Culture / Newsy

Houston’s Most Haunted Places: Graveyard-Shift Ghostbusters Tell You What’s Real, and What’s Not

BY Catherine D. Anspon and Matthew Ramirez // 10.30.15

Ghost Busting 101: So it began, with a casual office remark about Halloween, which led to a full-on web team assignment. Soon, a pair or editors would find themselves at one of the city’s oldest graveyards, candles in hand. But before the full-moon night that culminated in a trip to Olivewood Cemetery, the intrepid duo dug into some of Houston’s celebrated haunts. 

A Thespian Spirit on Nance Street

Our caper began at Nance Street, a celebrated site for paranormal activity. (Take note: according to the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, our region ranks exceedingly high in spectral goings-on.) Our “in” on Nance Street was gallerist Pablo Cardoza, of Cardoza Fine Art, (headquartered at 1320 Nance) whose rapid rise as one of the young lions of contemporary art parallels the success of the star of his stable — Mark Flood. (The painter/enfant terrible, Cardoza’s most recent headliner, had works hanging at the locus of the former-stage turned-white-cube, reportedly haunted, where Flood’s tongue-in-cheek skewering of the art world screened.)

The tale of Nance Street’s spectral activity came by the way of a reliable insider — Cardoza’s landlord and a theater man, Wayne Wilden. The founder of fondly remembered underground theater space Atomic Café, Wilden has metamorphosed into an unlikely business mogul, owning half a city block in the prime historic warehouse district a block from Dakota Lofts (one of his holdings is the indie music venue House of Creeps, which neighbors Cardoza’s gallery).

Wilden immediately underscored, “I’m not a believer,” but he could not deny a pair of paranormal experiences, One dated back to the 1990s, when his loft property behind Nance, 801 William, specifically Unit 2, was so plagued by a spirit that a psychic was called in. The tenant at the time, a girlfriend of another creative, was disturbed by poltergeist-style behavior in her bedroom. The medium attempted to put the ghost to rest — whether the exorcism was successful cannot be reliably determined — and learned that it was the spirit of a workman who had passed away after a fall while the building, a former fabrication shop for the railroad industry, was under construction.

Wilden’s other story involved a friend, the departed actor Dan Treadway, who often performed on stage at Atomic Café (as well as in many Infernal Bridegroom productions) and also occasionally cribbed in the DIY second-floor garret bedroom above the theater. Treadway died one evening in 2002 on the premises at 1320 Nance, and appeared to return spectrally during his wake, blowing out the circuitry of the entire theater complex. Wilden still senses his presence in Cardoza Fine Art. (Will Treadway assist in negotiating a better price for a Flood canvas?)

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A Creepy Hospital

The Yorktown Hospital outside of San Antonio was brought to our attention by artist Sarah Sudhoff, who made it the subject of some chilling maternity self-portraits taken in 2011. The photographer, most recently the director of Houston Center for Photography, relays via email the tale of this storied haunt: “While flipping through a magazine in San Antonio, I discovered Yorktown Hospital‘s advertisements for Halloween tours. The image featured in the article pictured the nursery. The very same nursery I photographed my maternity portrait in. As a photographer, I was looking for a unique venue to capture this amazing transformation my body was undergoing. The haunted hospital seemed ideal. My first trip to the hospital, I was given a tour by the groundskeeper, paid my $50, and had the hospital to myself. Knowing a little background on the facility, I whispered to the ghosts that I was not there to disturb them or capture their presence. I was there to photograph myself and asked that they not disturb me in any  way. I was definitely cautious and on guard …

“On my third trip I brought along my husband to assist. On my first visit the groundskeeper had mentioned the ghosts did not like it when furniture was moved. However, I removed an incubator from the nursery and moved it into one of two surgical suites. As I was staging the room and setting the lights, my husband and I noticed a paper tag on the incubator spinning …”

Sudhoff also spoke about Yorktown during a recent talk at Winter Street Studios, during which she divulged more intimate details — not being able to photograph in certain hospital rooms because of the medical space’s dark vibrations, and a palpable sense of unease. See Sudhoff’s complete suite of self-portraits from Yorktown here.

Forgotten and Otherworldly Olivewood

The pinnacle of our expedition was a visit to the historic Olivewood Cemetery, among Houston’s oldest platted graveyards, and the resting place for luminaries of the African-American community. Incorporated in 1875 with its original five-acre tract, the once grand burial ground was in use for approximately a century, yet appears to no longer be the site of recent burials. The cemetery is in need of much restoration, although a sign painted by YES Prep kids hints at a revived interest in Olivewood, which occupies prime property east of Heights Boulevard, south of I-10 and west of Studemont.

The Baker family has one of the most opulent memorials at Olivewood.
The Baker family has one of the most opulent memorials at Olivewood Cemetery. (Photo by Matthew Ramirez)

Our investigations took place during a four-hour period in the late afternoon, then during a return visit at nightfall, when, armed with Holy candles and an offering of Day-of-the-Dead marigolds, we strolled amidst stone angels and perused the graves, many of whose memorials listed birth dates before or right after the Civil War. There are presences at Olivewood, and a sense of a faded past, but we cannot say we were disturbed by ghosts. The looming nearby lights of Grocers Supply kept our trek rooted in the present century, at least on the east side of the cemetery. The west side, at the cemetery’s entrance, was another story. Parking down a lonely street, where dilapidated houses and a few new green-build homes stood guard, a flashing orb in the car’s back-up camera was a chilling sight.

