Saving the Ideson

When the Julia Ideson Library's $32 million redux unveils phase one this spring, it will be counted as one of Mayor Bill White's greatest legacies for Houston's heritage.

Catherine D. Anspon
February 05, 2010

Pages from the Past
Houston has never had a love affair with history. No surprise for a metropolis billed as Space City: Much of our civic identity has been about the promise of the future. The distant past for us extends back a few generations, to the pre-NASA 1950s. And one of our most revered (and now endangered) landmarks — the Astrodome — boasts a lifespan of less than 50 years. Consequently, only a small percentage of early homes and commercial buildings survive, in enclaves such as the Heights and the Sixth Ward, to give a flavor of the 19th century.

Image: Julia Ideson Library, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library (RGA13-0358) HPL Collection.
Where to unravel the story of our city's narrative since the Allen brothers stepped onto the banks of Buffalo Bayou in 1836? The grand repository of our collective memory is incontestably the Julia Ideson Library at 500 McKinney, downtown, where its Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) is the official keeper of Houston's history, both civic and individual, epic and intimate, preserving documents and images that detail the bygone eras and increasing cultural diversity of an ever-shifting community. Encompassing the well-bred enclaves of River Oaks and Southampton to the rich African-American heritage of Freedman's Town and the Third and Fifth Wards, and including vital Hispanic neighborhoods such as Harrisburg and the burgeoning Asian settlements, the Ideson preserves and protects a trove of historical treasures spanning nearly two centuries of urban life — records, directories, posters, playbills, maps, architectural drawings, books, pamphlets, documents, diaries, journals, newspapers, photographs, images and ephemera that are as irreplaceable as they are intriguing.
A mere four years ago, the once-proud building that housed these priceless materials was itself in dire need of preservation. It had served for 50 years as the city's main library until the neighboring Jesse H. Jones Library opened in 1976. After some upgrades, the Ideson reopened in 1979 to house the HMRC; rapidly it went from being the showplace of the library system to a building visited by a much smaller audience of historians. Holes in its roof, lack of climate control and even a room housing rare manuscripts that was exposed to the elements, told a tale of benign neglect and disinterest in the past (with the exception of HMRC's staff of 11 valiant librarians) and abysmal lack of funding.
Image: Welcome back Arnett Cobb parade and concert at the Pladium Ballroom, Southmore and Sampson, Third Ward, Houston, 1960. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library (MSS0322-153) Arnett Cobb Collection
Preservation Has Its Day
Enter the Julie Ideson Library Preservation Partners, a nonprofit formed in 2006 at the prompting of then-mayor Bill White and charged with the almost formidable task of raising $30-plus million. The whopping price tag for historic preservation and expansion represents nearly one-third the cost of erecting a new art museum of the scale of the MFAH's Beck Building or the approximate amount of Asia Society Houston's new headquarters by star-chitect Yoshio Taniguchi.

The two-step redux — spearheaded by Gensler, led by its senior associate, Houston architect and historian Barry Moore — revitalizes the original building via a glorious restoration set to be completed spring 2011. This phase preserves the 1926 edifice while altering its functions. Gone are the voluminous stacks; its gracious spaces now will host all manner of social occasions, exhibitions and private parties as well as a public reading room in the current Texas Room.

An important component to the ambitious fund-raising, and the first to be realized, will be this spring’s opening of a handsome wing (naming rights still to be conferred) that adjoins the original Ideson, seamlessly replicating its style and matching materials while adding 21,500 square feet to the historic building's original 66,000-square-foot blueprint. The state-of-the-art expansion, which features an environmentally engineered archival storage area, completes the original vision of architect Ralph Adams Cram for the south side of the building — a design that was thwarted by the Depression. This wing will also be home for a reborn Texas Room, the popular public reading nook (previously located on the second floor of the historic Ideson) where HMRC librarians are available to plumb the depth of the archive so the public can peruse Houston's past. As you read this, the Ideson's holdings are being painstakingly transferred to the new wing. Also being readied for this spring's unveiling are a new palm-shaded, outdoor reading area and enclosed gardens created by Texas landscape architects TBG Partners, adding welcome green space at the juncture where the old and new Ideson components intersect.

The Final Chapter — History Goes Green, Public Joins Private
Most importantly, the new Ideson looks to the future, on track for silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, making it among the first preservation projects in Texas to garner the green designation. It’s also surely one of the most significant and visible, being in the block that adjoins Houston City Hall. Finally, the Ideson stands as another example of outgoing Mayor White's innovative melding of the public and private sectors. Almost half its funds came from the City of Houston, which kicked in an astounding $15.5 million and weighs in on design considerations through its General Services and Library departments. Foundations and individuals donated the balance, including major gifts from munificent benefactors Phoebe and Bobby Tudor (for whom the original building's second-floor central gallery will be named), Joe Jamail Jr. and Kitty King Powell, plus sizable grants from The Brown Foundation, The Houston Endowment and The Cullen Foundation.

