9. The Fifties Boomtown


By Lynn McBee © May 29, 2008

The Fifties Boomtown

Bellaire. In 1950 the population census of Bellaire was 10,173, compared to 1,124 in 1940, almost a ten-fold increase in a decade. There were about 3,186 homes in 1950 but 600 to 700 new homes were built each year during 1950-1952. By 1955 the town was largely built out with 5,897 homes and thereafter only about 100 or fewer new homes were created each year (until the second boom in the 1980s). Streets continued to be paved and open storm water ditches and bridges maintained. Full-time Fire and Police Departments operated in new facilities. There were over a dozen churches and a Catholic convent. Children were filling schools; Condit Elementary was expanded with a new 12-room wing added. Horn Elementary, Gordon Elementary, Marian High School and Bellaire High School were constructed during the decade. The first Bellaire City Library opened in 1951 with a part-time librarian. Scouts and civic groups flourished. Our Town was busy growing under zoning rules.

In 1955, Battlestein’s department store wanted to build a store at Post Oak Road and Bissonnet (pre-Loop 610). Resident Bob (R.E.) Turrentine, Harris County Tax-Assessor Collector for many years, backed this effort to rezone Bellaire Blvd. to Commercial use. That Election Referendum churned huge controversy and resulted in the largest vote turnout in Bellaire history, 4,395 votes cast, 779 For and 3616 Against, defeating that rezoning effort.

Bellaire was newly incorporated with its Home Rule Charter, and Master Plan for land use, City Manager Gary Summers and Assistant City Manager Tom Heffington – and led by Mayors Everall West (1951-53), Henry Hodell (1953-56), Henry Reed (1956-1957), and Louis Ehlers (1958-59). In 1954 a Damon Runyonesque character, Jack Gurwell, began publishing The Bellaire Texan, covering Bellaire news and controversies. Some 50 years after its founding, Our Town was now a post-Depression, postwar city in healthy growth mode.

Elsewhere at the Time. Texas saw Alan Shivers and Price Daniel preside as Texas Governors. Post-War highway planning was highlighted by Texas and the nation. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the U.S. President from 1953-1961. It was an era of the Cold War, of conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over ideologies (Stalin died in 1953). McCarthyism, intense anti-communism suspicion led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was rampant There were many anti-Communist committees, panels and “loyalty review boards” in federal, state and local governments as well as many private agencies conducting investigations for the private sector. The John Birch Society emerged as an anti-Socialist anti-Communist group with vocal supporters in Bellaire. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the man-made earth satellite, in 1957. NASA was established the next year, and the space race began. By 1960, John F. Kennedy won America’s presidency with Lyndon B. Johnson Vice-President.

Buddy Holly of Lubbock, pop singer, died in a plane crash in 1959 in the middle of the rock ‘n roll era which overlapped the jazz evolution of swing big bands and be-bop, preceding the explosion of Elvis Presley.

Houston had a population of over a half million, double that in its metropolitan area. It now surrounded landlocked Bellaire. KUHT (Channel 8) was Houston’s and the nation’s first public broadcast TV station at the University of Houston. The Galveston Freeway had opened as the first unit of the Houston area’s master freeway system, “finished” in 1952. Houston Intercontinental Airport opened in 1951 (renamed William P. Hobby Airport in 1962). Roy Hofheinz was Mayor and Oscar Holcombe wrested his reelection away from him in 1956.

Desegregation. During the decade of the 1950s desegregation of Houston public schools and of buses was ordered by the courts, following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Houston Independent School District fought off school desegregation until a district court mandated it to submit a plan by June 1, 1960 and then, after its receipt, labeled the plan, “a palpable sham and subterfuge” and ordered desegregation to commence in September 1960 and to proceed one grade per year thereafter.

