Houston History: The Heights
The Heights has become such a beloved part of Houston it’s easy to forget it was first developed as its own city, set apart from Houston with its own business district and infrastructure. The Utopian vision of Oscar Martin Carter was Houston's first master planned community. To launch our series on the history of Houston's most impactful submarkets, we delved into how the Heights was live/work/play before the term even existed.
The early 1890s were an exciting time of development across the country, particularly in Texas, where towns were booming. The rush drew speculators to Houston, like Oscar Martin Carter, a self-made millionaire with interests in Nebraska and Colorado. He established the Omaha and South Texas Land Co, which purchased 1,756 acres and built $500k worth of infrastructure, including alleys, parks, schools and utilities.
O.M. Carter had convinced his eastern investors that Houston was destined for growth and the ideal place to invest heavily. He also knew there would be a great need for housing. He wanted his development to provide the opportunity for homeownership.
At the time, the complex sanitation infrastructure of modern America didn’t exist. The crowded city of Houston was plagued by yellow fever, devastating floods and filth.
The Heights was the perfect refuge from the refuse. With an elevation 23 feet higher than Downtown Houston, a natural sandy soil, rich vegetation, mature trees and clean water sources, the new community promised a sanctuary of health and well-being.
At the core of his vision was an electric transportation system that would bring passengers four miles from Houston’s center to his planned community. The idea wasn’t exactly revolutionary—most cities the size of Houston already had electric streetcars—but Houston only had two-mule drawn systems. Carter purchased and electrified both. With the transportation system in hand, investors flocked to the development.
The new community was carefully arranged, key streets were covered with shell and the area had its own waterworks system. The trees and other natural features that now line the streets were planted during that early period of development, defining the area’s aesthetic from the outset. The founding fathers of the Heights also built a series of grand Victorian homes along Heights Boulevard, a broad, tree-lined central thoroughfare where many remain to this day.
Of course, no area is complete without retail. Carter also built a commercial strip at 19th and Ashland streets. He had a luxurious hotel built to host potential investors, but it was destroyed by fire in 1915. When Carter managed to finally attract industrial and commercial interest, his vision of a live/work community was complete.
Carter planned Houston Heights as a modest community and sought to prevent speculation. Advertisements for the growing community were targeted towards the growing class of white-collar workers, young professionals and skilled craftsmen.
Culture and social clubs were a big part of living in the Heights. One of the most important was the Houston Heights Woman's Club (above). The club did social and charity work like teaching and hosting cultural events at its clubhouse at 1846 Harvard St. Thanks in part to the stewardship of these organizations, education was a top priority for residents from early on. Two elementary schools were built by 1900, followed by a high school in 1904.
The Heights maintained its own municipality from 1897 until officially being annexed by the City of Houston in 1919. With the new arrangement came a flood of construction. Schools were built throughout the '20s along with the library at 1302 Heights Blvd, which still operates. The building boom was paired with a population boom due to the deepening of the ship channel and the rapid expansion of petroleum industries.
World War II marked a turning point for the Heights. After the war (and largely thanks to the lack of zoning), industrial interests had all but taken over the area. The expanded interstate highway system of the late '40s and '50s pulled residents out to the suburbs, away from established neighborhoods like the Heights. By 1970, The Heights was impoverished and decrepit.
In 1973, the Houston Heights Association was established to maintain the quality of life and historic fiber of the area. In the early years, the HHA was fighting a losing battle. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Heights began to gentrify along with many areas inside the newly completed 610 Beltway 8. Young professionals flocked to the area once again, purchasing and renovating beautiful historic homes, returning the area to its glory days. Now, thanks to the the tireless work of residents and city officials, the area is reaching new heights, consistently ranked among the top big city neighborhoods in the entire country.
While it may be a big city neighborhood, the beauty of the modern day Heights is its distinctly small town feel. In a city with no zoning laws, the Heights feels surprisingly consistent. The community's commitment to historical preservation sets it apart. In fact, there are more areas marked as historic districts in the Greater Heights than in the rest of the city combined. Over the last 10 years, the influx of greenspace, bike paths and mind-blowing restaurants has put the cherry on top of the Heights sundae and returned the area to O.M. Carter's original vision. As they say: The Heights is a lifestyle.