You, too, can save Houston's past. The final $3 million is still being raised; to make a contribution, contact executive director Margaret Lawler, 713.660.0772;;

Image: Julia Ideson Library, second-floor interior, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library  (RGA13-2967) HPL Collection.
The Eyes of the Ideson — Bricks, Mortar and Architectural Glories
The edifice itself is on every roster that records important historic architecture: a Texas Historical Landmark, a Texas State Archaeological Landmark, the National Register of Historic Places and, most vital for its survival, a City of Houston Protected Landmark. Its original architects, Cram & Ferguson of Boston, were led by partner Ralph Adams Cram, an adept practitioner of early-20th-century revival styles whose greatest hits included St. John the Divine Church in New York City, the United States Military Academy at West Point and, in Houston, the Rice University campus and Trinity Episcopal Church. Collaborating with Cram was leading Houston architect William Ward Watkin, a former employee of the Boston firm, first chairman of Rice's architecture department and also the architect of the original Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which had opened two years earlier. As conceived, it was to be part of a five-building master plan, including the Houston City Hall, interrupted by the Depression. (When the economy revived, the Art Moderne style was in vogue, so a new architect, Joseph Finger, was tapped for that commission that opened in 1939.)

For the Ideson, a restrained Spanish revival style was selected as appropriate for a metropolis in the Southwest. An elegant cream-colored brick, stone, stucco and a red-tile roof were the materials of choice for the facade of the new cultural mecca, which replaced the smaller Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library that had opened some 20 years earlier. Mr. Houston History, Rice University's Stephen Fox, praises the Ideson in the AIA Houston Architecture Guide: "Set on a tree-shaded block, this low, masonry building with its arched windows, clay-tile roofs and sculptural decorations provides a welcome contrast to the tall brittle towers that now surround it."

The drama that the monochromatic facade lacks is compensated for by the Ideson’s over-the-top interiors. Its three floors showcase elaborate woodwork, Spanish-tile floors, marble columns, archways displaying lush floriated capitals, carved balustrades ringing the second- and third-floor balconies and a sumptuous painted and coffered ceiling — an impressive perspective visible when a library-goer gazes up at the full expanse of its three-stories-high entrance.

Additional highlights are the fabled Ideson murals, a cycle completed with funds by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), painted between 1934 and 1936 by three Houston artists to comprise the city's largest installation of WPA Depression-era public murals. Perhaps the one on the landing between the first and second floors is the most renowned. Painted by Ruth Pershing Uhler, who is also represented in the MFAH permanent collection, it shows The First Subscription Committee, 1854, while drolly incorporating details of an actual window into the artwork.

Image: Julia Ideson Library, second-floor interior, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library  (RGA13-2967) HPL Collection.
Dateline — The 19th Century
Equally as beguiling as the architecture of this landmark building is the heritage that it honors and preserves. Its stacks are literally weighted with history: shelves upon shelves bearing thousands of archival boxes that comprise the vast holdings of the HMRC. The most tantalizing and revelatory are: more than 300 early maps of Houston and the Southwest, the earliest dating from 1561; 125,000 architectural drawings from more than 250 architects; approximately four million photographs that detail historical occurrences as well as moments from everyday life in the area; 15,000 rare books and pamphlets in the John Milsaps Collection, donated in 1904 by this bibliophile, a descendant of a settler who died at the Alamo; 7,000 rare children's books; the Heiser-Alban Collection of Circus Historical Materials starring more than 800 vintage lithographic circus posters ; special collections stocked with volumes such as a 1615 edition of Don Quixote and a 15th-century illuminated Book of Hours from Flanders, as well as first editions of literary classics Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland, plus the original Houston Town Lot Book.

Last fall, I spent a day immersed in the Ideson's Texas Room (before it moved to its new wing) at the invitation of the Preservation Partners. I visited with the nonprofit's capable executive director, Margaret Lawler. (Her grandfather, Maurice Sullivan — an architect who designed St. Anne's Catholic Church and Holy Rosary Catholic Church — has his architectural plans preserved at the Ideson.) Under the guidance of Kemo Curry, the efficient manager of the HMRC, and her well-versed staff, I delved into topics of personal interest to grasp a sense of the center's extraordinary resources.

Anyone enamored of the past would be enthralled by an opportunity to explore these archives, which bear a swatch of the past two centuries, rendered and served up in original format rather than via microfiche. As Curry and her team pulled out carts of books, directories and file folders, I glimpsed photographs of the interiors and gardens of the grand homes of Courtland Place from the turn of the 20th century, a definite discovery of the day (culled from the Houston Heights Collection and the Domestic Architecture of Harris Country, 1824 – 1914/Junior League Collection).

