnold and Loretta Lynn.
Houston’s strong economy was pulling in people from across the country and the world looking for jobs and opportunity. Momentum built for the city, with a population explosion of almost half a million people between 1970 and 1980. And Downtown was at the center of it all.
1971One and Two Shell Plaza open to much fanfare.
Shell Oil Company hires Gerald Hines to construct a new headquarters, Hines’ first office tower in Downtown. At 50 stories tall, One Shell Plaza becomes the tallest reinforced concrete structure in the world.
1975Pennzoil place opens to architectural acclaim.
Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the building’s two 36-story towers creates an optical illusion so that its appearance varies depending on a viewer’s location. The building forever changes the Houston skyline and architecture itself, as Pennzoil Place is credited with ushering in an era of postmodernism.
1976U.S. bicentennial is celebrated at Tranquillity Park, which honors moon exploration. Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon change history: "Houston, Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed." In 1976, the park that would commemorate the occasion is designed as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. Three years later, it is dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Architect Charles Tapley designs the park to represent the lunar landscape, with pronounced topographic changes in the form of mounds and depressions throughout the space.
1978Voters approve METRO creation.
Years of business and population growth lead to a need for a regional – rather than a city-only – transit plan. Houston-area voters vote to create METRO and approve a one-cent sales tax to support its operations. The new transit system replaces the bus service owned by the City of Houston known as HouTran.
1979METRO Park & Ride service begins.
METRO officially opens for business in January 1979 and begins its Park & Ride service to ease transportation for Downtown workers. Park & Ride provides direct nonstop service to Downtown from Park & Ride lots throughout Harris County.
Computers got personal thanks to IBM and Macintosh, MTV created a culture rebellion and Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. The 1980s had arrived. While everyone was watching to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas and envying the opulence on Dynasty, Houston’s oil bubble was starting to burst.
Leading the city through the roller coaster of a decade was its first female mayor, Kathy Whitmire, who was elected in 1981 and served 10 consecutive years through five terms.
In contrast to the extravagance of the previous decade Houston saw a period of austerity. Oil prices fell drastically, and 225,000 jobs were lost before it was over. The Offshore Technology Conference fell in attendance from more than 100,000 to 25,000 in the span of five years. Foreclosures were peaking and banks were failing. The Challenger disaster left a nation and a city in grief and disbelief. Houston was changing once again.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Major celebrations marked the 150-year anniversary of the State of Texas and the City of Houston, NASA entered its 25th year, the Houston Press launched and the city saw a record-breaking performance (more on that later). Also of note: the birth of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles in 1981.
While times were often tough, the events of the 1980s acted as a necessary catalyst in the diversification of the city’s economy, with Downtown playing a vital role.
1982-1983Houston’s Downtown skyline begins to take shape, with 10 million square feet of office towers constructed.
The JPMorgan Chase Tower becomes Houston’s tallest building with 75 floors, followed by the 52-story Fulbright Tower and the Wells Fargo Bank Plaza, the second-tallest building in Houston and in Texas.
1983Plans for Hardy Toll Road are approved.
Harris County voters approve up to $900 million in bonds to construct the Hardy Toll Road and the Sam Houston Tollway. The infrastructure project, which aims to improve regional transportation and ease traffic congestion to and from Downtown, is widely supported by the public.
1984Oil bust curtails the building boom.
Houston’s economy, heavily dependent on oil, takes a hit. As the city grapples with the consequences of being dependent on a single industry, Houston is forced to begin to diversify its economy.
1986Texas sesquicentennial marks 150 years of the Lone Star State.
On March 2, 1836, Texans declared independence from Mexico through a Texas Declaration of Independence, signed at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Documented in newspapers across the U.S., Texas’ Sesquicentennial Anniversary is celebrated with local parades, a statewide chuck wagon trail ride, and even a state-sanctioned 3,200-mile walk around the state’s perimeter.
1986Rendez-vous Houston: A City in Concert.
French composer Jean-Michel Jarre draws a crowd of 1.3 million people on April 5 with a concert accompanied by a laser light show and fireworks display set against the backdrop of Houston’s Downtown skyscrapers. For a time regarded as the Guinness Book of World Records’ Largest Outdoor Rock Concert & Largest Crowd to Witness a Sound-and-Light Display, Rendez-vous is immortalized in the collective Houston consciousness as a tribute to the astronauts of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
1987Wortham Theater Center opens.
Seeking to shed its oil town persona in favor of a more cultured reputation, the City of Houston welcomes the $66 million Gus S. Wortham Theater Center. The Inaugural Gala Concert features performances by Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, and signals Houston’s ascent as one of the leading American cultural centers.
