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Sharpstown History and the Southwest Freeway
Last updated 27-July-2001, created 25-May-2001

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Summary of the history of Sharpstown

Westmoreland Farms was a 4000 acre tract of land just southwest to the urbanized area of Houston. In the 1940's, it was purchased by legendary oilman and wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, who was the inspiration for the film Giant (main character played by James Dean.) McCarthy had purchased the land at the urging or the president of Eastern Airlines, and McCarthy intended to promote the land as the site for Houston's new Intercontinental airport.

However, cost overruns at McCarthy's Shamrock Hilton Hotel (demolished in the 1980's) and production problems at his oilfield in Winnie, Texas ( 50 miles east of Houston) forced McCarthy to sell the land. In 1954, Frank Sharp and his partners took ownership of the land. Plans were announced for the huge housing development that would have 15,000 homes. Houston's business elite later purchased land for Houston's new airport 20 miles north of downtown Houston.

Numerous proposals were being considered for the Southwest Freeway, with land development interests all trying to get to get the best alignment for their property. Frank Sharp offered to donate a 300-foot-wide right-of-way strip through Sharpstown, and on September 27, 1957, his proposal was accepted by local authorities, with the promise that construction would be underway within 12 months. A Houston Chronicle report in 1959 stated that the construction did in fact begin in November 1958.

The centerpiece of the Sharpstown was its air-conditioned mall - Sharpstown Center. The mall was closely linked to the completion of the freeway, since customers from Houston would need the freeway to get to the mall. On August 1, 1962, the section of the Southwest Freeway from IH-610 West Loop to Bellaire Boulevard was officially opened in a ceremony underneath the IH-610 overpass. Sharpstown Center opened at about the same time. By the early 70's, the freeway was complete all the way through Sharpstown to Bissonnet Street.

Development of Sharpstown proceeded at a rapid pace and became everything Sharp dreamed of, providing everything residents of Sharpstown could ever need, from a golf course to hospitals. It even included three high-rise residential structures that look like something out of the Bronx. Even though those towers were financial failures, they were part of the plan to have a comprehensive community with everything. By 1972, Sharpstown was built-out residentially, and all that remained were a few commercial parcels.

But one of the elements of Sharp's development - numerous apartment projects - turned out to have unintended consequences. As early as the early 1980's, some of the projects in the area were going into decay. A huge apartment complex just east of Sharpstown (that was not part of Sharpstown itself) centered along Gulfton Street turned out to be ground zero for the devastating decay that afficted not just Sharpstown but all of southwest Houston. Harris County recognized the risk that the Gulfton zone apartments posed, and even became involved in a special investment zone that promoted a large apartment complex as a singles community. But saving the area was a losing battle, and all hope was lost when Houston's economy collapsed in 1986. Apartment landlords were forced to rent to anyone and everyone at rock-bottom prices. By the late 1980's, the Gulfton apartment zone had become known as the "Gulfton Ghetto" and became the headquarters for the notorious "Southwest Cholos" street gang ("SWC") which controlled most of Sharpstown. Most of the apartment complexes throughout Sharpstown had succumbed to decay, and many participated in government subsidized housing programs. Property values were hit hard, with housing typically selling for between $35 and $40 a square foot until recently.

In 1992, the major reconstruction and expansion of the Southwest Freeway through Sharpstown was completed. This greatly improved traffic flow in the area, but by this time, most of the traffic on the freeway consisted of motorists going to Sugar Land, where today's suburbs are rapidly rising from the coastal plain.

In spite of recent renovations, Sharpstown Center shopping mall is ailing and may ultimately follow the path of Houston's other malls from that era. On May 22, 2001, I watched as the last remains of Gulfgate mall were demolished. Northline Mall had previously been demolished. But the site of Gulfgate Mall is being redeveloped, and similarly, most of the retail space in Sharpstown that has been vacated has been put to new uses and has not been abandoned. The Cholos street gang was broken up a several years ago. So Sharpstown will likely avoid the fate of some areas that go all the way to bottom (such as nearby Fondren Southwest). In fact, starting around 1999 or 2000, there was a sharp upturn in property values in Sharpstown. I was astonished to recently find out that my parents' home is assessed at well over $100,000. (Several years ago, they couldn't give it away for $72,000). Is a Sharpstown renaissance possible? I would say it's possible, but not probable as long as all the apartments still exist. If only someone could wave a wand and get rid of those apartments that surround Sharpstown, Sharpstown would become the next Bellaire. But while a few complexes have been abandoned and/or demolished, most of them are going to be around for a long, long time.

