Last February I visited with my brother and sister-in law in Houston, TX. I hadn’t been in Houston since 1991, and I could not resist the opportunity to get away from the very cold winter we were having in the Washington, DC area. I also wanted to see sights in and around Houston that I had never seen before while revisiting some that I had seen in my two previous visits 34 and 20 years before.
The weather in Houston during my visit was marvelous, with highs in the 70s each day and some humidity (it is Houston) but not near as bad as Houston can be later in the year. Natives will tell you that February is a very good time to visit Houston since winters are usually mild here, and the humidity is not yet in full swing. When I arrived on the afternoon of February 19 (Saturday) it was 72 degrees. My timing was excellent, since there had been freezing temperatures earlier in the month.
My flights from DCA to Memphis and then from Memphis to Houston-Bush were uneventful. CRJs on both legs, with a tiny 50-passenger CRJ 200 on the Memphis-Houston leg, with only 27 passengers aboard. My rental car was a Chevy Aveo, no surprise there, with crank windows but with a CD player. I had no trouble finding the home of the Houston Tweeds using my GPS.
That night, we ate dinner at Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli, a place I had seen on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. It is about a 5 minute drive from the Tweed residence. I recognized Kenny from the TV show as he was hovering about being quite managerial with his staff. The food was absolutely wonderful! I had Matzoh Ball Soup and sandwich combo #1, “Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth”, a triple decker Corned Beef and Pastrami on rye. Both were fantastic.
Sunday we did some shopping and sight seeing around the area, looking at many of the most impressive mansions – several that I would call extremely opulent. Some even had their own private security forces with marked cars parked within the grounds.
Monday morning, it was time to start seeing the sights. I walked into Memorial Park (just on the other side of the 610 Loop Freeway from home base) to the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. Although there’s not much in the way of foliage to see at this time of year, I did hike three of the very well maintained trails before returning home to get my car.
Then it was off to Glenwood Cemetery to find Howard Hughes’ grave. I drove around the grounds once and spotted one head stone with the HUGHES name in large letters, then parked at the office, which is sort of in the middle of the Cemetery, and set out on foot toward that Hughes plot. On the way I saw the Allen family plot, more or less the founders of Houston, and saw other names that I would see again in other parts of the city. Before I got to the Hughes plot I had seen originally, I walked past a gated plot in the Little Hillside Section that backed up against a decorated retaining wall, and noticed a name that looked like Howard Hughes, but the dates were too old. Of course, this was the final resting place of Howard Hughes the senior, and in a semi-circle to the right were the names of Hughes’ mother and then the famous recluse himself. This hadn’t taken long at all, and I had been afraid that I was going to have to explore the entire cemetery. Since it was a very nice afternoon I took my time on my walk back to the car. On my way I saw plots of other Houston-area notables like the Hobby family plot (Oveta Culp Hobby organized the Women’s Army Air Corps during World War II and was the first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower Administration) and George Hermann, along with the actress Gene Tierney (Lee). I also saw many Texas Army inscriptions (from the Texas Republic days) on older headstones.
Next, it was off to City Hall (built by the Federal Emergency Works Administration in 1939) which houses the city’s Visitor Center on its McKinney Street side. City Hall is a very impressive art deco tower, and was not the only impressive WPA-built structure I would see on my trip. There is a lovely reflecting pool and courtyard (Hermann Square) fronting the building, which stands up very well among the taller and more modern buildings that tower above it from across Smith St., like Wells Fargo Plaza and One Shell Place. There is free on-street parking on McKinney Street for 15 minutes while using the Visitor Center. The folks at the Visitor Center were busy with a reception, but I was able to collect brochures (including one for Glenwood Cemetery which shows the locations for all the plots of interest). Next I walked across the street to Wortham Fountain, and from there along Buffalo Bayou Sesquicentennial Park to the George H.W. Bush Monument. There is a walking/bike trail all along the bayou through this part of town making for a very lovely and peaceful place below street level in this bustling city.
