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Page 8A • The Leader • July 27, 2013 • @heightsleader

History of the Houston Heights by Clayton Lee Jr.

The old timers were known to say that in the Houston Heights, the top of the trees tickled the toes of the angels… To really talk about the Heights, we should talk about Mr. Oscar Martin Carter, the father of the Houston Heights. Mr. Carter was born Sept. 2, 1842 in Salem Mass. and was orphaned by the age of six. He moved from family to family and was treated so poorly that he ran away and joined up with some people heading West. In one small town he worked as a tinsmith. He was a genius and an adventurer. At one time he was a teamster on wagon trains and even panned for gold successfully in Colorado while there. It made him a millionaire, so he returned to Omaha, Neb., where he eventually owned six banks. He had holdings in real estate and became well known in business circles in New York and Washington, D.C. He even met the president of the United States. In 1887, he heard about Houston, Texas, and after looking it over, formed the Omaha and South Texas land Company and bought 1,765 acres of land from the Allen brothers, who were in need of funds. The Allen brothers had paid $4 an acre and sold to Mr. Carter for $45 an acre. The land, located in the northwest area, was to become the “Houston Heights,” so named because it was 23 feet higher in elevation than the rest of the city. Soon, people would escape from the epidemics of the city to the healthier “Houston Heights.” Mr. Carter returned to Omaha to engage some of his friends in his adventure. Mr. Daniel Denton Cooley (treasurer of the Land Company) built the first home in the Heights on the northeast corner of Heights Boulevard and 18th Street. Mr. Cooley was the grandfather of the renowned heart surgeon, Dr. Denton Cooley. The home was demolished in the 1960s and the property acquired by the Houston Heights Association. The property is the home of Marmion Park, so named for the last mayor of the Houston Heights (1914-1918), Mr. J.B. Marmion Sr. and Kaiser Pavillion, named for Dr. and Mrs. C.H. Kaiser, who donated the “seed” money for the project. Note: There were four mayors of the Heights: Judge Love, John Milroy, David Barker (home on the northwest corner of 16th Street at Harvard, National Register), and Mr. Isbell (639 Heights Blvd. Home had a large open room upstairs that was used for meetings.) Mr. John Milroy built his home on the northeast corner of Heights Boulevard at 11th Street. The home, still standing, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Both Mr. Milroy and Mr. Cooley built homes and sold lots. It is said that even through the Great Depression, not a home was repossessed by either man. When a man could start paying again, he simply picked up where he had left off. The Heights was a planned community with roads, utilities, transportation and industries. The Heights was laid out with a beautiful wide boulevard that ran North and South. Originally there were wooden bridges over White Oak Bayou. The street was later paved with bricks. The streets running North and South were named for universities, and the streets running East and West were numbered. Mr. Carter knew there would have to be transportation so he bought horse-drawn trolleys (later electrified trolleys) that went north on the Boulevard to 19th Street, west to Nicholson (Railroad Street), along the railroad track. After several near fights with the train men who would leave boxcars on the tracks, the trolley moved its tracks one block south to Ashland. From 17th Street, the trolley would go south on the Boulevard to Washington and east to the city of Houston. There was also the shuttle for people to go to No. 1 – Kaplan Ben-Hur the industrial area and homes around it. Around 26th Street was the South Texas Cotton Seed Mill, the Pickle Factory, the Mattress Factory, which later became the Oriental Textile Mill, the Furniture Factory, the Lumber Yard and Mill Shop, and the Clock Tower on West 22nd Street and Lawrence, one block east of Shepherd. No. 2 – Baptist Temple Restoration of the clock tower was a project I worked on, and the work was done by Mr. Bade Jensen of the Heights. My wife and sister would take a broomstick and some twine and walk four blocks to the Heights Ice Plant to get 25 pounds of ice for 10 cents. I have a coupon book and a card you could hang in your window to show the ice man how much ice to deliver. No. 3 – Houston Fire Department The Omaha and South Texas Land Company and its developers spent over a half-million dollars before the first lot was ever sold on May 5, 1891. There was a large two-story hotel on the northeast corner of 19th and Ashland, for business people to stay in while visiting the Heights. It later became a sanitarium and burned in 1915. There was a two-story brick building that housed a drug store below and No. 4 – Heights High School Photo Dr. Miller Robinson and Dr. Sinclair had offices upstairs. On the other corner was located Harolds in the Heights. I can remember an old two-story brick building where Mr. Charlie Kaplan had a bicycle repair shop. On 7th and the Boulevard, now Donovan Park, was Mr. Scott Wimberly’s grocery store. The park was named for Mr. James G. Donovan, the city attorney for Houston Heights from its beginning No. 5 – Main Street until it was incorporated by the city of Houston in 1918. Mr. Donovan was on the school board for many years. He is better known as the father of Marcella D. Perry, whom we all call “Mrs. Heights.” Mrs. Perry is well known as the founder of Heights Savings and for her “Econocasts” reports on radio and TV for many years. There was only one brick Victorian home built on the Boulevard at 10 1/2 Street. It became a lovely bed-and-breakfast called the Webber House, owned by the Jacksons. Three more bed-andbreakfasts on the Boulevard – the Durham House and Angel Arbor, owned by Marguerite and Dean Swanson, and Sara’s, owned by Donna & Tillman Arledge and their daughter, Sara. At the corner of 17th Street and Rutland was the Dexter Store, owned by Fred Dexter Sr. who was once the choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston. There was a room upstairs used for various meetings. The building was later used by Fred Dexter Jr. in his business, Dexter Diaper Service. Fred Jr. invented the “no-fold” diaper still used by many diaper services. The Dexter family home was on the southwest corner of Yale at 17th Street and was called “Rose Lawn” for the beautiful rose garden. Further down at 124 W. 17 St. was the home of Edmond V. and Maude Whitty who started the first theater group in the Heights. The home then was owned by Dennis and Laura Virgadamo. In 1912, Dave and Bessie Kaplan opened Kaplan Ben-Hur department store at Yale and 22nd Street. It was referred to as the “Neiman Marcus of the Heights.” (See inset photo No. 1) In 1911, my father, Clayton Lee, started Clayton Lee Plumbing Company (still in operation in the Heights and Conroe). We have always had a great number of churches in the Heights. The Heights Presbyterian Church was the first one built, on the southeast corner of 18th Street and Rutland. In 1908, Baptist Temple was formed while meeting above Simon Lewis’ grocery store, and in 1912 built its first building on the southeast corner of 20th Street and Rutland. (See inset photo No. 2) It grew to cover the entire block to Yale Street, along with an additional building on 19th Street. I am proud to be a founding member of the Lifeline Sunday School class, which boasts 148 members! All Saints Catholic Church built their first building in 1909 on the northeast corner of 10th and Harvard, a beautiful brick structure, and a new one in 1918. Then came the Grace Methodist Church on 13th and Heights Boulevard, and the Heights Church of Christ at 16th and Harvard, founded by Mr. Woodard who lived in the 1600 block of Heights Boulevard, followed by many more. At 1846 Harvard is the Houston Heights Woman’s Club founded in the 1900. The property was given to Mrs. D.D. Cooley as a birthday present from her husband, and she donated it to the club of which she was a charter member in 1911. The clubhouse was built in 1912. The club meets the first Wednesday of the month, October through May. There were many small clubs for women in the Heights at the time, including the Needlepoint Club, Literary Club, Mandolin Club and others which eventually combined to form the departmental club known as the Houston Heights Woman’s Club.

