Main Street Market Square is the only commercial historic district in Houston. It is located between Milam and San Jacinto Streets along the south bank of Buffalo Bayou. The district contains 52 buildings, the Main Street Viaduct, Allen’s Landing Park, and Market Square Park. About half of the buildings within the district were constructed between 1858 and 1900. The rest were built between 1901 and 1935. The historic district contains Houston’s largest, most nearly intact group of buildings that represent our civic and commercial past.
Two brothers, Augustus C. Allen and John K. Allen, came to Houston in 1832. They bought land to establish a new city. It was located between White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. The Allen brothers thought that Buffalo Bayou would be an important shipping route between the Gulf coast and the land inside the new Republic of Texas.
The town site of Houston was platted in 1836. It was named after General Sam Houston, who had recently won the nearby Battle of San Jacinto. The town plat contained 62 blocks, most measuring 250 feet square, and 16 streets laid out in a grid. The two blocks in the middle of the town site were reserved for public buildings. The Allens expected that a courthouse would be built on one, and the Capitol Building for the Republic of Texas would be built on the other. On the southern edge of town, parts of two blocks were set aside for a church and a school.
The town was officially chartered in 1837. The Allens expanded the city to the south, east, and north. Houston served as the capitol of the Republic for a few years, but in 1839, the capitol was moved to Austin. That same year, the city was divided into four wards for management and voting purposes.
Houston’s first economic boom was triggered by the construction of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, in the 1850s. After that, Houston became a major shipping center and a hub of railroad activity. The city’s commercial core began to change during those years and the original wooden structures were replaced with stone and brick buildings.
After the Civil War, Houston continued to grow. The ongoing extension of railroad lines throughout Texas gave merchants access to new markets for their goods. Cotton processing and exporting was a major industry. With its new wealth, Houston made many public improvements. Construction on the Harris County Courthouse, which had begun before the war, was completed. A permanent City Hall and Market House were built in Market Square. Other two-story stone and brick buildings were built in Market Square in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The city’s growth and expansion continued. New architects began to work in Houston during the 1890s. New construction methods and materials enabled taller buildings to be built. Another increase in the scale of buildings happened after 1900. The creation of the Houston Ship Channel and Port of Houston brought more money into the city and architects from around the United States were commissioned to design tall buildings with classical details in downtown Houston. Some of these included Sanguinet & Staats (Fort Worth), Jarvis Hunt (Chicago), and the firm of Mauran, Russell, & Crowell (St. Louis).
In Houston, locally prominent architects including Eugene Heiner and George Dickey each designed several buildings in the Main Street Market Square district. Dickey and Heiner both arrived in Houston in 1878. Dickey was originally from New Hampshire and had worked in Boston and Toronto; Heiner was born in New York but received his professional training in Chicago. Heiner's surviving buildings in lower downtown Houston include the Sweeney and Coombs Building (1880), the Henry Brashear Building (1882), the W. L. Foley Dry Goods Company Building (1889), and the Houston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade Building (1884). Dickey's remaining downtown buildings are the B. A. Shepherd Building (1883), and the Sweeney, Coombs and Frederick's Building (1889). To a remarkable degree, these buildings retain the architectural features that have distinguished them since the time of their completion.
One of the driving forces behind downtown Houston’s growth was city leader and businessman Jesse Jones. Mauran, Russell, and Crowell designed seven buildings in Houston, many of which were associated with Jones in some way. These include the Union National Bank Building at Main and Congress and the Rice Hotel. The Main Street Viaduct (a concrete bridge across Buffalo Bayou) was completed in 1913. The building boom subsided that year.
After World War I, Houston’s growth exploded once more. Most of that was outside the Main Street Market Square district, which was relatively stable by that point. However, several buildings were constructed in the district, and others were altered or expanded. By the start of the Great Depression, the centers of commerce and government had begun to move beyond Main Street Market Square to other parts of downtown. George Dickey’s last major building design, the 1904 City Hall, was converted to a bus station until it burned in 1960. The exodus from Main Street Market Square was largely complete by the end of the 1960s.
Around 1950, buildings downtown — including the Market Square building, which had previously housed the City Market — began to be demolished to make way for surface parking lots. In the 1960s and 1970s, both Market Square and Allen’s Landing were turned into parks. Buildings in the district began to be converted to offices around the same period. The historic buildings now remaining on Travis Street and Congress Street, facing the park, represent what once was present on all sides of Market Square.
In 1974, Harris County proposed to level an entire block near Courthouse Square in order to build a new county administration building. Thanks to the efforts of concerned citizens, most of those building were saved. However, many property owners in the area reacted by demolishing their buildings before anyone could object. The number of buildings that have been lost make those remaining in the district that much more valuable.