No matter what happens, Sharpstown will always have the Southwest Freeway. And ultimately, the Southwest Freeway may be Sharpstown's biggest asset because of the time-saving transportation access and relatively short commutes compared to the distant suburbs in Sugar Land. Hopefully someday Sharpstown can go full circle and re-live its glory days of the 1970's.

Excerpt from Sharpstown Revisited: Frank Sharp and a Tale of Dirty Politics in Texas
Mickey Herskowitz
Eakin Press, Austin, Texas, 1994

Frank Sharp was forty-eight when he obligated himself to create the biggest real estate development in metropolitan Houston, and one of the most ambitious in the nation. The concept had been tried elsewhere: a community of upscale homes, with a world-class country club, churches and schools, and an air-conditioned shopping mall - more shops under a roof than anyone had ever before proposed. The key to the project was a road - no ordinary road, mind you. This was a $2 million-a-mile, multi-lane expressway that would speed people from their bedrooms in Sharpstown to their offices in downtown Houston in thirteen minutes and home again. Sharp would spend six years and millions of dollars waiting for the Southwest Freeway, as it was known, to become a reality. The vital artery wasn't designed for him alone, of course. No freeway in American history has been undertaken without the maneuvering of those groups who want it to wind past their property, avoid their property, or not be opened at all. Such disputes are so common that opposition to one major Houston road was unfinished for twenty-five years. During that time it was known simply as The Road to Nowhere.

The risk in any construction project depends on how much of it is based on speculation. If schedules are unmet, sales projections go out the window. Interest payments on short- and long-term loans can drain profits, setting in motion a dreary cycle of foreclosure and ruin. His community - Sharp's town - would be twice as big as Houston's most exclusive, residential neighborhood, River Oaks, developed in 1923 by the family of a former governor, James Hogg, and a young lawyer named Hugh Potter. River Oaks was a haven for the wealthy, beautifully planned and located in what was then the countryside but is now ten minutes from the inner city.

Sharp made his move at a time when bustling Houston was aglow with the promises of a modern freeway system that would serve one of the nation's most auto-dependent areas. Houston, with half a million private cars on the road - an average of more than two per family - was compared to Los Angeles but acted as a franchise for Detroit. On the drawing boards were grandiose plans for no-stop freeways, like the spokes of a wheel, feeding out of the central business district in all directions. They would be supported by an "inner loop" around the downtown skyscrapers, and an "outer loop" that roughly circled the city limits. Eventually, Houstonians would be able to drive nonstop to Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.

Sharp was confident that the state planners and engineers would respond to the needs of the thousands of suburban commuters. His assumption would be proven correct, six years later. The initial cost estimate was $300 million, and no one at the state level had yet figured out how it would be funded. The talk about the freeway had no special significance for Frank Sharp until June of 1954. That month, he was offered Westmoreland Farms, 4,000 acres of prairie land just nine miles to the south and west of Houston's central business district - the largest single undeveloped tract in the city. The sellers were David C. Bintliff, who had made his fortune in insurance and investments, and Dunbar Chambers, the president of a heavy construction firm, Farnsworth and Chambers, Inc. That land was to become the site of Sharpstown, and a story came with it. Glenn McCarthy, the legendary oilman, had acquired it in the 1940s, at the urging of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace who was then the president of Eastern Airlines. Glenn was on the airline's board and shared Rickenbacker's enthusiasm for the future of commercial air travel in the coming jet age. He intended to hold the land as the site of a future intercontinental airport. But McCarthy was in the mold of the true wildcatter, who made and lost fortunes on the turn of a card. He was the model for the character of Jett Rink (played by James Dean) in the movie version of Edna Ferber's novel, Giant. McCarthy's story was one of feast and famine. After one of his big finds, he built the nation's showiest and costliest postwar hotel, the Shamrock, which ran mulions over budget. About the same time, an engineering disaster had wiped out his wells at a town called Winnie. He was forced to sell, and Bintliff and Chambers bought him out for $400 an acre - a total of $1.6 million. They also assumed a $1 million note held by Prudential Life Insurance Co. Sharp, Bintliff, and Chambers formed the Sharpstown Development Corporation, and immediately pegged the value of the land at $1,500 an acre - a total of $6 million. Sharp held fifty percent of the stock.

