In ‘Houston on the Move,’ the Bayou City Wakes Up

A pictorial history of Houston as it transformed, over and over again, between the 1930s and the 1990s.

August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
In October 1938, children and their dogs paraded down Houston’s Main Street in the aptly named “Mutt Parade.”

More than 200 images by Houston’s Bob Bailey Studios, collected in Houston on the Move: A Photographic History (excerpted here), cover its growth from a sleepy town to an oil-and-space industry colossus — a place always imagining its future. A commercial photographer often hired by Houston businesses and industries, Bailey photographed the city from a startlingly white point of view; few of his images reflect the town’s diversity, an absence that seems, in and of itself, a 20th century relic.

August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
These children are inspecting early Mercury Program rocket and space capsule models at a NASA location in Houston in August 1962, prior to the completion of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Clear Lake, 25 miles southeast of Houston, in September 1963. In very little time, Houston came to be identified with the future and with spaceflight in the minds of many Americans, who heard American astronauts communicating with their Houston headquarters during televised spaceflights, beginning with the mission of Gemini IV in June 1964.

But the studio’s work, archived at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, spans such a vast period of time — from the 1930s to 1991 — that the images create a pictorial history of Houston as it transformed over and over again. Captured in the book are multiple iterations of Houston — as an infant city with a handful of skyscrapers, in ruins after the 1947 Texas City Disaster, resplendent with Madison Avenue-like storefront displays, gritty and streamlined in the ’80s. Until this book, its introduction points out, many Houstonians “thought that their memories were the only record left of demolished buildings and city landmarks.”

August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
Line of Southwestern Bell telephone operators, ca. 1955. The telephone industry was one of the first major employers of women. This photo shows an example of the huge amount of human labor that went into maintaining communication industries prior to the digital age.
August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
Two unidentified people inspect one of a line of Electrolux refrigerators standing before a row of shotgun houses, ca. 1935. It is unclear whether Electrolux, another private donor, or even one of the New Deal programs supplied the refrigerators to the residents of the shotgun houses.
August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
A January 1963 aerial view of the intersection of Post Oak Road and the Southwest Freeway (US Highway 59). In postwar America, freeways were promoted as a tremendous improvement over the existing surface streets, which were often jammed with more cars than they were capable of handling efficiently. Bailey’s photo celebrates highways and freeways, an attitude long adopted by many professional American photographers regarding the nation’s industries and infrastructure.
August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
Allied Bank Plaza, located downtown at 1000 Louisiana, while it was under construction in 1982. When completed in 1983 at 71 stories, it became and remains Houston’s second-tallest building. It is known today as Wells Fargo Plaza.
August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
The Metropolitan Theatre’s promotion for the 1936 film version of H.G. Wells’ novel Things to Come, which was set a century in the future in the year 2036. In addition to the modernistic styling of the signboard, complete with a robot’s head, the Metropolitan utilized two employees dressed in “futuristic” costumes to draw attention to the film.
August 2016 culture houston photos historical
Bob Bailey Studios
Then U.S. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson is shown here during a June 1958 visit to Texas Children’s Hospital. Texas Children’s was dedicated in 1953 and admitted its first patient in February 1954; it is today the largest pediatric hospital in the world.

Nancy Nusser is the managing editor of the Observer.

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