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Wednesday, November 18, 1998
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 62

About the Cougar

By Lisa M. Chmiola
Features Editor 

The year was 1898. Houston was a city of about 40,000 -- smaller than Dallas, San Antonio and even Galveston.

That was the year 24-year-old Jesse Holman Jones moved to Houston. After managing his uncle's lumberyard in Dallas, Jones was ready to go into business for himself by establishing his own chain of lumberyards.


One hundred years later, signs of Jones and his contributions to the city are all around us. There are those that bear his name, like the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, and those that don't, including the Rice Hotel and the Houston Chronicle.

Jones also has ties to UH, through a grant for a power house in the late 1930s and the funding of the Fred J. Heyne Building.

But perhaps most importantly, more than 40 years after his death, his legacy lives on through the philanthropy of the Houston Endowment Inc., a foundation which donates about 50 percent of its grant dollars to education.

Jesse Jones: the man, the city, the ship channel 

Jones was born April 6, 1874, in Robertson Country, Tenn., about 30 minutes north of Nashville. After his arrival in Houston 100 years ago, Jones formed his first corporation, the South Texas Lumber Co. Soon afterward, he was building small houses south of downtown.

But Jones' destiny was to construct skyscrapers. By the time he finished, he had added 35 towering structures to Houston's skyline.

Jones began construction on the first skyscraper, the nine-story Bristol Hotel, in 1907. The following year, two more were added.

Meanwhile, Jones became the first chairman of the Houston Harbor Board in 1913 and was instrumental in fundraising for the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914. Congress promised half the needed funding if the other half was raised locally, and Jones stepped to the plate to raise the funds.

"The opening of the Houston Ship Channel internationalized Houston overnight," said Steven Fenberg, historian for the Houston Endowment.

1913 also saw the opening of the new Rice Hotel (a previous incarnation of the hotel, built in the late 1800s, previously stood on the location), which would become a social hub of the city.

During the Democratic National Convention of 1928, which Jones brought to the city, convention participants would rush back to the Rice after meetings, since it was the only place in town featuring cooled air (provided by machines that blew the air over ice).

Dinners and dances, as well as UH fund-raisers, were among the events held at the Rice before its closing in 1977. The hotel re-opened this year as apartments.

Jones expanded into the media market by constructing the 10-story Houston Chronicle building at the turn of the century. In return, Jones received a half interest in the newspaper, and would become sole owner in 1926.

In 1927, construction of the 16-story Lamar Hotel on Main Street was completed, where Jones and his wife would live for the rest of their lives.

In 1929, Jonesi Gulf Building, a 35-story Art Deco skyscraper that would remain Houston's tallest for more than 30 years, was completed. That same year Jones expanded his media interests with the acquisition of KTRH radio (which, at that time, broadcast from the Rice Hotel). In later years, Jones would add Houston's ABC affiliate, KTRK, to his media pool.

Jones' final contribution to the Houston skyline was the Houston Club Building, completed in 1955 on the site of his first building, the Bristol Hotel.

"At one point downtown before the 1970s building boom, everywhere you looked was a Jones building," said UH history professor Joe Pratt.

"They called him ‘Mr. Houston,i" Pratt said.

Jones lends a hand to UH

The Great Depression of the 1930s found Jones in Washington, D.C., as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. Under his direction, the RFC bought stock in banks and provided grants nationwide. As conditions improved, the banks re-bought their stock.

"It was an important part of the recovery efforts in the New Deal," Pratt said of Jones' work as the "New Deal's banker."

During this tenure, Jones received a special request from a group of Houstonians. According to In Time, a history of UH's first 50 years, a resolution was passed at a 1938 banquet urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jones and others involved in the New Deal to approve a requested grant for UH, which was then preparing to move to a permanent location. As head of the RFC, Jones helped obtain funding, which was mainly used to fund utilities for the new campus centering on a power house.

Also that year, Jones was named honorary chairman of the an executive committee charged with raising $1 million for the new campus.

But perhaps Jones' most lasting gift to UH came in 1955: the donation of the Heyne Building through the Houston Endowment. 

Engraved in the marble wall of the main entry to the building are Jones' comments announcing the dedication of the building: "Our stipulation will be that this building be named for my associate of a half-century, Fred J. Heyne, without which association I could not have spent 13 years in public service in Washington."

Heyne began his duties as Jones' business manager in 1908 and gained power of attorney over Jonesi finances when he left Houston to serve as director general of military relief for the Red Cross in 1917. According to Fenberg, Jones' efforts in recruiting nurses and doctors and organizing supplies joined several smaller groups and made the Red Cross the organization it is today.

"(Heyne) ran everything for Mr. Jones," Fenberg said. "Without Heyne, Jones couldn't have left Houston."

When Jones went to Washington in the 1930s and '40s, Heyne once again took full control of all the business deals, and continued to manage Jonesi estate until his retirement in 1964.

The legacy lives on

Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, founded the Houston Endowment in 1937 by contributing $1.05 million in stock. The first grant made by the foundation, designed for charitable and educational organizations, was $20 to the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia, where President Roosevelt received treatment for polio complications.

That first year, the foundation gave about $9,000 in grants. Since then, more than $650 million has been given to groups in Houston and other communities. The Houston Endowment, worth approximately $1.5 billion, now grants about $50 million a year to schools, scholarship programs and human service organizations.

Since 1940, 115 grants totaling nearly $11 million have been given to UH, much of them for scholarships. One of the Houston Endowment's most recent grants in April provided $2 million for The Honors College, the Law Center and the African-American Studies Program.

Additionally, 24 grants totaling more than $8 million have been given to UH-Downtown since 1980, and 29 grants totaling more than $1 million have gone to UH-Clear Lake since 1974.

"(Jones) understood the reciprocal relationship with his community," Fenberg said, calling the foundation an example of "use of capitalism for the common good."

He added that Jones and many others of his era felt that, in order to achieve personal success, the community must prosper.

"Houston has this can-do kind of spirit, and I think a lot of that comes from people like Jesse Jones," Fenberg said.

"It's important to remember people like this ... so we can learn from them." 

Reach Chmiola at

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