Longtime Heights resident Libby Lee holds a photo of her late husband, Clayton Lee Jr., last week at her home in the Heights. (Photo by Michael Sudhalter)

Libby Lee reflects on the Heights by Michael Sudhalter As she approaches her 95th birthday, longtime Heights resident Libby Lee, the widow of the late Heights civic leader Clayton Lee Jr., reflected on the changes in the area. “The Heights is an old, wonderful place to live -- good neighbors, good schools and all that,” said Lee, who turns 95 on Aug. 8. Lee, who attended Hamilton Middle School and graduated from Reagan High in 1936, moved to Houston from Palestine, Texas when she was 8 years old. Her family joined the Baptist Temple Church, and she’s been a member for nearly 87 years. Her husband was a member from his birthday in 1921 to his death at age 80 in 2002. She’s sad that the church property has been sold, although the chapel will be retained. Lee has a friendly relationship with many of her neighbors, but the former Reagan Redcoat drum major reflected on a time when ev-

eryone knew each other. “It was like a big family at one time,” she said. “I always hoped it would stay like it was.” Lee said she’d like to see more restaurants in the Heights area. She’s proud of the many accomplishments of her husband, who passed away of a heart attack 11 years ago. One of them was his work on the John H. Reagan World War II Monument on Heights Boulevard. Mr. Lee was a World War II Navy veteran. “He used to say, ‘it took longer to get the city of Houston officials to approve a World War II monument on Heights Boulevard/11th Street than the war lasted,” she said. Clayton Lee Jr., who owned and operated Clayton Lee Plumbing, was known as “Mr. Heights” for his civic leadership through the Houston Heights Association and the Rotary Club of the Heights. “He was a Rotarian from head to toe,” Libby said. Libby said her late husband would be proud of the neighborhood, but he was too polite to publicly say anything bad about it.

