Houston History: River Oaks
River Oaks: The gold standard in residential living. Established as an ‘experiment in fine living,’ the Houston neighborhood is one of the nation’s most affluent areas. As part of our series on the history of Houston’s most impactful submarkets, we took a closer look at Houston’s most famous country club-turned neighborhood to find out how the community has distinguished itself throughout Houston’s history.
The residential suburb of Houston, which comprises over 1,100 acres, was developed in the 1920s by Hugh Potter and William and Michael Hogg, sons of former Texas governor Jim Hogg. In 1925, Country Club Estates was established to promote the development.
The developers retained Kansas City-based architects Hare and Hare to provide a master plan that would protect the integrity and natural beauty of the area. Developers also hired J.C. Nichols to serve as a design consultant on the master plan, which included two shopping centers, a 15-acre campus for River Oaks Elementary and home sites.
Development plans were very strict, ensuring River Oak’s parks and esplanades were planted with oaks. Deed restrictions set home prices to over $7k and specified certain architectural styles, such as American Colonial and English Tudor. A gentlemen's agreement was also in place to exclude blacks, Jews and other minorities.
In 1927, the city was officially annexed, adding 3,465 acres to Houston’s city limits. That year, River Oaks Shopping Center opened nearby. It was one of the nation’s first commercial developments that catered to a population in love with automobiles.
The Art Deco design of the development that straddles West Gray is still a prominent feature. At the time, it was considered a model of retail development, receiving attention from numerous national publications. River Oaks Theater is now one of Houston's only theaters playing independent and art house films. There's something special about seeing a movie there, like stepping back in time.
After World War II, during Houston’s era of tremendous growth, the community’s status as a haven for the wealthy was solidified. Neighborhoods of such extreme wealth rarely experience decline, and River Oaks is no exception. Residents are known for having deep pockets that favor politicians. Eight of the top 158 political donors in the nation reside within River Oaks.
Since River Oaks Shopping Center, many retail developers have been attracted to the affluence and demographics of the area. Starbucks loves the area so much, it has three locations within a stone's throw of each other (two across the street from each other, and one in Barnes & Noble). These days, River Oaks District exemplifies luxury retail with tenants like Cartier and Hermes. Even beyond its borders, River Oaks residents' spending power has driven much of Houston's best retail development—The Galleria in particular has River Oaks to thank.
While technically in Upper Kirby, the River Oaks Garden Club Forum of Civics (above) is a historic place for River Oaks residents. John F. Staub remodeled the building to serve as the headquarters of the Forum of Civics, an organization founded by Will Hogg. River Oaks Garden Club has owned the building since 1942; it received listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
While only a small portion of the population will ever be able to afford homes in the area, River Oaks is still a beloved part of the city, if for no other reason than the joy of driving down the tree-lined esplanades and marveling at the homes.