Houston 101: A Convention Center Built In 64 Days

In 1928, Jesse Jones -- grand poobah of Houston, Lord of Suite 8-F -- was determined to bring national glory to his town by hosting the 1928 Democratic convention. Cleveland, San Francisco and Detroit also wanted the prize, but Jones took a $200,000 check to the bidding committee and got the nod.

The only trouble was, Houston didn't have a facility big enough to house a national convention.

Jones vowed to build "a $100,000 tabernacle seating 25,000." He didn't quite do that, but he didn't do too bad, either. In just 64 working days a hall seating up to 20,000, constructed entirely of wood, was slammed up on the west side of downtown.

It had no air-conditioning, of course, and the convention was being held in late June. The 1924 Democratic convention had lasted 15 days and took an agonizing 103 ballots to decide on a nominee. Doing that in Houston would have been torture, but luckily enough the Democrats were pretty well settled on New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, even though he was not only against Prohibition, but was -- gasp -- a Catholic.

Time magazine said the convention would be a boon for Houston:

But Houston will never regret it. Come what may, the convention will be something for Houstonians to flaunt in their three-cornered rivalry with other Texas metropolitans--the bustling oil-&-cotton men of upland Dallas and the drawling men of San Antonio.

Nor will those Democrats regret it who can manage to get out of their own sections and see "what-all" there is in the biggest State of the Union.

In Houston, named for General Sam Houston, who amounts to a second George Washington for Texans, they will find a city almost as big as Denver or Louisville, bigger than Omaha or Atlanta, twice the size of Albany, four times the size of Mobile, with ocean steamers coming right up to it from Galveston Bay, 50 miles away, and 17 railroads heading in from all directions. Jesse Holman Jones's hotel, the Rice, will doubtless be headquarters. Smaller hotels such as the Lamar and Warwick, will take in overflow and there is an old custom in Texas, which Houstonians practice specially, of throwing open private homes when the city is host to some one.

Things didn't turn out quite so rosily. A black man, who had gotten into a scuffle with police as he was being arrested during a crap game, was lynched while the convention was in town. He was taken from his hospital bed and hung from "a bridge outside town."

Jones called the incident "a stigma and a blot on the good name of Texas." The police were exonerated, not to anyone's great surprise.

Smith went on to lose badly to Republican Calvin Coolidge. The wooden "Sam Houston Hall" lasted another eight years, when it was torn down to make way for the Music Hall and Sam Houston Coliseum. Those two facilities were themselves demolished in 1998 for the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

So the next time you go to the Hobby Center, you can imagine a stifling, sweaty, smoke-filled wooden arena, filled with angry, loud arguments over supporting the KKK and a goddamned Catholic, and thank God for the a/c you're probably enjoying at that moment.

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