Following this restful stroll I was off to the Beer Can House at 222 Malone (a house with flattened beer cans used as siding and shingles) followed by a trip back downtown to the Museum District where I visited the Sculpture Garden and walked to Mecom Fountain and then into Hermann Park. The Beer Can House is a short, four mile drive on Memorial from City Hall. Hermann Park and the Museum District are about a 20 minute drive from Malone Street. I later discovered (too late) a free parking zone outside the Houston Museum of Natural Science at the north end of Hermann Park. The Sculpture Garden is located at the corner of Main and Binz and is open air with many interesting modern works of various metals. After a brief walk to the south on Main you enter Hermann Park. The park has a long reflecting pool, a very popular miniature rail road, a monument to Sam Houston, a Japanese Garden, and several fountains. Many different kinds of water fowl were walking, floating, or splashing in the fountains and coves in the park. A couple was having wedding pictures taken using several of the park landmarks as backdrop. I had no idea such a place existed in Houston. I could have spent hours there, but rush hour was approaching so it was time to head back.
Tuesday, I got a late start, but I traveled to the southeast and toured the restored 1940 terminal at Hobby Airport. The historic Hobby terminal is a work in progress, but for your admission you are escorted by a docent who is a veteran Houston-area aviator and had flown into Hobby Airport during the “old days.” The docents are chock full of stories about the pilots and aircraft depicted in the photographs, memorabilia, equipment and models displayed throughout the terminal. Several historic aircraft are being restored to be exhibited at the terminal, but none were on display on this day. My docent had answers for all my questions about the aircraft and equipment displayed. I was very intrigued by the photographs of the opening of the terminal and how the surrounding open fields have filled in over the past 70 years.
I then drove to the Historic 6th Ward and took the walking tour of historic (mostly Victorian) homes. The 6th Ward was founded in 1877, is the oldest intact neighborhood in the City of Houston, and has the largest concentration of Victorian structures outside of Galveston. Paper tour guides directing you on the walking tour can be found on several street corners in the Ward. Start at the corner of Kane and Sawyer and follow the directions/descriptions for 44 sites ending at 2112 State. Although some of the homes have been renovated, and some sites no longer have their original structures, a walk through the district reveals some really lovely period homes in a type of neighborhood that doesn’t seem to exist in large U.S. cities anymore.
Wednesday, I drove southwest to LaPorte and spent all day at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. On this site is the San Jacinto Monument (the world’s tallest monumental column (obelisk), almost 13 feet taller than the Washington Monument) another WPA project built between 1936 and 1939, and the adjacent battleship USS Texas berthed off the Houston Ship Channel. The monument is capped with a 220-ton Lone Star commemorating the battle. The monument grounds contain several markers showing the location of encampments and skirmishes during the battle, and the massive base of the monument is inscribed with the history of the Texian’s conflict with Mexico and the battles fought through the decisive victory at San Jacinto and the birth of the Texas Republic. In the museum are historic flags, artifacts and reproductions of period clothing, along with dioramas depicting battles throughout the conflict with Mexico. After my visit to the monument/museum, I hiked four miles along the Houston Ship Channel at the monument grounds, watching barges head onto the San Jacinto River on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. I saw a T-38 (the astronaut’s airplane of choice) fly out from nearby NASA, and walked among the stone monuments depicting significant parts of the decisive battle for Texas independence, including the marker showing where an injured Sam Houston received Generalissimo Santa Anna’s surrender (very near where the USS Texas is now birthed). During my hike I encountered two immature Turkey Vultures along the path. Although quite large, immature Turkey Vultures have mostly black feathers with gray head feathers. As they mature, their body feathers will become browner and their heads will become bald and red.
I had toured USS Texas 34 years ago, so I didn’t go on board this time, but it was interesting to match this 1914 battleship with what I remember from my visit to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor three weeks earlier. Arizona was newer, having been certified in 1916, and of a different class than Texas and her sister New York. The largest difference between the two classes was that Texas and New York were armed with five turrets containing two 14 inch guns each while Arizona’s class had four turrets with three 14 inch guns. Texas is the oldest dreadnought ship still intact, she is one of only six ships remaining that saw service in both World Wars, she was one of only a few U.S. battleships to have served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets during World War II (Nevada is another), and she was the first U.S. battleship to become a museum ship. She was turned over to the State of Texas on April 21, 1948, the 112th anniversary of the Mexican surrender.