Early accomplishments include starting the first library in the Heights and funding many of its projects over the years and starting the first PTA at Cooley School on 17th Street as well as donating the use of the clubhouse to the American Red Cross during both World War I and World War II. The City Hall, fire station and jail was located on 12th Street between Heights Boulevard and Yale. Now owned by the city of Houston, the building which was used as a fire station was vacated because the doors were too small for the modern fire equipment to go through. (See inset photo No. 3) The Houston Heights Association leases the building from the city for use as a community meeting place and museum. Just across Yale Street was the two-story frame Heights High School, which burned on March 13, 1924. (See inset photo No. 4) The site is now Milroy Park. A new building was built at 20th Street and Heights Boulevard, which is now Hamilton Middle School. When the new Reagan High School was built, the students marched in parade from the old location. The neighborhood swimming hole from 1896-1942 was called the Natatorium and was located at the south end of Harvard at White Oak Bayou. There is an office building at that location named “Coombs Park” after the owners of the Natatorium. On the northeast corner of 11th and Harvard is the second home of the Reagan Masonic Lodge. As in many cases during the Depression, they were unable to handle the mounting debts and lost the building. It became a condominium. After the loss of the building, they met at a telephone company building on the northwest corner of 8th Street and Harvard. A new lodge was eventually built at the corner of 16th Street and Heights Boulevard. Across Harvard Street was a lovely old stucco home called the “Alamo” house that was on the annual Heights Home Tour. My sister, Anna Doris (Patton) was riding her bicycle and pulling me on the skates as we were going to the Natatorium one day, and she stopped and ran up onto the porch of the house and told the lady that she was going to faint. The lady took her in, and I was calling to her to hurry that we would be late to go swimming. I remember having our garbage picked up in the alley by mule-drawn wagons. Phenix Dairy had a building on 10th Street and Railroad (Nicholson). It still has the numbers overhead where the horse-drawn wagons would park. Eggs were 5 cents a dozen, and once I had a malt with a dozen raw eggs. Mildred Dupuis of the Yale Pharmacy was one of the first women pharmacists in the state of Texas. Her father owned the Gramlin Dairy, north of town. You can still get the best hamburger and malts at the soda fountain at Yale Pharmacy. The first Heights Theater had a hand crank projector that was later electrified. On Saturday, you wouldn’t want to miss the cliffhanger continued serial and the great cowboy movies for 5 to 15 cents. Next door was the Heights Confectionary with ice cream and candy. Across the street was the famous Mrs. Bender’s Hamburgers for a nickel. For a dime, you could get a hamburger as big as a dinner plate! When Robert L. Cole was going away to military school, Mrs. Bender told him to come in and eat all the hamburgers he wanted. He ate 12! At that location is now the famous Harolds in the Heights. (See inset photo No. 5 of Main Street) Next to Mrs. Bender’s was the Sweetheart Ice Cream shop that belonged to Mr. Ples Kennerly who lived on West 18th Street. There was also a man who had a large stone wheel that he pushed down the sidewalk. He would blow a loud whistle that ranged from low to high to let you know he could sharpen scissors and knives. There was a medicine show that would come through. They would sell salve that was good for whatever ails you. It would even grow hair! I’m just sorry I didn’t get a stock of it! I can remember a circus that came and set up on the southeast corner of 18th Street and Heights Boulevard. I fell in love with GiGi, the “Wonder Girl.” We did have fun way back then! We had a great Boy Scout Troop #24 whose leader was Bateman Hardcastle. My next-door neighbor, Frank Harrowing, gave me a WWI Army bugle that I still have. I learned to blow it and was able to be in our Scout drum and bugle corps. I blew the bugle morning and evening to raise and lower the flag at Hamilton Middle School at 20th and Heights Boulevard. Our troop also had a large sailboat called the Jolly Roger. In 1930 we had a Field Day and I recently gave a movie of it to the San Jacinto Council. Mr. Fritchie delivered the Chronicle in a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart. He would blow a whistle and yell, “Chronicle boy!” He must have been 75 years old at the time. I still have a photo of me on a pony that was taken by a photographer that would go from houseto-house taking pictures of the children. We used to have lots of fun at the Heights Cliffs, located behind what is now the SPJST Lodge at the west end of West 15th Street. One of my fondest memories is the night after a picnic in Hermann Park celebrating the vote that made the Heights “dry” from alcohol in November 1937. Mr. Donovan got in touch with me to get a band together. We were on the back of a flatbed truck, and the people would hear the music and come to hear Mr. Donovan talk as to why they should vote the Heights “dr.” Some of my friends in the band and I were able to get the leftover lemon juice from the picnic and trade it to Abe Hoyt for root bear. We drank all of the root beer and went skinny dipping in the Bayou at the Cliffs. We started squirting on each other, and then some of us shimmied down the cliffs, and that is when it all started. The guys on top started throwing dirt clods down on us. Believe me, it is hard to throw clods up the cliffs and hit anybody. There we were, at the bottom of the cliffs like a bunch of jaybirds, so we went downstream a ways and got back on top, crawling in the grass that was about two feet tall. I saw a 1931 Chevy coming toward us, and it looked just like mine. I stood up in the grass waving my arm, yelling, “Over here!” The only trouble was that it wasn’t my ’31 Chevy. I still don’t know whom it was. The Heights sure is a good place to live and raise children because it is “high and dry.” Clayton Lee passed away in 2002. He operated the plumbing company inherited from his father that still is in the family. His widow, Libby, believes he wrote this history sometime in the late 1960s.

