Houston 101: Will Hogg, Houston's Forgotten, Eccentric and Downright Badass Philanthropist

What better time than Memorial Day to remember Will Hogg, the man who founded Memorial Park?

If that (and the Arboretum) was all Will Hogg gave Houston, that would rank as one of the grandest local legacies anyone has ever achieved. But Will Hogg did so much more.

He founded and developed River Oaks and built Bayou Bend, now an outpost of the Museum of Fine Arts, which he also helped found. He made the real estate deal that left us today with Bayou Place, City Hall, the downtown public library, Jones Hall and Jones Plaza, the Hobby Center, hell, the entire Theater District. Will Hogg also spearheaded the foundation of the local YWCA and as if all of that was not enough, the pretty little Heights-area neighborhood Norhill was another of his creations.

And today, Will Hogg is all but forgotten. No prominent Houston parks, buildings or other institutions bear his name. (Hogg Middle School honors his father.) While that great Houstonian Tila Tequila does apparently merit a quite extensive Wikipedia entry, Will Hogg has none. Is that where we are as a people today?

Ms. Tequila aside, William Clifford Hogg probably wouldn't have had it any other way. The rotund son of (equally august) Texas governor Jim Hogg, Will was vehemently, almost violently modest. In this city of flamboyant philanthropy, Houston has not seen his like since.

Bayou Bend, the Hogg family home that is now part of the Museum of Fine Arts
Bayou Bend, the Hogg family home that is now part of the Museum of Fine Arts
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According to Virginia Bernhard's 1984 Ima Hogg biography (Ima Hogg: The Governor's Daughter), when the MFA wanted to honor him at a banquet, he fled town. Another time he uncovered a plot wherein some prominent citizens wanted to surprise him by giving him a medal. On the appointed day, he pretended to be sick, left his office early and spent the night in bed. He once told a Houston Post columnist friend not to publicize another of his charitable feats in no uncertain terms:

"If you put my name in your column of tripe, I'll kick you so hard you'll taste the shoe leather for the rest of your life."

So that's one reason you probably have not heard of Will Hogg. Another is that he died relatively young. In those days of relatively primitive health care, the hefty Hogg men tended to keel over in their 50s and Will was no exception: While vacationing in Germany with his sister Ima, he died at 55 of the aftereffects of emergency gallbladder surgery. There was no third act to Will Hogg's life.

And he also happened to be the brother of Ima Hogg, whose own philanthropic efforts and amusing name made her world-famous for a time. (Famous enough to make it in the New York Times crossword puzzle, at least.)

But let's examine what Will Hogg did for Houston in the 11 years after his family made their fortune through a 1919 oil strike on their West Columbia plantation and his death in 1930.

Will Hogg believed that Texas's oil belonged to Texas, not himself alone. "The government made a mistake in not reserving for its own use all the wealth below the soil," he once said. "What I don't pay back in taxes on the oil which should not have been mine, I'm glad to give back away for the public welfare."  

The River Oaks Garden Club: Where Will Hogg tried to make this a beautiful city.
The River Oaks Garden Club: Where Will Hogg tried to make this a beautiful city.
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And give away he did. He put hundreds of young people through college, usually anonymously. He founded a home for poor boys, and was a honcho in the local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He said that nothing gave him more satisfaction than betting on the minds and futures of young men and women.

A lover of travel, Hogg wanted Houston to be every bit as beautiful as Paris or Rome. He founded civics groups and did his best to mold this raw boomtown into a pearl of a Gulf Coast metropolis.

There was Memorial Park, which he bought and developed and sold to the city on easy terms. (Its name honors Houston's World War I dead.) There were the thousands of crape myrtle trees he gave to local homeowners to plant, and when he found out that they had been given exclusively to whites, he bought thousands more for black homeowners. There were the hundreds of magnolias he planted along Shepherd Drive, each bearing a plaque honoring a Houstonian killed in the Flanders trenches. Some of them were still standing in the 1980s, and some still may be standing today, though the fragrant trees devoured the plaques long ago.

And there is River Oaks, all of which remains his legacy. Hogg reportedly developed the neighborhood because of a feud with Texaco's Joseph Cullinan, who hoped that Houston's elite would settle near him in Shadyside and Broadacres. Hogg decided he would build his own enclave, and spent $3 million to buy and develop Houston's toniest 1,100 acres. ($40 million in today's money.)