Thursday, February 24, 2010, would have been Fleet Admiral Nimitz’ 125th birthday. What better way to commemorate this than to travel west to Fredericksburg to visit the Nimitz Library and Museum along with the National Museum of the Pacific War. My brother John was able to accompany me, and we spent the 4 hour drive (on I-10, TX 71 and US 290) catching up, remarking on the scenery of the Texas Hill Country, and talking cars and baseball among other things. It had been decades since I had been on a road trip with one of my brothers, and I had forgotten how much fun it could be. When we got to the Austin area I began to recognized streets and subdivision names from previous visits. As we passed by the turn that would take you to Driftwood, TX and The Salt Lick, one of the best barbeque restaurants I have ever experienced, I felt a bit sorry that our journey would not allow us to stop in. It rained a bit as we approached Johnson City along the Perdenales River and then passed by the Lyndon Baines Johnson National and State Historic Parks, but the rain had stopped as we pulled into Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg was Chester Nimitz’ birthplace and childhood home. The Nimitz family was German immigrants to the Texas Republic, and ran the Nimitz Hotel on Main Street. This structure serves as the present Nimitz Museum. Fredrichstadt (later renamed Fredericksburg) was an offshoot of the German settlement at New Braunfels in the 1840s, the early years of the Texas Republic. Chester’s father, also named Chester, died before his son was born, and the future Fleet Admiral was raised by his mother and grandfather Charles Henry Nimitz, a former sailor in the German Merchant Marine. The museum depicts life in Fredericksburg during the late 19th Century, and describes young Chester’s formative years of hard work, and then describes his naval career and post-war service and life. Nimitz’ only chance for a college education was to receive an appointment to a Service Academy, and he wanted to attend West Point. His congressman only had one appointment for Annapolis available, and Nimitz competed for and won an appointment for the class of 1905 (January) when he graduated with distinction, seventh in a class of 114. During his early years of service, Nimitz became an expert on diesel propulsion and on submarines. He commanded several submarine flotillas before and during World War I. Between World Wars Nimitz was involved in training and eventually became Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (with the rank of Rear Admiral Upper Half (2 stars)), then the second most important Naval post behind Chief of Naval Operations. Nimitz was appointed Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet with the rank of Admiral (4 stars) effective December 31, 1941. He was promoted to the rank of Fleet Admiral by Franklin Roosevelt the day after the rank was established by Congress in 1944. Nimitz directed the Pacific War to its successful conclusion and signed the surrender documents in Tokyo Bay as Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas for all Allied Forces. Congress established the rank of Fleet Admiral as a lifetime appointment in 1946, and Nimitz would be the last surviving Fleet Admiral. After World War II, Nimitz served as Chief of Naval Operations for two years before entering semi-retirement in the San Francisco area. He strove to improve U.S.-Japanese relations in the post-war period, and insisted that a Japanese Garden be included on the grounds of the Nimitz Museum. Admission to the Museum and grounds on February 24 is free to anyone sharing this day with the Fleet Admiral as their birthday. The 7th and 8th grade choirs from a local middle school sang all the service songs and a few other selections, and cake and lemonade were served to all in attendance.
In the courtyard between the Nimitz Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War is the Japanese Garden of Peace requested by the Fleet Admiral and the Memorial Wall where ships, soldiers and sailors, and other military groups are commemorated in plaques that can be sponsored. The two Destroyers that were sunk fighting off the Main Japanese Battle Fleet off Samar in the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944 are commemorated here, with USS Samuel B. Roberts having its own pavilion with bench and stone block with bronze plaque, while USS Johnston has a small plaque on the memorial wall nearby. We walked each wall and viewed each plaque, and found a plaque dedicated to all those who served on USS Wren, the ship that our oldest brother served upon during his active duty deployment in the 1960s.
The National Museum of the Pacific War is a large and very impressive collection of exhibits containing four aircraft, one of the Japanese midget submarines that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and 36 exhibits depicting the conditions leading up to and during the war in the Pacific. You really need to devote at least 2-1/2 hours to the Museum alone, and we didn’t have that much time before closing. But, we gave it our best shot. Anyone who wants to know more about the Pacific war, or who wants to see artifacts from the conflict in person should plan on visiting when you have the time to devote. I know that I will be returning some day soon to see each exhibit in its entirety.
We headed south from Fredericksburg on U.S. 87 taking I-10 through San Antonio back to Houston. Along U.S. 87 were many peach stands, empty since peaches were not in season. The area around Fredericksburg is Texas’ peach capital.