Timbergrove Manor resident Melvalene Cohen stands at the Melvalene & Carl Cohen Plaza on Heights Boulevard. The Cohens were business and civic leaders in the Heights. (Photo by Michael Sudhalter)

Cohens were on the cutting edge for customers by Michael Sudhalter Carl and Melvalene Cohen epitomized the type of entrepreneurship that has come to define the Heights in recent years. The Cohens started the Studewood Food Market with three employees in 1950 and increased that number to 125 by the time they sold it 20 years later. “It’s a thriving area – everybody wants to live in the Heights,” said Melvalene, who celebrated her 90th birthday last weekend with 51 family members and friends. She pointed to the growth on White Oak as proof of that growth. “I can remember when there were maybe two stores there,” she said. Carl Cohen passed away at age 78 in 1999 after a seven-year battle with Leukemia. Before the era of supermarkets, the Cohens were on the cutting edge of meeting the customer’s needs. “We were innovative before our time,” said Melvalene, who still lives in the Timbergrove Manor home that the couple purchased in 1955. They had 12 checkout machines, which was a lot for the time, as well as the first self-service meat counter in Houston. The store had a pharmacy, a check cashing counter, five utility companies where customers could pay their bills, a post office and a snack bar. The Cohens also sold a lot of school supplies and were the first store to sell hula hoops in Houston. These things seem common now, but they weren’t a half-century ago. Carl was president of city-wide and statewide grocers associations, and he was the driving force behind putting photos on driver’s licenses in Texas, which saved merchants a lot of money, said Melvalene. Beyond their contributions to the economic engine of the community, the Cohens were dedicated civic leaders. “Someone asked me, ‘why are you and Carl working so hard in the Heights? Is he running for office?” Melvalene said. “He wasn’t. I said, ‘we’re just doing it for the community and to make the Heights a better place to live.” Carl served as the president of the Houston Heights Assocation, and Melvalene was active in it, too. She’s been a member of the Houston Heights Woman’s Club for the past 40 years. Their sons, Danny and Kevin, attended public schools and graduated from Waltrip High. Kevin lives with Melvalene and helps her out, while Danny lives with his wife, Allison, and two children, Casey and Kylie, in Westport, Conn. For their efforts, Carl and Melvalene were honored with the Melvalene & Carl Cohen Plaza on Heights Boulevard, something Melvalene described as a big honor. The Cohens’ story began in 1943 when two people from the “Greatest Generation” met at the Walgreen’s Drug Store at 1023 Main in Houston. Melvalene and one of her friends were waiting to see “For Whom The Bells Toll”, when Carl, on a weekend pass from the U.S. Army, came into the store, began a conversation and ended up seeing the movie with them. The movie, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, was a love story, but it couldn’t compare to the real life love story that was the Cohen’s 53-year-marriage.

Melvalene Cohen, a longtime business and civic leader in the Heights, was honored at her 90th birthday last Saturday. (Submitted Photo)


July 27 Section A


July 27 Section A