For thirty years, Sandra Lord all but lived in Houston’s tunnels. By day, she led tours of the six-and-a-half-mile underground system, a labyrinthine mall that connects City Hall with Discovery Green and the largest downtown office buildings. She bought the first of her two parakeets, Bonnie and Clyde, in a defunct pet store under the old Woolworth building (now a parking garage), ate Vietnamese dumplings almost every day for lunch in the Houston Center on McKinney Street, and got her hair done at Red’s Barber Shop under Fannin. Now in her eighties and in a wheelchair, she entered the tunnel loop last month for the first time in five years. Uncharacteristically, she was speechless.
In the central connection of the entire tunnel system, at 919 Milam, the fluorescent lights were dimmed and almost all the retail spaces were gutted. “For Lease” signs dotted many doors; in other businesses, chairs were stacked on the tables as if we’d wandered in right before closing and not at noon, during what was once peak business hours. “I almost burst into tears,” Lord told me later. “This area used to be booming.”
The story of Houston’s tunnel construction is in many ways the story of Houston itself, driven by rapid expansion and a volatile boom-and-bust cycle. Entertainment magnate Will Horwitz first dug tunnels in 1935 to connect three of his movie theaters under what is now JPMorgan Chase Tower, in part to help patrons avoid the Houston heat. As much a showman as he was a businessman—live hogs occasionally roamed his theaters—Horwitz was inspired by New York’s Rockefeller Center and had the idea to populate the tunnels with businesses. Click to read more at www.texasmonthly.com.