I started out Friday with a visit to the Houston Fire Museum. The museum is located in the former Fire Station 7 fire house to the south of downtown and just off the Gulf Freeway at 2403 Milam. There is free parking for the museum on Milam. I parked behind a school bus that said it was used for Houston Senior programs. As I paid my admission, the museum worker told me that I could join the group tour that had just started, and so I joined along with the seniors. The tour starts in the left bay of the fire station, and located in this area are two early pumper units; one hand-pumped and one steam powered. The steam powered pumper unit is very rare. The Curator of the museum, who was serving as tour guide this morning, told us that when fire departments across the country replaced these horse-drawn steam pumpers in the 1920s and 1930s with fire engines powered by trucks, they were mostly sold to farmers for use in irrigation. When scrap metal was needed for use in World War II, most of these pumpers were put to the torch. The unit in the Houston Fire Museum is on loan from San Antonio.
Also on display in this area is a piece of twisted metal and concrete from the World Trade Center site, a thank you from the emergency services of New York City for the assistance provided by the Houston Fire Department after 9/11. Examples of call boxes from early in the 20th century are also on display leading to a mock up of the Fire Department’s main communications switchboard from the 1930s, showing how incoming calls would be received and then relayed to the appropriate fire stations by the communications operators.
Upstairs, the tour takes you through the station dining area depicting a typical meal layout as well as the stove and other food preparation equipment. In this area are also displayed artifacts from early Houston fire stations including bells, horns and uniforms. In the locker/shower room the Curator is installing lockers to depict typical items from each decade of the Houston Fire Department with a locker dedicated to each decade. Magazines, personal items, uniforms, clothing, sports equipment and hobby items of the period are displayed behind glass doors with the decade printed on them. Although I noticed one or two inconsistencies (a 1970s TV Guide with Elvis Pressley on the cover was placed in the 1950s locker), the display is very effective. The Curator said she had set up a similar display for the Denver Fire Museum.
The locker room was the end of the guided tour, and the Curator told the group we could wander around as much as we’d like. After getting a really good look at each of the lockers, I made my way downstairs to where Truck #7, a clean up truck that had actually served at Fire Station 7, was parked in the right hand bay. Both bays in Station 7 had had their floors lowered so that the larger and taller pieces of equipment could fit within the entrances to the bays. This continues to present a problem with rain water coming into the station from the higher sidewalk outside the bay doors.
Once downstairs I noticed that the seniors had departed. As I was looking through the patches and insignia from other Fire Departments throughout the world that have been donated to the Museum, the Curator walked up to me concerned that I had missed the bus for the seniors. I assured her that I had come on my own, but I was a bit miffed that she thought I belonged with a senior citizen group.
I ended my sight seeing with a visit to the Houston Maritime Museum at 2204 Dorrington, just a few minutes south of the Fire Museum. Located in a large house to the south of downtown, the Maritime Museum houses models of ships from ancient to modern day. Each model includes a description of the ship’s design, construction, capabilities and significance. The Museum also displays the collection of marine navigation equipment (astrolabes, nautical quadrants, sextants) of Lt. Cmdr. John Luykx, USN (Ret.). In the Port of Houston Exhibit, the Museum shows the history of the port and its development over time through historic and current photographs along with displays and exhibits. Models of drilling platforms, drilling ships, tugs and other working vessels are also displayed in this area. The Maritime Museum is a good place for those who enjoy self-guided touring. I took the map of the museum floor and spent nearly 4 hours exploring and examining the exhibits and artifacts. I was particularly interested in the aerial photographs of the Houston Ship Channel as it provided more perspective for the area I had toured and hiked during my visit to the San Jacinto Monument. I wasn’t all that interested in the navigation equipment, but I found the models of the ancient ships like Mary Rose and sailing ships like Cutty Sark and America just as fascinating as the battleship and aircraft carrier models.
And with that, my sight seeing in Houston had ended. Although I had seen and done a lot in five days, I have the suspicion that I have only just barely scratched the surface of the sights that Houston has to offer. Quite frankly, Houston surprised me with how much there was to see. I am happy that I took the time to visit some of the less famous sights in and around Houston, and I am determined to come back as often as I can to try to take it all in.