Loop 610. In Bellaire there began public awareness of the “Pin Oak Freeway.” The book, Houston Freeways, by Erik Slotboom (2003) details the history of the freeways and provides a fascinating visual journey to readers. (See the e-book version of the now out of print book at: www.houstonfreeways.com). Excerpts about the Bellaire segment of the Loop appear below:

Back as far as 1931 Harris County officials identified the concept of a need for a bypass loop around Houston which then proposed using existing streets to divert traffic from the city center. In 1940 the Houston Chamber of Commerce Highway Committee was formed to study potential bypass alignments. The first report appeared in 1941. Military officials contemplated logistics of large troop movements through Houston to protect the Ship Channel and key war industries. For over ten years thereafter, various alignments of “The Defense Loop” were debated. By 1953 a Houston delegation appeared before the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin to request adoption of the proposed new freeway into the state highway system, with continuing modification of the exact routes. In 1955 there was debate over the East side segment but by 1960 all was in place.

Bellaire Protests.   In 1941 Houston’s loop was designated to pass through Bellaire on South Post Oak Road as a major arterial street, not a freeway. But by October 1954 Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) adopted the loop into the Houston freeway system, splitting the City almost exactly in half. Two months later a group of Bellaire citizens began an effort to stop the freeway. Legal tools for opposing freeways were not available at that time. Highway engineers sought the most direct, efficient and least costly routes. The possibility of curving the freeway around Bellaire to minimize impacts was not considered an acceptable practice at the time since it would have caused an awkward curving alignment.

On December 6, 1954 an anti-freeway group first protested against the west loop before a Bellaire City Council meeting. According to Slotboom, the Bellaire Texan newspaper reported that,

“City Council hid behind the need for more facts and figures, ‘giving nothing more than a ‘don’t worry about it’ brush off to 50 anti-Post Oak Freeway citizens who petitioned the Council for a definite stand against any such construction through Bellaire.” Mayor Hodell “tried to assure a skeptical audience that ‘the entire council is on the side of Bellaire, not Houston’. …” The protest was reported by the local Houston press and the manager of Houston’s Public Works Department wrote a letter to the Harris County Judge, stating, ‘It looks to me like this is a very serious situation.’

“Opposition then began a petition campaign to force the Bellaire City Council to enact an ordinance that would prevent the expenditure of any City of Bellaire funds for the purchase of right-of-way.   Under the terms of TxDOT’s adoption of the West Loop freeway route, Bellaire was expected to pay for the freeway right-of-way through the city. … The Council complied with the petitioners’ request without officially tabulating the petition results … and notified the Texas Transportation Commission on April 4, 1955, that the city of Bellaire ‘respectfully and officially’ declined to provide right-of-way for the project. … The petitioners then realized that the…council action would not preclude another entity from purchasing the right-of-way through Bellaire.” And they were right. “Harris County would step forward to take the responsibility for acquiring the right-of-way.”

“In November 1955 the proposed right-of-way map for the freeway corridor was released.” In the initial plan right-of-way was to be acquired almost entirely on the east side of Post Oak Road. … Former Mayor and prominent resident Abe Zindler whose estate wad immediately adjacent to the freeway route, stated, ‘If they need it, and that’s the best route, then we can’t stop progress.’ In early February 1956 Harris County Commissioners Court adjusted the freeway corridor to lie to the west of Post Oak Road in the northern part of Bellaire, mainly to avoid a Catholic high school (Incarnate Word Convent’s Marian High School). The new alignment would displace 190 homes in Bellaire, a clearance corridor that was generally four homes wide along South Post Oak Road.

“A public hearing on March 29, 1956, was held by Harris County Commissioners Court. About 75 citizens of Bellaire attended. However, the opponents realized that the hearing was largely a formality. … The Commissioners unanimously approved the freeway alignment.. … The Highway Department held a public hearing for the freeway design in 1957. … It was reported that no opposition to the route was voiced but an hour was spent briefing and answering questions that applied to … specific property. At the meeting the freeway corridor was widened to 350. Right-of-way clearing began in 1959 and was complete by 1961. …”

In 1962 the Houston Post reported that 250 homes were removed for the Loop system’s 350’ right of way. Costs were estimated at $4.7 million for a 2-mile stretch begun in 1958 and estimated at $1.42 million to build 2.25 miles of frontage roads.

Bellaire was now split by a huge construction swath during the 1960s and it remains, almost fifty years later, the mixed blessing and burden of IH-610 West Loop dividing the city.  Because of it the future would bring different types of land use to come and new controversies over it.


© Lynn McBee, lynnmb@hal-pc.org

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