Thursday, September 29, 2016

Foley's Fourth's (Would-Be) Fiftieth

In honor of what would have been the 50th anniversary of Foley's Almeda-Genoa's Grand Opening on October 1, 1966, as the department store's fourth store established in Houston, here's a look back at the photographic history of Almeda Mall in its earliest days.

And its earliest days reach back five years prior, to 1961.

The boom of the post-war era that spurred unprecedented growth across the country, as well as a seemingly endless supply of consumerism, had been good to Houston in 1961.

The optimism of the nation was tempered by the strains of the day: the Cold War that spurred both the construction of the Berlin Wall overseas, as well as the national interest in fall-out shelters and drills and taught a generation of children to "duck and cover"; the fight for civil rights gaining national attention as Freedom Riders, sit-ins, and school integration made the nightly news across the country; Vietnam not yet the debacle it will become; President Kennedy embroiled in both the disaster that is the Bay of Pigs on the one hand, and pushing the nation to embrace the Space Race to the moon with the Apollo program on the other. 

As all periods, we struggle as a nation through both the reckoning of our own ugly history and the incredible heights that our innovation and drive offers the future. 

In 1961 of great interest to the whole of Houston is the announcement that NASA will be erecting its manned spacecraft center on 1000 acres in Clear Lake to engage in the great Space Race of the decade. 

That same year, Foley's executives start scouting for a location along the Gulf Freeway for a satellite store that would draw the growing populations along the southern artery of Houston, right through Clear Lake, and all the way down to Galveston Bay. 

The aerial below, taken by Harper Leiper in August 1961 has the trapezoidal plot of Almeda Mall property traced in ballpoint pen. What's remarkable is the absence of almost everything else, save for a couple of brand new housing developments among acres and acres of cow pastures that were once rice paddies. The young Beverly Hills neighborhood stands gleaming in its treeless early state at the far center left of the photo. 

There is no Fuqua or South Belt to speak of, no exits or roads, no homes. But the Gulfway Drive-In Theater is visible, far center right. And Houston Municipal Airport, which would not become "Hobby Airport" for another six years, visible top left, had been in operation as the City of Houston's main airport for 25 years.

Foley's is looking carefully at this land in contention against a parcel closer in, at Airport and the Gulf Freeway, and farther out, down at Webster at the Gulf and 528. 

One page of handwritten notes taken during a meeting during this time and unearthed among the University of Houston's Foley's Archives noted that "Maury" thinks Almeda-Genoa is just too dang far away from Houston to support such an enterprise!

A July 31, 1962 memo seems to be leaning toward the Webster location, but there appear to be unknowns about Del Webb's Clear Lake development that might hinder that choice, as "We have not been able to shake information loose from Del Webb's Houston office." 

By early 1963, the Webster location seems to have been removed from contention, narrowing down to either Airport Blvd. or Almeda Genoa. The drive time between the two options is under 3 minutes .  . at least with 1963 traffic.

By March 1963, it had been decided. Almeda-Genoa offered more affordable land options for growth. Interestingly, this is the first memo I found that suggested they had also considered Edgebrook!

They commissioned another aerial of the land that same month, with the trapezoid outlined in red and Almeda-Genoa and Shaver written in black. 

In this aerial, the additional three years of development in Beverly Hills is readily apparent. The Fuqua turnabout had been laid in, but there is still no Fuqua street. 

Early June of 1964 a memo circulates regarding another new housing development taking shape: "Sagemont Addition on Gulf Freeway."

It reads in part, "Mr. Burge reports 48 houses built. They are selling an average of nine houses a week at present." It notes the formal opening of the subdivision is July 1 and the homes are primarily being purchased by white-collar manager-level men of the plants along the Ship Channel, and that the Sagemont group is willing to "establish a second entrance to Sagemont at the nearest point to Foley's (Fuqua overpass) if we are going forward anytime soon."


So it would appear the "Sagemont Group" (Ayreshire) spearheaded the paving of Fuqua thanks to the arrival of Foley's Almeda-Genoa. 

A second aerial was commissioned in September 1964 that included the new Sagemont homes to the south. Sagewood, Sageville, Sageway, Sagedowne, Sageoak and the start of the very first homes to be built in Sageland are visible. Nothing beyond yet exists.

By then things were in full swing. The formal announcement by Max Levine included the assertion that "[T]he Gulf Freeway branch will be a complete department store. It will occupy three floors." (It only ended up with two.)

"Federated Department Stores, Inc, has constructed some of the nation's most modern suburban developments and the new Foley's on the Gulf Freeway will incorporate the most advanced features of branch operations. 'The meteoric rise of the Southwest area must be recognized,' Mr. Levine said, 'and Foley's will be ready to meet the challenge.'"

It also had a very optimistic open date announced for March 1965!

 Of note:

"Sagemont residential subdivision, which is slightly less then [sic] one miles from Foley's property line, has urged that we move forward with a store to serve their homes. They will not put in a center if we develop soon. . ."

For the next generation, kids around the South Belt area will attest, Almeda Mall was our town center. 

Signs went up for the coming Foley's in what appeared, to a lot of people, to be the middle of nowhere.

(looking north with the Almeda-Genoa overpass in the background)

(looking south from the Almeda-Genoa overpass)

Alas, the March 1965 opening was not to be. It was not until November 23, 1965, that the formal groundbreaking ceremonies were conducted, with an open date of October 3, 1966.

The groundbreaking ceremonies were at 10:00 that November morning "at the big sign at the southwest corner of the Gulf Freeway and Almeda-Genoa Road." There is mention that a "film strip for TV" would be included in the publicity, but those movies elude me. 

