Our first look at the Houston Wards series gave a brief history of the ward system in Houston and how it all got started, which is an important piece of our community landscape. Now, it’s time to delve into each ward one by one. Houston has a personality like no other city, and each ward is defined by its history, real discoveries and culture. Our hope is that this series will encourage you to explore each ward and get lost in a city you thought you knew. We are counting the wards from one to six, and today’s lesson is about the history and community of Houston’s First Ward, both then and now.
Houston’s First Ward: The Landscape
Houston’s First Ward was chartered in 1839 along with three other wards to divide Houston’s residents into smaller districts and provide them with government representation. The First Ward covered the northwest portion of the city—bordered in part by Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou—and met the other three wards at the corner of Congress and Main.
It once served as the center of the city’s business district due to its proximity to the Market House and two railroad lines. The bayous also made this area a natural choice for Houston’s first port, creating the need for many warehouses and merchants to handle the region’s growing shipping needs. Because of this, the ward was home to mostly working-class people who were crucial to the flow of goods that took place through the area.
Among the commodities available for trade, fresh produce was in no short supply as much of the remaining land in the First Ward was devoted to farms. In fact, Commerce Street, the closest roadway to the docks was commonly known as Produce Row. Many of these early farmers were immigrants from Germany, but by the early 1900s, many Italian immigrants were settling into the district to open shops and other small businesses.
Allen’s Landing: A Legendary Origin
Allen’s Landing, the spot where Buffalo Bayou and White Oak Bayou meet, got its name because this area is where John and Augustus Allen, the founders of Houston, first landed when they came to Texas in 1836. It is now often referred to as Houston’s Plymouth Rock and is important in the tale of the city’s birth to many Houstonians.
This origin story has grown to almost mythological proportions, though it is unlikely that the current location of Allen’s Landing Park was the exact place the two brother’s first disembarked. Never-the-less, the surrounding area’s importance to the rise of Houston is undeniable.
The turning basin at the juncture of the two bayous made it a prime location for the city’s docks. The site would officially become Houston’s first port in 1841, where it would remain until the turn of the 20th century. After the debilitating Galveston hurricane hit in 1900, the need for a larger inland port was recognized. The Houston Ship Channel was commissioned, and several years later the Port of Houston was moved a few miles seaward from its original location at the end of Main.
Market Square: The City Hub
Market Square was donated to the city in 1854 by Augustus Allen and would serve as a public marketplace for produce and fish. It would become the catalyst of Houston’s First Ward status as the business center of early Houston and eventually a permanent Market House would be built there.
This spot was also the site of several of the town’s City Halls until it moved to its current location at Hermann Square in 1939. The first two city hall buildings burned down in 1876 and 1901, and the last city hall building to reside in the Market Square location was constructed in 1904. It was converted into a bus station when city hall was moved and was eventually torn down in 1960.
Modern-day First Ward
Houston’s First Ward is now a hotbed for artists and is home to countless galleries and artist studios. The Washington Avenue Arts District is a recognized cultural district and is the largest grouping of working artists in Texas, and plausibly in the entire the country.
A notable component of the Arts District is a five-building creative campus which is home to Spring Street Studios, Center Street Studios, Winter Street Studios, Silver Street, and The Silos at Sawyer Yards. These artists studios housed in re-purposed warehouse buildings are part of a redevelopment and preservation project.
Despite the conservation efforts of many, most of the original First Ward structures have been torn down to make way for more modern buildings and homes. However, portions of the original residential areas do also remain and are protected in the High First Ward Historic District, which was a satisfying and long-awaited win for those who believe that preserving the ward’s history is tantamount to Houston’s heritage. Many of these homes are Queen Anne-style cottages or Craftsman bungalows built between 1890 and 1930 that represent the classic Texas architecture of that period.
Today Houston’s First Ward is also an attractive option for professionals working downtown. Offering a commute of just a few short minutes, the ability to avoid the city’s infamous traffic makes the area especially appealing to many younger workers. This demand for housing has resulted in many townhomes being built in the area. The strange spattering of old mixed with new, and industrial mixed with small businesses makes for a diverse range of sights.
Up next in our Houston Ward Series, we’ll take you through some of these unique sights of Houston’s First Ward.