Another top find was the early Houston City Directories. The first was published in 1866. They relay the names of the heads of households, along with occupations and street addresses, and are filled with telling details about booming, Reconstruction-era Houston: ads for cotton factors (speculators who sold the crop), hotels and merchants (such as a bygone candy shop on Main Street), banks, railroads, steamboat lines, factories, houses of worship and even secret and benevolent societies. An 1870 – 1871 directory records the city's population as an "estimated 15,000 to 20,000." In 1873, the City Directory boasts: "Nine railroads are either completed or in progress ... Glenwood Cemetery has been laid out with roads, and walks have been constructed; workmen are planting shade trees, evergreens, and shrubbery. One hundred lots have been taken and about thirty interments made since the opening of the Cemetery last spring … Work is continuing on the Ship Channel. There were obstructions at Red Fish Bar, and Chopper’s Bar, and depth was needed for eight miles between Harrisburg and Houston ... The Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company, organized in 1869, has as its object first to secure 6 foot regular navigation, and then to deepen to 8 and 9, 11 and 12 feet, widening the channels through the Bay and in the Bayou."

The 1877– 1878 City Directory proclaims additional urban progress: "The first grain elevator was built, the largest in Texas, with a capacity of 150,000 bushels. Fifty railroad cars can be unloaded per day." It also notes, "Houston is no longer the leading market for cotton in the state; Galveston has taken its place." The 1881 directory records in the section marked "Of Special Interest: Two ice machines are now in operation manufacturing a combined 900,000 pounds of ice per month, nearly 4/5 of it consumed in the city ... The Houston Water Works now has 12 miles of water mains in operation ... The business of Houston is estimated [underestimated, they say] at $8,000,000, not including Cotton and banking transactions."

Also among the items investigated: ephemera from my alma matter, Rice University, including ticket stubs to a 1930s-era Cotton Bowl and a 1916 yearbook; vintage photographs from the glory days of Sakowitz, including its store in the Gulf Building circa 1930s and ensuing Main Street flagship with its glamorous glove, purse and departments (the Alfred C. Finn Collection); the Franklin Beauty School Collection, which highlights an important trade school that generated economic mobility in the African-American community; the evocative scrapbook of Rose Jordan, a relative of Barbara Jordan; pre-Central Business District postcards showing a tree-lined Main Street filled with grand mansions, populated by horse-drawn vehicles and street cars; and charming 1960s-era fashion designs in the Evelyn Norton Anderson Papers, with her illustrations for space suit–inspired apparal for Astrodome attendants.

There’s also a window into the Hispanic past via photographs of debutantes and members of social clubs (the Catalina Gomez Sandoval Collection), then a thrilling discovery for jazz lovers: the Arnett Cobb Collection, containing the archives of Houston's own "wild man of the tenor sax," made fortuitously after meeting the musician's daughter Lizette Cobb and his researcher Micque Montgomery-Swinton in the Texas Room. Finally, even though I did not have time to listen to them, the Ideson is also the ear to the past; the Oral History Collection contains the voices of great citizens, from Ima Hogg to George Mitchell.

Leading Ladies
Two women, nearly a century apart, star in the saga of the Julia Ideson Library.

Image: Julia Ideson. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public library.
Julia Ideson, first librarian, Houston Public Library
The first and only head librarian of the Houston Public Library from 1904 until 1945, Julia Bedford Ideson (1880 – 1945) was one of the first students in library sciences at the University of Texas. Her passion for books and learning came from her family, which moved to Houston from Nebraska in 1892. Her father owned a bookstore. Appointed the first librarian of the city's Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library (which occupied the corner of Travis and McKinney), she was responsible for the tremendous growth of the library system, from lobbying for the new building that became the Ideson to instituting a bookmobile and adding five branches to the system. Under her 42-year reign, the library holdings increased from 13,228 to 265,707 volumes, and annual circulation soared from 60,000 to 600,000. Besides being president of the Texas Library Association and the first vice president of the American Library Association, Ideson was the first woman from Houston listed in Who's Who. Beyond her library duties, she was a suffragette and a member of the Texas League of Women Voters and Women's Political Union. She was also a staunch supporter of racial equality, serving on the Texas Commission on Interracial Cooperation and speaking on the topic of providing library services for African-Americans in the South at the American Library Association meeting at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1923.

Image: Phoebe Tudor. Photo by Jack Thompson.
Phoebe Tudor, chair, Julia Ideson Library Preservation Partners
Tapped by Mayor Bill White and his then cultural czar Jill Jewett to lead the fund-raising campaign for the $32 million restoration, this well-connected Louisiana belle was a natural for the Ideson project. Her pedigree and passion for history and preservation include a B.A. in art history from the University of Virginia and an Ivy League M.A. in historic preservation from Columbia, plus restoration assignments in culture capitals New Orleans and New York, as well as living in London. Tudor posed for our portrait in the library of her family's Birdsall Briscoe–designed, 1920s-era home (she and husband Bobby received a 2008 Good Brick Award for its sensitive restoration and were honored this winter by the Rice Design Alliance for their commitment to Houston's history and built environment). She waxes about the sea change since she first became involved in our burg's preservation movement in 1990, which was the terrain of just "a few hardy souls," and the beauty of the Ideson: "The carved-wood coffered ceiling, the murals, the red-tile floors, those tall windows, the elegant stucco walls … You can really feel the history. It's fun to me [to be involved] in this bricks-and-mortar campaign for the Ideson. There are not many projects like this."
Image at top : The restored and expanded Julia Ideson Library, to be unveiled in two phases, beginning this spring with its new wing. Photo courtesy of Gensler.