Filed Under Downtown Houston

The Gulf Building

Commissioned by Jesse H. Jones and designed by architects Alfred C. Finn, Kenneth Franzheim, and J.E.R. Carpenter, the 37-story, 430-foot Gulf Building at 712 Main Street was the tallest structure in Houston when it was completed in 1929. Although it was eventually surpassed in height by Houston's Exxon Building in 1963, the Gulf Building remains one of the preeminent art deco skyscrapers in the southwestern United States.

Like its neighbor, the Rice Building, Jones’ Gulf Building was situated on historic land in the center of Houston. The site had formerly been the location of Charlotte Baldwin Allen’s home between 1850 and 1895. Allen, called the “Mother of Houston,” had been the wife of Augustus Chapman Allen and the sister-in-law of John Kirby Allen, the founders of the city of Houston. She played a supporting role in the Allen brothers’ campaign to make Houston the capital of the Republic of Texas from 1837 to 1839 and backed their effort to build the first Texas statehouse in Houston. As historian Nancy Baker Jones has explained, Charlotte Allen proved to be a well-connected and influential woman, who, after the death of her brother-in-law, separated from her husband in 1850 to become one of Houston’s leading citizens.

In 1911, sixteen years after Charlotte Allen’s death, the wooden home that she had once occupied on Main Street was razed, and the Houston Trunk Company took up residence at the location. This situation lasted only briefly, however, because Jesse Jones purchased the property and commissioned the construction of a new skyscraper there in 1927.

The new building that went up at the corner of Main Street and Rusk Avenue took two years to complete and cost an estimated 3.5 million dollars. Framed in steel and covered in Indiana limestone, the building was richly decorated with vaulted ceilings, ornamental fixtures, and eight frescoes illustrating the history of Texas and Houston. The main three-story lobby of the structure served as the headquarters of Jones' National Commerce Bank, and its offices had entrances on both Main and Travis. Meanwhile, the building received its name from the Gulf Oil Corporation, which leased the 7th to 19th floors for its Houston offices, while operating a huge, fifty-three-foot-high rotating neon version of the company’s famous Gulf Oil insignia from the building's rooftop.

The Gulf Building is connected to Houston's downtown tunnel system. It has been officially designated a City of Houston Historic Landmark, a Texas State Historic Landmark, and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Images

The Vision of Jones From a pamphlet published by Jones: "The Gulf Building is more than an office structure...it is, in intent and fact, a monument...to every Texan who with unsurpassed courage has met the work and trial of pioneering and, overcoming the handicaps of ignorance and prejudice, has risen to an undisputed position of distinction. From Bowie, Crockett and Houston, undaunted in the face of murderous thousands, down the years through changing economic planes, through war and devastation, Texas has with unfaltering vision struggled to create a greater Southwest. The achievement has been worthy of the effort. Today the enterprise and progress of Texas is unchallenged." Source: "The Gulf Building: Thirty-five Floors, One Thousand Offices." http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/p15195coll1/item/131/
A popular image of the Gulf Building Source: Historic Postcard
Texas Frescoes The three-story main banking lobby was (and remains) decorated with eight Italian-style fresco murals painted onsite by New York artist Vincent Maragliotti. These frescoes depict the region's history: from pre-Columbian times, through the Texas War of Independence, to a futuristic Houston skyline (with a zeppelin) dominated by Jones' Gulf Building. Source: Jim Parsons/Greater Houston Preservation Alliance
San Jacinto in Stained Glass In 1959-60, a stained-glass window commemorating the Battle of San Jacinto was installed above the Travis Street entrance. At the top of the window, a depiction of the San Jacinto Monument, also commissioned by Jones and built by Finn, can be seen. That monument--the final stop of this tour--can be spotted from the upper floors of the Gulf Building on clear days. Source: Raven/www.waymarking.com
The Lollipop In 1966, just a few years after being eclipsed by the Humble Building for height bragging rights within the city, the original "Jesse H. Jones Aeronautical Beacon" atop the roof was replaced with a 53-foot, slowly rotating (1.5 rpm), Gulf Oil logo. The sign was made of orange, white, and blue porcelain and was brightly lit at night by internal neon tubing (a similar, stationary, one-sided, Gulf Oil sign abutted the Astrodome's famous scoreboard in its early years). After helping the Gulf Building regain its attention-grabbing preeminence over the Houston skyline, the controversial "lollipop" was removed for good in 1975. Source: Texas Department of Transportation, via Eric Slotboom/www.houstonfreeways.com
Gulf Building, 1966 The Gulf Building, some 35+ years after initial construction, sporting its "lollipop" in the late 1960s. Source: Houston Chronicle
Bank Lobby in 2007 Between 1981 and 1986, Texas Commerce Bank embarked on a $50 million restoration of the historic and ornate banking hall (although grooves formed by the usage of decades of customers were allowed to remain). This has been described as the largest privately financed restoration project in American history (although it was fueled by tax credits). Source: Jim Parsons/Greater Houston Preservation Alliance

Location

Metadata

Anthony Breen Dix, “The Gulf Building,” East Texas History, accessed November 27, 2022, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/88.