A Kingdom for the Rituals of Death

Don’t call it a “haunted house,” but it is a house of haunts, so to speak. The National Museum of Funeral History (415 Barren Springs) is a place for the curious, not the morbid. The country’s most extensive collection of funeral and burial artifacts, the museum is less a ghoulish traipse through horror-movie trivia and cheap scares and more a studied, thoughtful, thorough curation of the history of death. President Genevieve Keeney says we “live in the shadow of death.”

Featuring 13 permanent exhibits, including a history of embalming that starts with the ancient Egyptians and a meticulous Vatican-approved examination of the lives and deaths of the popes, the museum is currently hosting a “Myths and Legends of the Graveyard” exhibit. (With tidbits such as: Did you know that the puritan saying, “Here lies ___” was the original sub-tweet? It suggested a person did not do much more than live, then die.) Keeney also says the museum is “all about what people believe.”

There is no agenda, religious or political, other than education — what you bring to the museum is what you get out of it. In fact, Keeney insists it took her some time before consenting to hosting a PG-rated haunted house at the museum, which is also connected to Commonwealth Institute, a school for aspiring morticians. It’s not a spooky place like the others we list here, but it does create a fascinating context for examining Houston’s history.

Breaking Bread with the Spirit World

Apparitions, glasses and dinnerware that move freely, doors that are seemingly held by a person who is not there, the ice machine turning off and on, intense frosty temperatures in certain spots, falling signs, orbs caught on security video—Houston’s most well-known haunt, The Spaghetti Warehouse (901 Commerce) earns its reputation. Jesse Cortez, floor manager of the restaurant for four years, claims the spirits at the Italian eatery are so frequent that members of the staff refuse to be left alone when closing up late at night.

The former home of the Columbia Dry Goods Company, the century-old building has a lot of history: the apocryphal tale is that the husband of the couple who together co-owned the produce company fell down the elevator shaft (which is located where the second-floor ladies’ room is now) to his death. His spirit is not alone in haunting the place, either—her cries have been heard late at night. In fact, Cortez affirms that “the later it gets, the more the [building] has activity,” including a portrait of a woman at the top of the stairs and a portrait of a man from the 19th century who causes the lights to go out if you move him around the walls too much.

Roland Ortiz is one of the staff members who refuses to be left alone — he claims that one night while he was cleaning in the basement a ghostly figure ran by him. Everyone else working that night was upstairs. Most of the activity is located either in the basement or on the second floor, but no matter where you are, be sure to inspect any photos you take in the restaurant — there is a good chance you will catch an orb, which are plentiful in the space. For some fun, check out Sandra Lord’s Paranormal Pub Tours.

Urban Eats (3414 Washington) appears to be one of a certain kind of bistro opening up lately — a modern, chef-directed space with good coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and a small grocery section, plus a full restaurant upstairs overlooking the downtown skyline. But speak to co-owners Levi Rollins and Eric Munoz for some insight — the building, more than 75 years old, used to house a mechanic’s garage and car wash, and retains some of the old-fashioned fixtures on the ceiling.

Workers say they have heard the sound of a baby crying, experienced the moving of furniture, and felt a presence tap them square on the shoulders. A member of the cleaning crew claimed to be made so uncomfortable by the presence of spirits that she brought her husband to work—only to have him become unaccountably locked in a downstairs restroom for hours before he could be freed. Come for the green eggs and ham, stay for the stories.

Urban Eats, a well-reviewed new dining spot on Washington Avenue, is also a haven for otherworldly activity.
Urban Eats, a new dining spot on Washington Avenue, is also a haven for otherworldly activity. (Photo by Matthew Ramirez)


Does Miss Ima’s Ghost Patrol Bayou Bend?

And these ghost hunters will close with a personal musing. Houston’s most acclaimed residence is most certainly the John Staub-designed mansion of the late Miss Ima Hogg, one of America’s foremost venues for decorative arts and design — the beautiful Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.

We’ve often wondered, does Miss Hogg preside as a beloved ghostly presence over her domicile? There’s never ever been a rumor or a report of any sort of sighting, yet … we have heard from insider staff members that they have felt her presence on more than one occasion in the upstairs hallways.

This revelation occurred during a 2010 Bayou Bend tour, arranged specially for artist Hunt Slonem, when talk turned to the spirit world and a high-level museum official made this known. We ourselves have felt a chill in the room adjoining Miss Hogg’s bedroom, currently devoted to a display of American folk art. (It wasn’t merely the air conditioning … )

Other Houston spots we heard about during our ghost-hunting journey:

The Wunsche Family Cemetery in Spring, located on a tiny grassy knoll beside I-45, in front of Spring High School.

The Patterson Street bridge overlooking I-10, former battleground site, and reportedly haunted by ghosts of soldiers past (The National Museum of Funeral History’s Keeney personally attested to this one).

The basement of the Doherty Library at the University of St. Thomas.

And this Menil exhibition — Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now including tombstone rubbings — is a must-see (through January 3).

 Coast-to-Coast Ghosts: A Sextet of Spooktacular American Places Deserving of Investigation:

Gettysburg, the most hallowed — and haunted — of our national Civil War battlegrounds.

The Adolphus Hotel, Dallas, where a certain suite is no longer booked due to extreme spectral activity.

Lily Dale, New York, a fabled town for mediums dating back to the late 19th century, where you can reach out and dial up a reading with the other side.

Ocean Born Mary’s House, Henniker, New Hampshire, haunted or hoax, you decide.

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California, the world’s grandest Victorian edifice; erected by the widow of the man who invented the Winchester rifle.

Hotel Galvez, a celebrated stop on every Galveston ghost tour for Room 505, which is said to be visited by a widowed bride.

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