The timing appeared flawless. July 3, 1954, was hailed as "M Day" in Houston. The census people had determined that the city's population would reach one million on that date, and a festival was planned to welcome the millionth citizen. A huge thermometer, its peak registering one million, was erected at the Main Street corner of the Rice Hotel, and the reading raised a notch a day. Bumper stickers were passed out that said, "I'm One in a Million." Whatever the numbers, Sharp had moved into a new class and it didn't take long to call the roll. The Houston newspapers gave his latest announcement a banner headline on page one: "SHARP ANNOUNCES HOUSTON'S BIGGEST HOME PROJECT." The story reported that he and his partners planned a $200 million "city" with 15,000 homes. The project was described as the largest of its kind ever undertaken. The legal papers were signed in the offices of CoL W. B. Bates, of the law firm of Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, Bates and Jaworski. The last named partner was Leon Jaworski, who nearly twenty years later, as the Watergate special prosecutor, would force the resignation of Richard Nixon as president.

For perhaps the first time, but surely not the last, Frank Sharp received national news coverage. Colonel Bates hailed him as 'the Number 1 subdivision developer in the nation." In a press release, Sharp was quoted as saying: "We realize this development will be in the spotlight because of its size and unusual features. We want it to be as nearly perfect as human ingenuity can make it." Now he found himself in the unusual position of waitin' on the road gang. The Southwest Freeway was a puzzlement of several parts. There were a dozen factions and hundreds of people in the act, most looking out for their own interests. Sharp was one of many. To the north, east and west, land owners and developers, some with the best intentions, proposed divergent ideas about how to fund the freeway and where it should be directed. All favored speedy action. The city and county fathers - there were no city or county mothers at the time - adopted Frank Sharp's proposal on September 27, 1957, and agreed to start construction within twelve months. He had donated a three-and-a-half-mile strip of land as a free right of way, amounting to 133 acres. Sharp was never reluctant to give a little to gain a good deal more. He was never more enthused, more elated, than in planning and supervising the beginnings of what people were calling Sharpstown City. Even in Texas, 4,000 acres is a sizable spread of urban land. It is nearly ten times the size of New York's Central Park and four times larger than downtown Houston. The flat, treeless prairie where David Bintliff's cattle had grazed allowed plenty of space for Frank Sharp's imagination.

Houston's main characteristic, and the one that appealed mightily to builders, was its flatness. It was as flat as pancake batter dropped on a hot griddle. Indeed, the county rises only a bit more than 300 feet in fifty miles. This natural feature of the land is what first strikes and often disheartens the newcomer. But to a builder it means swifter and cheaper construction. Unlike the older cities of the East - New York, Newark, Philly, and Chicago - Houston had no local political machine. The city was run by a tight circle of wealthy bankers and builders and oilmen, who for decades anointed the mayor and councilmen and regulated Houston's growth. Among these men were Jesse Jones; George and Herman Brown, the brothers who owned the construction giant, Brown and Root, and were considered Lyndon Johnson's major financial angels; Judge Jim Elkins, a jurist turned banker; J. S. Abercmrnbie, the oilman; R E. (Bob) Smith, a speculator in oil, land, and cattle; and Gus Wortham, a pioneer in the insurance industry. They were products of an era when it was permissible, even necessary, to be part buccanneer in order to succeed in business. There were the robber barons, the railroad monopolies, and oil cartels. It would be unfair to suggest that they were interested primarily in maintaining the traditional system of control and profits. In addition to their roles as power brokers, they were the city's benefactors, and they were joined by the likes of Will Hogg and Hugh Roy Cullen, who created two of the state's great family fortunes and helped endow hospitals, colleges, libraries, and museums. Frank Sharp was not yet in that league, but he was a contender. He lacked the temperament to be truly comfortable in anyone's circle; he was in many ways an independent, a loner, not a joiner.