1987George R. Brown Convention Center opens.
After construction costs totaling $104.9 million, 30 months of construction and the labor of more than 1,200 workers, the George R. Brown Convention Center is unveiled as Houston’s premiere event center with the capacity to host large-scale national events.
1988Hardy Toll Road is completed. Transit ways greatly improve.
Started in 1984, the toll road spans 21.6 miles upon completion in 1988. The route, which runs parallel to I-45, makes Downtown more accessible to the growing population north of Houston.
1989Sesquicentennial Park opens.
After three years of construction, Sesquicentennial Park opens in 1989, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Houston’s founding. The 22-acre park costs an estimated $19 million and becomes one of several urban parks along Downtown’s Buffalo Bayou, adding to Houston’s green space.
The World Wide Web was still in uncharted territory, Cheers, ER and Seinfeld were reasons to get excited on weeknights, and there was a Houstonian (President George H.W. Bush) in the Oval Office. It was the 1990s, ushering in an alternative music revolution and a war in the Middle.
Houston’s population growth had pushed it from the fifth to the fourth largest city in the United States, and there were big changes afoot for city government. Mayor Bob Lanier ushered in the 90s along the citizens voting to limiting elected officials to three two-year terms, including council members and mayors, plus another big milestone: the city’s first African American mayor, Lee. P. Brown, who was elected in 1997.
Space Center Houston opened to the public, drawing tourists from across the world. That global spotlight also shone during the 16th G7 Summit, hosted at Rice University in 1990, bringing with it dignitaries and leaders from all corners of the world.
Meanwhile, Bagwell and Biggio had us captivated on the baseball diamond and KTRK’s Marvin Zindler kept us informed with his Rat and Roach report, helping us all steer clear of any slime in the ice machines.
And what was in store for Downtown? A whole heckuva lot.
1992Republican National Convention comes to town.
As Houstonians enjoy an uncharacteristically cool August, the city plays host to the Republican National Convention. Delegates gather at the Astrodome, but the event attracts political groups and nonprofits, whose members participate in demonstrations around the city. One such group, the Women’s Action Coalition, joins with 75 Houston artists to organize a slideshow on a Downtown parking garage wall for three nights, accompanied by open mic sessions in support of women’s’ rights.
1995Downtown District is created and begins service.
Created by the Texas Legislature, the Downtown District is championed by Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Garnet Coleman. Government leaders know a vibrant city center is key to Houston’s success, and a concerted effort to accelerate area improvements beyond the level provided by local government or voluntary effort is necessary. The Downtown District’s mandate is daunting, but simple: transform the area into a vital core for living, working and leisure.
1994 & 1995Rockets claim their title as NBA champions.
After 27 years of league play, the Houston Rockets bring home their first NBA championship in June 1994. Led by coach Rudy Tomjanovich and center Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon, the Rockets defeat the New York Knicks 90–84 in the seventh game of the series. The parade that follows sees more than 200,000 people line up on Downtown streets to celebrate.
The Rockets repeat their championship performance again in 1995, helped by new trade and former University of Houston Olajuwon teammate Clyde Drexler. The team proves its “Clutch City” bonafides by sweeping the Orlando Magic in four games, becoming the lowest-seeded team in NBA history to win a championship title.
1997Bayou Place opens, beginning a transition of Downtown to an entertainment and dining destination.
The opening of Bayou Place creates an exciting family-friendly entertainment destination in the former Albert Thomas Convention Center. At the heart of Downtown’s Theater District, the complex includes restaurants, a live music venue and the largest private event venue in Downtown.
1997-2000Houston Comets build a dynasty.
The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) begins play in June 1997 with eight original teams, including the Houston Comets. The stellar Comets go on to win the league’s first championship and become the league’s first dynasty, with four subsequent championships and the WNBA's first MVP, Cynthia Cooper.
1998Post Rice Lofts open
Developer Randall Davis and Atlanta-based Post Properties convert the historic Rice Hotel building at 909 Texas Avenue into 312 apartments after a 20-year vacancy. The building is re-opened in 1998 as Post Rice Lofts.
Y2K fizzled, the iPod came (and went), Beyoncé blossomed into Queen Bey with the release of Crazy in Love, and Harry Potter came to a close when The Deathly Hallows was finally published. Entertainment had gone unscripted via reality TV, and Facebook was changing the way people were interacting online.
