Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Texas, somebody built a building. It was a very nice three-story brick building, with doors and windows and a staircase. There were six windows facing the street on each floor, and a lovely eyebrow peak across the top of the roofline. It did have one tiny problem. It was located at a ridiculously complicated intersection of streets on the very spot where downtown Houston collided with the Fifth Ward.
Houston was a railroad town back then, in 1894, and thousands of workers needed a place to live. They needed a grocery store, a cigar shop, a dry goods emporium and a barber. They even needed a saloon or two. They needed all this within walking distance of the rail yards.
It may have been the saloon-keeper who actually built this nice brick building, because he was the first one listed in the city directory as an occupant. His name was Thomas J. Short. He was soon followed by an establishment called the Fifth Ward Hotel, managed by Wheeler H. Bartholomew. Mr. Bartholomew apparently moved to Beaumont after only a few months, and a veritable parade of proprietors kept the hotel open for the next fifty years or so.
In 1897, W.E. Carter was the boss, and in 1899 Walter Colby took over. Finally, in 1900, a Mrs. Laura A. Belknap took charge, changed the name of the place, and established some “law and order”. She must’ve been successful, because the Belknap Hotel survived until 1907. By then, some other stores had moved in next-door, and the railroad workers now had their cigar shop, grocery, and barber.
But this second period of stability was not to last either. Railroad workers must be terrible hotel guests, because the parade of managers continued. Then came the Brooklyn Hotel, around 1907. It was managed by R.R. Baldwin, Augustus Richards, Joseph F. Webb, Robert T. Day and Mrs. Alice DeSmedt before it met its demise around 1914. That’s at least one proprietor per year, and there may have been more.
In 1915, the name was changed to the Phoenix Hotel, but the parade continued. William and Etta Cole were proprietors for a while, and a firm called McPearson & Morgan made a brief attempt at management, but by the time the 1930 census-takers knocked on the door, it was a nameless boardinghouse managed by Fay Schroeder, with only ten residents.
During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, it changed addresses with every directory. Sometimes it was on Nance Street, sometimes on Walnut or Rothwell or North San Jacinto. There really wasn’t any way to tell which building it was except that it was the only one near that intersection that had multiple tenants. It was called a rooming house, a boardinghouse, an apartment building and occasionally a hotel. Another clue was the fact that it sat across the street from Blair’s Sanitarium, which existed from 1900 to the 1930s, and Dr. Blair’s listing was fairly predictable.
During the 1960s and 1970s, it was apparently owned and operated by McFarland Industries, Inc., which manufactured pumps for the petrochemical industry and brought an end to more than fifty years of multi-unit housing.
Today, the building still stands, hardly recognizable, on that same strange corner. Two businesses claim to be the site of the original Fifth Ward Hotel, and based on extensive city directory and census research, we may never know the truth.