It isn't likely that Sharp considered himself in a contest. He didn't yearn to know the secret handshake or accumulate the most money. He just wanted to win whatever race he was in at the time. He had a vision of a distinctive community where one would have quality choices in education, religion, medical care, or recreation. (If he had included a cemetery, no one would ever~need to leave.) He was convinced that schools, up through the college level, were essential to a complete urban development. Often, when he and Lucile met couples who had bought Sharp homes fifteen or twenty years earlier, he asked if they still lived in those houses. The usual answer was that the houses had to be sold as the children grew older, and cash was needed to send them away to college. Frank knew that the average life of a home mortgage was seven years, according to the FHA. He thought such a fast turnover was wrong in instances where it could be controlled. One answer was to provide schools where the homes were, thus keeping the families together until the time came for the second generation to move out on their own. Sharpstown, he hoped, would be such a place. His new "city" would also have houses of worship for many faiths. Its residents would have all manners of goods and services and culture convenient to their homes. It would be slum-proof by virtue of strict standards and restrictions. It would be varied in appearance and land use, thanks to a policy that encouraged qualified builders to bring their individual ideas, talent, and taste to the job site with them. They were limited only by their imagination and quality agreements that assured nothing would be built that was substandard. There would be no identifiable wall around Sharpstown to mark the perimeters. Rather, it would become a pacesetter for the future growth of an ever-expanding Houston. Within three years, an eighteen-hole championship golf course, three swimming pools (one of them Olympic-size), a Presbyterian and Lutheran church, and elementary and junior high s%zhools had been built, in addition to just under 2,000 homes. Four other church denominations had acquired land, and plans were being drawn for a Baptist college.

The jewel in the Sharpstown crown was the shopping center, with the merchandising space on the ground floor fully air-conditioned. The heart of the mall was enclosed, artfully lighted, and climate-controlled at a constant 72 degrees in summer or winter. The center was topped by a ten-story office tower that housed the Sharpstown State Bank on its lower level. Th~ center's leasable space, if stretched along Main Street, would have lined both sides for nineteen city blocks. There were sixty acres of paved and lighted parking space.

Delays in the construction of the Southwest Freeway postponed the opening of the mall to September of 1962. At several points along the way, Sharp might have been sidetracked altogether. In the fall of 1957, Dunbar Chambers was killed instantly by a shotgun blast while hunting pheasant in South Dakota. Chambers had been the link to Sharp's partners, a kindred spirit who worked the same long hours and worked the phone far into the night. The note Sharp had signed for Sharpstown Development came due, even as the affairs of Farnsworth and Chambers were being shut down, the company's end further complicated by IRS problems. The undeveloped land that secured the loan was now valued at $15 million, a conservative appraisal. Sharp was notified that unless he raised $5 million to retire the note, and money advanced for expenses, the property would be repossessed.

Forty-eight hours before the deadline, R. E. (Bob) Smith lumbered to the rescue on terms that were not exactly as light as popcorn. A playful golf opponent, Smith had a well-earned reputation as a hard bargainer when it came to money matters. He brought with him two of his partners, Clint Murchison of Dallas, one of America's five richest men, and Vernon F. (Doc) Neuhaus, a Rio Grande Valley banker and financier. They all stood in the Texas sunlight, in the reddish dirt of the freeway construction, overlooking what would one day be homesites and offices. Smith had agreed to buy up the Bintliff note and take title to the land. Sharp was given an option to acquire the remaining undeveloped acreage by paying a $3 million "premium" over and above the market price, and apart from what they had earned from the sale of the lots. With time running out and no alternative, Sharp accepted the terms. Still, the proposition was so one-sided that Murchison feared that they could be sued under the usury laws. Frank gave his word to Smith that he would not, and his partners were reassured. Two years later, with backing from George Brown, Sharp bought them out and paid off the bonus. In a new arrangement, Brown and Root became the contractor for the unfinished portion of the development.

After eight years of stress, financial pressures and political maneuvering, the Sharpstown Center opened in 1962 under klieg lights and TV cameras and a steady stream of traffic that emptied off the Southwest Freeway. In time, within the area, there would be two general hospitals, two colleges, three nursing homes, a high-rise for senior citizens, one private and one public high school, nine churches, a twin drive-in theater, a half dozen automobile dealerships, and an industrial park that covered 750 acres. It was everything Frank Sharp imagined, and more. He made his share of mistakes, on a scale that would have broken most developers, but his better judgments overcame them. They were in some cases the result of his instinct to test new and promising ideas, and his desire to set trends. He pounced on the condominium concept, so popular in New York, Florida and California, but Houston wasn't ready for it. He would have done better with igloos. He built twin high-rise towers, the Sussex East and Sussex West, and the Conquistador apartments, and each dropped into the loss column.

 
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