3400 Montrose: Piece of Houston History Going...Going....Gone

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The parking lot of Disco Kroger at the corner of Montrose and Hawthorne has been an ideal vantage point from which to watch the two-month-long demolition of yet another curious piece of Houston history. While the ten-story building at 3400 Montrose is little more than twisted girders and concrete rubble now, in its day it was one of the swankiest business addresses in the city and a night-time hot spot for several generations of Houstonians.

It will soon be replaced by a Hannover Group 30-story glass apartment tower with all the personality of a corporate headquarters, scheduled to open in 2016. But the building had in fact outlived its design and utility. One former renter of space in the building described it as "a dump."

But over the course of its history since the first two floors were built in 1952, the building served as home to Montrose National Bank, Southern States Life Insurance Company, and a plethora of insurance-related companies and other businesses. The Houston Blues Society even officed there for a few years.

The tenth-floor penthouse, which was operated as a club up until the building closed due to its dilapidated state in 2010, offered a spectacular view of downtown that made it a major social hotspot for decades. In various incarnations, it was Top of the Mark, the Palace Club, Cody's and finally Scott Gertner's popular jazz rendezvous, Sky Bar.

The building would never have existed except for Houston's strange aversion to zoning. Original developer J.W. Link and his Houston Land Corporation platted the subdivision and began offering lots for sale in 1911. Montrose was designed as a planned streetcar residential community with stately Montrose Boulevard as a main artery. The street quickly became lined with palatial modern homes such as Link's own property, the Link-Lee mansion, which is now part of the University of St. Thomas property.

But in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression, the deed restrictions for the area lapsed. In the following year, a zoning ordinance that might have allowed Montrose Boulevard to continue as a residential avenue was put before the City Council, but it failed to pass.

Rice University architecture historian Dr. Stephen Fox notes that the effort to pass a zoning ordinance in 1937 was "fueled in part by the anxieties of Montrose residents fearful of what would happen once the restrictions were no longer in effect."

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He points to the lapsing of the deed restrictions and the city's failure to pass a zoning ordinance as the beginning of "the transition of Montrose Boulevard from an elite residential street to the anything-goes landscape of mid-20th-Century Houston."

"What was significant about the 3400 block of Montrose was the concentration of mid-rise office buildings and a multistory apartment building there between the early fifties and early sixties," Fox explains.

But 3400 wasn't the first mid-rise building on Montrose Boulevard. The Plaza Apartment Hotel opened at 5020 Montrose in 1926, and it became home to many of the city's movers and shakers, including Rice University President Edgar O. Lovett. It was modeled on the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City. It has since been renovated for office and medical occupants.

Three decades later, the original two-story structure at 3400 Montrose was built to house the Southern States Life Insurance Company. Along with some other moneyed local financial players, Southern States president L.E. Cowling filed to organize the Montrose National Bank on June 6, 1955, and the group received its charter May 31, 1956, just as the eight-story addition to the original structure was completed. (Cowling and his sons were also the developers of Kiddieland, an amusement park that opened in 1957.)

Fox notes that "the mid-block mid-rise building that used to be diagonally across the intersection from the Southern States Life building was demolished to build the Walgreens. The mid-rise apartment was transformed into the Consulate General of China."

Montrose National Bank eventually became Central Bank and left the 3400 Montrose location in 1961 in favor of a new downtown office at 2100 Travis. L.E. Cowling was part of the powerful but secretive group of wealthy Houstonians known informally as the Suite 8F Group. He eventually found himself entangled in one of the biggest stock swindles of the late sixties for manipulating the sale of shares of Alabama Life Insurance Company, a company the courts eventually ruled that he controlled. Members of the group would later lie near the heart of the Enron meltdown.

(Check back in a few days. We'll have another blog about the shenanigans in the penthouse.)

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