It was Will Hogg who wrote those pretty words that adorn the fountain in Main Street Square.

When we build let us build forever. Let it not be for the present delight nor for the present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time has come that these stone walls will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say, as they look upon our labor and the wrought substance of them, 'See! This our fathers did for us!'

Well, that didn't work out too well for him, did it? The decades after his death were not kind to the stones our ancestors laid for us. You can't help but wonder what he would have thought about the fate of the Shamrock, or what has happened to the Astrodome, or the hundreds of lesser edifices that have had their dates with Olshan destiny over the years. Still, it likely would have been still worse were it not for the fact that some of his ideas survived his demise, as did his sister, who continued his good works in many ways and with as much style.

One of Will Hogg's other failures was much more entertaining. In 1913 he talked the governor into introducing a constitutional amendment to merge Texas A&M with Hogg's beloved University of Texas. Hogg maintained that Aggies would have to leave College Station, and he proposed that their former facility be repurposed as either an insane asylum or a reform school. The proposal was defeated by a single vote.

He had his imperfections, it must be said. It should not be forgotten that while Hogg hated the Klan and was a progressive by his era's standards, it was he who barred Jews and blacks from River Oaks through a "gentlemen's agreement." Such loathsome covenants were prevalent across America, not just in Texas or the South, but it remains disappointing to see that stain on such an otherwise stellar career.

And I curse his name weekly as I attempt to drive from the Heights to the West U area: Will Hogg saw to it that no north-south streets would pass all the way through River Oaks. He wanted River Oaks to be a nature preserve that would not "be polluted with gasoline fumes and the feathered and furry creatures will not be frightened by the roar of motor cars."

So yeah, that's sweet and all, but you can lay some of the horrendous western Inner Loop traffic problems squarely at his feet. The air-conditioned nightmare that is the West Loop is pretty much all Will Hogg's doing, thanks to the River Oaks/Memorial Park force field he created.

And cars aside, you can't even get all the way through River Oaks on a bike. Twice I have tried to cross the suspension bridge at Bayou Bend, only to be turned away by a scolding elderly Asian docent both times. With that gorgeous option off the table, cyclists instead must ride all the way out to the West Loop bike trail or stake their lives on the Shepherd bridge, where they must be polluted by gasoline fumes and frightened by the roar of motor cars.

But let's not end this on a sour note.

Hogg never married, but he once publicly announced that he kept a mistress and did it in the most jaw-dropping manner imaginable.

In her book, Bernhard passed along an anecdote that my great-grandfather John A. Lomax intentionally omitted from his 1939 Atlantic Monthly profile of Hogg. Lomax wanted to protect Miss Ima's decorum, but he believed this story epitomized "the man whom I cannot even faintly begin to describe," so he shared it off the record with his editor.

Hogg, Lomax related, once served on a Harris County grand jury, and the foreman told him that they were investigating a widow who lived in a little cottage near Hogg's mansion. Apparently this widow received far too many "gentlemen callers" at all hours of the day and night, and the foreman asked Hogg if he had anything to say about this Jezebel's deplorably brazen conduct.

Hogg lifted his bulk off his chair and noted that the grand jury and the assistant DA were 13 of Harris County's leading citizens. Hogg said that investigating the "poor, defenseless widow" was a waste of his time and all of their time.

"I don't know why she has gentlemen callers, I don't know how often they come in and I don't give a damn," he snapped.

"Listen to me," he thundered on. "I keep a woman at 204 Victor Street. Mr J.C. Black keeps a woman at 908 Main Street. Mr T.V. Jones keeps a woman at 2002 Carondelet; Mr. A.W. Rice keeps a woman at 308 Nueces." And so on through the names of more and more of Houston's high and mighty, some of whom, unlike Hogg, were married.

Hogg went still further. He said he would sign complaints against all of those men and furnish witnesses that would prove the charges against them all.

"Including myself," he added. "Now, by God, come on and go after us and leave that little widow woman alone."

And with a "Good morning, gentlemen," he put on his hat and left the thunderstruck grand jury behind.

A friend once said of him that he could be "as tough as a boot and as tender as a woman," and as Will Hogg himself might have put it, he would be "as welcome here as horseshit in a garden."

Love this city or curse it, but think of the mess Houston would be were it not for the amazing 11 years Will Hogg lived here.

Serious H/t to Virginia Bernhard, professor emerita of history at the University of St. Thomas.

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