In Houston, it was a revolving door of natural disasters, starting with Tropical Storm Allison, which caused widespread structural flooding of homes and businesses, moving into Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and closing out with Hurricane Ike. Resilient as ever, the city thrived through it all, while opening its doors and hearts to neighbors from Louisiana, many whom relocated permanently after Katrina ravaged New Orleans and surrounding regions.
Halliburton moved its headquarters from Dallas to Houston, the Dynamo brought Major League Soccer to the Bayou City, and subsequently, two back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
Lee P. Brown guided the city into the aughts, with Bill White serving from 2004-10. Closing the decade was yet another mayoral milestone with the historic election of Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, proving that Houston truly was a city of progress and inclusiveness.
The 2000s were a fresh start to an entirely new millennium, and the potential was unlimited for Downtown.
2000The Astros move their home to Downtown.
Houston, ever innovative, unveils the city’s first retractable-roof sports stadium. The Astros move from their previous home at the Astrodome (aka The Eighth Wonder of the World) and play their first game in the new ballpark (then dubbed Enron Field) on March 30 to a crowd of more than 40,000. The Astros play the Yankees – just like they did to kick-off their stint in the Astrodome in 1965. Jeff Bagwell claims the first hit and the Astros go on to win 6-5.
2001The Enron collapse shocks Houston, leaving many unemployed.
In what comes to be known as one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history, Enron Corporation, a Houston-based energy trading company, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 2. At one point climbing to No. 7 on Forbes’ Fortune 500 list and posting a revenue of $111 billion, Enron stock prices plummet to $0.26 as those in-the-know scramble to dump shares while investors and employees are encouraged to buy more. All told, billions of dollars in investments, pensions and retirement savings as well as around 5,600 jobs are lost.
2002Hobby Center is complete.
Replacing the former Houston Music Hall and Sam Houston Coliseum, the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts is the first major performing-arts complex to open anywhere in the U.S. in the 21st century. Private donors fund the $88 million construction, which spans 248,000 square feet and features a lobby with 60-foot glass walls and a main hall with a dome ceiling fitted with fiber-optic lights designed to look like twinkling stars.
2003Toyota Center opens. Toyota Center, new home to the Houston Rockets, stretches across six city blocks and costs $235 million. In its first year, the arena hosts more than 1.5 million sports fans and concertgoers. Many credit Toyota Center’s opening, along with Houston’s bid to host the Super Bowl the following year, with the surge of hotels and hospitality growth in Downtown, including the addition of the Hilton Americas – a 24-story four-star hotel connected to the George R. Brown Convention Center.
20031000 Main joins the Downtown skyline.
A formidable 518 feet tall with 800,000 square feet of space, 1000 Main Street (or as it was originally called, Reliant Energy Plaza) helps spark the revitalization of the Downtown corridor. The state-of-the-art steel and glass structure, which quickly becomes a recognizable landmark in the Houston skyline, helps draw larger companies to lease space and more developers to build in Downtown.
2004METRORail Red Line connects Downtown.
Originally called the Main Street Line, the Red Line is the first METRORail route in Houston. The 7.5-mile stretch from Fannin South to UH-Downtown opens January 1, giving Houstonians a fast, reliable public transit option to commute to their jobs Downtown. (Remember the 10 million square feet of office space built in the ‘80s?) The northern extension from UH-Downtown to Northline Transit Center/HCC opens December 21, 2013, bringing the Red Line’s total length to 13 miles terminal to terminal.
2004Super Bowl XXXVIII comes to town.
The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots play at Houston’s Reliant Stadium for what is then the most-watched Super Bowl to date with 144.4 million viewers. In what many NFL fans and sportswriters have called one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time, the Patriots win by a field goal for a thrilling 32-29 victory.
2006Cotswold Project leads Downtown development.
The Cotswold Project is a Historic District revitalization and place-making initiative focused on pedestrian-friendly enhancements, landscaping, street improvements and beautification in northeast Downtown. A collaboration between the City of Houston and the Downtown District, the project costs around $68 million.
2008Discovery Green brings wide open spaces to Downtown.
A 12-acre green space once just a few empty paved lots next to the George R. Brown Convention Center, this public–private partnership between the City of Houston, Houston First Corporation, and other stakeholders, is completed on April 13 and serves nearly 250,000 visitors during its first two months open to the public. The total cost of purchasing the land is approximately $57 million, plus an additional $125 million to build, landscape, and complete the project.
2009One Park Place brings residential luxury.
A mixed-use property with dining and retail as well as luxury apartments, One Park Place is one of the first new residential high rises in Downtown. With Discovery Green close enough to claim as a “front yard,” residents at One Park Place are some of the first to enjoy the convenience of Downtown living.