The dignitaries on hand included Milton S. Berman, the President of Foley's, County Judge Bill Elliot, and Mayor of Houston, Louis Welch
and the first page of the list of invitees included every nearby mayor: Alvin, Seabrook, Webster, Kemah, Pearland, Pasadena, Deer Park, LaPorte, League City, LaMarque, South Houston, Brookside Valley, Clear Lake Shore, Shore Acres, Texas City, Friendswood, Morgan's Point, and Taylor Lake Village. Whew! That's a lot of mayors.

The remaining two pages of the list of invitees included press people, County Commissioners and Judges, as well as Engineer and Construction principals.

a view east, across the Gulf Freeway

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

And with that little ceremony, construction for the Foley's and planning for the rest of the mall was off and running. 

By June, a memo of interested tenant competitors was circulating, with three cafeterias in the running.

In March of 1966, one surviving memo deals with the choice to go with 90° parking instead of angled lots as, "[i]t gives a woman driver more flexibility."

Foley's internal newsletter, the "Port-Foley-O" included photos of the construction in June 1966:

Some of the copy addresses those turquoise awnings so fondly remembered: 

"Walk under the giant blue fiberglass canopies and imagine the look of them lighted, as they will be, from underneath; and if you, like the architect, think in graphic language, you  may hereafter refer to them as "eyelashes"!

And then again in August, "Come on a Peeking Tour through Almeda-Genoa" 

The Rouse Company had their own publicity brochure with mock-ups of the whole mall:

The Grand Opening Ceremony memo includes the press coverage expected from The Houston Post, The Houston Chronicle, KPRC, KHOU, KILT, and KNUZ

Foley's longtime photographer for occasions, Bob Bailey, is noted to be on hand "for both still and movies for TV and small newspaper representation". I have located the still photographs from among the UH holdings as well as a visit to the Briscoe Center in Austin where Bailey's photographs are archived, but I have not, as yet, been able to locate any movies of that day.

And a Private Preview Showing was available to certain invitees on September 28, 1966 from 11 - 3 p.m. 

Another invitation found among the UH Foley's files lists the same date as a "Premiere Party" with cocktails from 5-8 p.m. 


The day after the sneak preview, the Port-Foley-O Newsletter featured photos from the newest branch:

Bob Bailey's photographs from the preview day included two fantastic shots of the Children's Shoe department and the playship built along the back wall, fondly remembered by a generation of South Belt area kids. But it looms so much larger in our memories!

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Finally, the Grand Opening arrived for the public. October 3, 1966
by permission, Bob Bailey Studios Photographic Archive
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

 From the Houston Chamber of Commerce newsletter of that month, the festivities included "a 'ribbon' of azaleas" cut by Houston Mayor Louis Welch. The style is described as "contemporary Southwest" complete with custom made turquoise awnings over the 24 archways.

 The growth of the area was marketed to the mall tenants as a highly desirable peak growth area over the coming decades. 

One of the most interesting discussions unearthed was one that took place after Foley's Almeda-Genoa had already opened, later in the month of October, between the Federated Department V.P., the Rouse Company, as well as executives of Foley's.

It seems there was some attempt to change the name of the mall to be "matchy" with its twin mall, Northwest, by pairing them up in some way. Penney's, the other anchor store going in with the rest of the mall was also involved.

 By the end of the month Bill Shiffick had had quite enough of the naming discussion. 

"With regard to Almeda-Genoa, Bill White and his people have lost sight of the fact that for the last year we have been making reference to Almeda-Genoa. Prior to, and since, the opening of the store, our daily advertising has been pushing the name Almeda-Genoa. While I envision the possibilities of making a transition to another name as and when the remainder of the center comes into being, certainly the word 'Almeda' -- such as Almeda Mall, etc, should be retained."

And thus, Almeda Mall it became.

The following month, there was another dedication of the new Post Office at Foley's, only the second of its kind in Houston, open 24 hours a day. 

Fast forward to 1968 and Foley's was publishing photos of the fourth wall construction into the mall.

Thursday, October 10, 1968 the mall was open for business with 60 stores.


The 1968 Original 60 Tenants of Almeda Mall: 

In early 1969 the Houston Post came out to take photos of the mall. (Found in the archives of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library.)

About the same time, TRW Systems took this photo of the Jefferson family walking through the mall: 

Almeda Mall's first decade stretching from 1961 to 1969, from the assassination of President Kennedy to Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, from the British Invasion to Woodstock, the Cold War and the Vietnam War, the long march for Civil Rights and the early push for Women's Rights, and from molecular discoveries to the first man to walk on the moon, our little corner of the world came into being, with Almeda Mall as its epicenter. 

Unlike the "big" stuff, this might seem incidental to most. But for the people who worked and shopped and ate, mixed, and mingled, who shared date nights and lines for concert tickets and theater midnight showings, who learned to drive in the mall's parking lot, who met Santa and rode the train at Christmas and thus believed in magic as a child, or who tasted their first bit of freedom as young teens being dropped off in this "safe haven" to meet friends and flirt and fall in love? It was pretty special.

Some past Almeda Mall blog posts you might have missed:

The Original Almeda Mall Love Letter

Christmas 1976 at Almeda Mall

Pop the Champagne! The Discovery of the Foley's Shoe Ship Photos

From the Dobie Yearbook RoundUp: Almeda Mall

From Area Yearbooks: Almeda Mall

The Almeda Mall Jungle Animals at Doktor's Pet Center

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