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Houston Reads

Books for the city’s natives and newcomers

Cindy Burnett
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GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN Lost Houston is a stunning coffee table book that focuses on various buildings that were integral to Houston history and no longer exist. (Photo: Cindy Burnett)

Houston is a vibrant city with a lot to offer and more to do than people often realize. This month, I am highlighting some books that cover Houston’s history as well as its secret haunts, quirky fun facts, and lost buildings. Some of these reads also dig into how certain neighborhoods developed and where you can find the city’s oldest businesses and locales. 

Lost Houston by William Dylan PowellLost Houston is part of a series on various U.S. cities that examines how their institutions and buildings have changed over the years and highlights the ones that were lost along the way. It is a beautiful coffee table book that focuses on buildings that no longer exist. Each building discussed in the book has a two-page spread with photos and plenty of history about that place and its role in Houston’s development. Some popular structures that were demolished and completely lost to time are Luna Park, Sam Houston Coliseum, and the Metropolitan Theatre. Other buildings were incorporated into new structures. The Astros' ballpark (Minute Maid Park), for example, was built in the space once occupied by Union Station's platforms and the Houston-to-Dallas Texas Rocket train. Other standouts include Houston High School, which burned in 1919, Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library, which was demolished in 1926, The Majestic Theatre, which was razed in 1972, and Kress Building, which was repurposed into lofts.

Historic Photos of Houston by Betty Trapp Chapman – Though smaller than Lost Houston, this gem would also make a nice coffee table book. The book tracks the construction of our unique city through photos chronicling life, government, events, and people important to Houston. The book is divided into sections by time period, starting with Houston’s earliest years and making its way to the 1970s. A page at the beginning of each chapter is devoted to the city’s progress during those years. It provides a wonderful glimpse into the early years of Houston through rare photos that had not been seen prior to the book’s publication in 2007, including photos of beautiful buildings that are sadly long gone. Highlights include photos of when the Heights was developed in the 1890s as “the [city’s] first suburban neighborhood,” Humble Oil and Refining Company’s first filling station at Main Street and Jefferson Street from 1919, Luna Park which contained the city’s first rollercoaster, and Methodist Hospital in what almost looks like a large house. Some of the book’s details are a bit dated, but this read will still appeal to those wanting to better understand Houston’s history. 


SPACE CITY LEGACY Cindy Burnett highlights various books that cover Houston’s history as well as its secret haunts, quirky fun facts, how certain neighborhoods developed, lost buildings, and where you can find some of the city’s oldest businesses and locales. (Photo: Cindy Burnett)

Houston Culture Shock: Quirks, Customs, and Attitudes of H-Town by William Dylan PowellHouston Culture Shock is about the everyday quirks of living in Houston that are not often covered in standard guidebooks. Powell looks at the lifestyle, cityscape, tips for getting around, nature, events, and local heroes, and the book reads like a cheat sheet for what it’s like to live here. He weaves in fascinating facts like how the Alley Theatre got its name, our obsession with anything fried (even Oreos and Twinkies), and how Houstonians use nicknames for all the highways. (Note: For more on William Dylan Powell, check out my Q&A with him.) 

Oldest Houston by Lydia Schrandt and Biju Sukumaran – While Houston has often allowed buildings to come down in the name of progress, this wonderful book highlights all that has survived. It tells the stories of the city’s oldest brewery, musical hall, recording studio, paved brick street and more. The book is divided into sections based on areas of the city, so you can explore each neighborhood and find the businesses, buildings, and places that have survived and often thrived. Whether you’re new to Houston and looking for an entertaining introduction, or a longtime resident digging deeper into your favorite haunts, Oldest Houston will give you a fresh take on our city’s history.

Secret Houston: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure by William Dylan Powell – This is a great book for anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about Houston. It explores Houston’s off-the-beaten-path highlights including a location for a secret rendezvous, a mysterious gravesite from the 1800s, an abandoned World War II munitions facility, a secret suite at the Museum District’s Hotel Zaza where guests can request to stay, and much more. This book is a must-read for locals and natives alike. Powell covers places that many locals are not aware of; some of these secrets you can still enjoy today, while others are merely shadows of the city's past.

Images of America series by various authors – The Images of America series “celebrates the history of neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country.” In Houston, the series includes books on River Oaks, Southside Place, the Heights, Spring Branch as well as plenty of others. West University Place (Images of America) by Richard Cunningham publishes this summer, and like the others in the series, it charts the history of the title neighborhood with photographs and plenty of historical detail. Both Southside Place and West University Place are celebrating their 100th anniversaries making these books great reads for this year as well as great gifts for residents. (Editor’s note: You can read more about writer Richard Cunningham, a native of West University, in “The Cunningham Chronicles: From blacksmith to wordsmith” by Cathy Gordon). 

Here are a few other books that may appeal to people who want to learn more about specific aspects of the city:

The Houstonian Dictionary by James Glassman - A bit outdated but great for those new to Houston or fun to peruse as a long-time local. It is a good introduction to the terms and slang used here for roads, place names, and key things about the city, as well as some of the people who helped Houston become the city it is today. 

Life and Times Around Bellaire, Texas,1909-2013 by J. Michael McCorkle – This is a spiral-bound collection of anecdotes and photographs about the City of Bellaire that provides a history of the title city.

Historic Houston Streets: The Stories Behind the Names by Marks Hinton – This gem of a book is organized alphabetically by street name and gives the history about why a particular name was chosen. It is out of print but can be found used through online marketplace Abe Books, Historic Houston, or at Houston public libraries.

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