Nine years into the decade, and it’s clear the Digital Age is upon us. No one goes anywhere (maybe even the bathroom) without a smartphone, selfies are as admired as they are ridiculed, and influencers are taking over Instagram—a platform that didn’t hit the internet until this decade, btw.
Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states while the space shuttle program has shuttered. Expressions and emotions have been digitized into the now-ubiquitous emojis. Gifs have made a comeback, and hipsters are making fashion statements, man buns were (are?) a thing and yoga pants aren’t just for yoga.
Welcome to the 2010s.
In Houston, Mayor Annise Parker breaks barriers as the first openly lesbian mayor from 2010-16 with Mayor Sylvester Turner taking the reins on into present day as the city’s second African American to hold the office. Floods from Memorial Day in 2015, Tax Day in 2016 and the record-breaking deluge from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey bring heartache and destruction, but the city continues to soldier on, with recent population estimates hovering around 2.3 million.
What does that mean for Downtown? Continued improvements, big plans and celebrations of what’s to come.
2010Market Square Park reopens. Historic Market Square Park reopens as a destination for residents and visitors following the renovation efforts of the Downtown District, Downtown Redevelopment Authority/TIRZ #3 and the City of Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Its new iteration includes a cafe and dining trellis, performance stage and plaza, tribute garden, and dog run, along with new works of art.
2011Houston Ballet Center for Dance jetés into Downtown.
Houston Ballet celebrates a new chapter with the opening of its six-story, 115,000 square-foot home called the Center for Dance. Located across the street from the Wortham Theater Center, the $46.6 million building houses nine dance studios and a dance lab that seats 200, along with artistic, administrative and support facilities for Houston Ballet and its academy. The new center allows Houston Ballet to significantly expand its education and dance training programs.
2012BBVA Compass Stadium brings soccer to the heart of the city.
The country’s first Downtown soccer-specific stadium opens to the public, hosting Houston’s professional female and male soccer teams, the Dash and Dynamo. The state-of-the-art venue is built to showcase the “world’s sport” as well as any European stadium with seating proximity and pitch positioning fans close to the action.
2012Downtown Living Initiative Program launches.
The Downtown Living Initiative (DLI) program launches to incentivize developers to create homes or multifamily projects close to the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center, in addition to the southwest corridor of Downtown Houston. The initiative requires developers to comply with essential guidelines that aid in creating supportive urban design with residential streets featuring street trees, enhanced lighting, active ground floor uses and appropriate sidewalk design.
2013Macy’s closes, marking the end of an era.
Originally opened as a Foley’s in 1947, the 10-story, 791,000-square-foot building at the time was called "the most radical and practical store in America," by Newsweek. Rebranded as a Macy’s in 2006, the store closes along with five others across the country.
2015Buffalo Bayou Park opens, bringing plenty of outdoor recreation.
Following a $58 million renovation, Buffalo Bayou Park reopens to the public in October. Historic Allen's Landing, located at Commerce and Main streets, and the Sabine Promenade benefit from the bayou improvements. New innovative lighting along the paths provide safety to walkers and joggers even after sundown, and a new pedestrian bridge provides a spectacular view of Houston’s skyline, along with access to both banks of Sabine Promenade.
2016Super Bowl LI
In preparation for hosting Super Bowl LI, a newly renovated Avenida de las Americas (now called “The Avenida”) creates a pedestrian-friendly area adjacent to nearby Discovery Green park, blending the park and the Convention Center seamlessly. On game weekend, Houston hosts an estimated 150,000 visitors, with Downtown at the center of the action. Discovery Green is the site of fan festival Super Bowl Live, a multi-day event with food, music, and entertainment that allowed everyone – even those without tickets – to participate in the excitement.
2017Astros finally bring home the World Series.
In a city reeling from Hurricane Harvey, the hometown baseball team becomes a symbol of hope. With the world – and more importantly, their city – looking on, the Astros compete in seven hard-fought games to eventually emerge victorious over the Los Angeles Dodgers. An estimated one million fans attend the Downtown parade held for the Astros’ victory in November.
2019The Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts opens its new campus spanning 168,000 square feet on five stories.
Designed by Terry Newell of Gensler’s Houston office, the sleek new site offers a canvas for artists of all mediums – with literal state-of-the-art facilities. The 800-seat Denney Theater sits at the heart of campus, surrounded by classrooms meant to inspire. In the new building, students have access to five performance spaces, studio art gallery space, dance studios, a recording studio, a ceramics studio, soundproofed practice rooms, a print-making lab, and a creative writing wing.