Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Workday Wednesday Downtown Houston c1940

A couple of weeks ago, as I was finalizing the idea for this blog, I pulled out a photo of my grandmother Ethel, and placed it, front and center on my desk.This is my system of raising a photo high  up on the priority lists of photos to investigate. After my experience with the Guenard Speed & Clemens building from another mystery photo (see: Where Was This Picture Taken?) I knew, the writing on the awning behind Ethel, was a huge bonus and should help me discover the story behind this photograph.

Last January, via twitter, I met Lorraine Arnold  (@LegacyRoots) who specializes in the history of buildings and business. Lorraine, was able to identify the location of a building in a photo of Ethel's father, William Bloomfield from around 1920. She featured this amazing photo detective tale in her blog Legacy Roots. I hope Lorraine will be proud of the photographic detective work I was able to do with Ethel's photo today!
Though the writing on the awning behind Ethel is obstructed by her head, thanks in part to the glasses, it's pretty obvious the sign says Houston Optical Co.

The Big Clue

The crowds and tall buildings indicate a busy Downtown Houston street. Her outfit, the fitted blazer, sharp skirt and high heeled pumps suggest Ethel was dressed for work. She looks pretty young, so I am estimating the photo to be from around the early 1940s. Maybe heading to her first job as a secretary after college.

My next step was to look for information on the Houston Optical Co. Google was unhelpful so I turned to the US Ci Directory on I went to the 1940 City of Houston Directory and BINGO!

The Houston  Optical Co., owned by Ronald M Chamberlin, was located on 1006 Texas Avenue, Houston, Texas.

Houston Optical Co, third from the top.
(Click to Enlarge)
Source: U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 (Beta) [database on-line].
Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.
Original data: Texas > Houston > 1940 > Houston, Texas, City Directory, 1940 > p.271
Then I had another thought. Maybe this was next to the Houston Chronicle offices. I flipped back one page and found the entry for the daily paper where Ethel was a Rice Correspondent, during her senior year (1939-1940). The Houston Chronicle was housed in the Chronicle Building, 512-520 Travis Street, Houston, Texas.

The Houston Chronicle
Source: same as above p.270
Next, I need to figure out how far apart were these two locations. I returned to google, this time, entering the two locations on google maps. This is a crude estimation of the 1940s location, but hoping the lots haven't been renumbered to many times since 1940, it should give me a good idea of the proximity of where this photo was taken and Ethel's stomping grounds, The Houston Chronicle. (Note: I did also check on the address of the Houston Press, where Ethel worked during her junior year, 2001-2019 Rusk Avenue, which was much further away from the Houston Optical Co. location).

Point A is 1006 Texas Avenue, the location of the 1940 Houston Optical shop. Point B is 512-520 the location of the Houston Chronicle building (which today takes up the whole block). As you can see, Travis Street and Texas Avenue intersect. If you click a street view at the Texas Avenue location, this is what you see:

The building today is the Historic Rice Hotel Building which houses the Post Lofts, and spans from Travis to Main Street on Texas Avenue.

If you follow the virtual tour around the historic building and onto Travis Street, you find yourself in this spot:

Your view from the Travis Street corner of the expanded Chronicle building is:

You can zoom in and see the historic street lamps the city of Houston preserved for the district, almost identical to the ones from Ethel's photo (take another look). 

The Rice Hotel, according to the Houston's City Directory, spanned from 917-925 Texas Avenue. The Houston Optical Co. at 1006 Texas Avenue was at the Main Street intersection, literally across the street from the Hotel. There is not enough detail in the buildings in Ethel's photos, to pinpoint which direction of the street the picture was taken from. What is clear, she was standing on the corner of 1006 Texas Avenue between main street and Travis Street where the old Chronicle building stood. I'm pretty sure the building to her left (to the right side of the photograph) must be the Rice Hotel. Here are some old postcards of the old Houstonian landmarks. 

What precisely was my stylish grandmother doing in the hip part of Houston that day,  I can only guess, so I'll put my best guest forward. I think she was either dropping off an article, going to a staff meeting or maybe picking up her $15 paycheck from the Houston Chronicle. Maybe in her bag she had a copy of that day's edition to take home and cut out her article for the scrapbook?
The Chronicle Building 1913
The Rice Hotel 1912
The University of Houston Digital Library:


  1. Interesting. Good detective work. Now I want to know who took the picture.

    1. Excellent question, Betty! A friend? A colleague? A boy friend? Her parents? The photo was not in the album and looks different than the photos in the album from this time period. I have no idea?

    2. I had another thought about the photographer. Maybe it was a photo taken for the paper? It's possible they did an article about her being such a young photographer for example. I haven't found such an article yet, but it's a possibility.

  2. Oooooh, I love a good detective story. As I was reading, somehow I knew you were going to circle around to identify the building in the right background of Ethel's photo. City directories! The streetlamp! Google maps! That array of narrow windows that is the Rice Hotel. Excellent sleuthing. I really enjoyed this post.

    1. This one was fun! It's a great example how writing a blog really helps me with my family research! Glad you enjoyed it Mariann!

  3. Nice detective work! Interesting to see how the area changed over time. I enjoyed your post! Kathryn

    1. Thanks, Kathryn. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I thank you for your comment. It is interesting to be able to see the area and what has been preserved! Next time I am in Houston, I'll make sure to plan a visit in person and see if I can take a photo of myself at the same spot!

    2. That would really be fun to have a photo of yourself in the same spot!

  4. Very interesting! Here's a photo of my grandfather and former Texas Governor James Ferguson taken close by (you can see the sign for the Rice Hotel in the background) around the same time (Ferguson died in 1944):

    1. Amanda, That is so cool! The photo of your grandfather and the governor was taken exactly at the same area. Pretty cool that my grandmother and your grandfather hung around the same stomping grounds. Your grandfather clearly hung around some powerful people. It's interesting to think that my 18 year old grandmother was making her way in the world and working on the Houston Papers Downtown, with all the powerful people of Houston, around the corner!

    2. Smadar, I've highlighted this blog in my Follow Friday post today, and will also be mentioning it in a presentation tomorrow to the International Society for Educational Biography: Keep up the good work!

    3. Thanks so much, Amanda! I truly appreciate the support! Best of luck on the talk. Sounds like a fascinating panel! I wish I was in Texas! I look forward to hearing about your presentation.

  5. I just came across your photo. I have one that is identical to yours--it is my grandmother and a friend in the exact same location in 1940. My grandmother was single and living at the YWCA at the time. She met my grandfather at the River Oaks Theater around the same time when he was an usher there and they were married in The Heights.
    My grandmother had several of these types of photos from downtown Houston. She said street photographers were always there and they would take your photo as you were walking down the streeet and then give it to you in the form of a postcard. Pretty cool stuff.

    1. Wow, Bethanie! That is so cool! What a lovely bit of history! Street photographers standing on busy street corners photographing people and selling it to them on post cards. I hadn't imagined something like that. I bet you are right and that is how this particular photo was taken.


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