Monthly Archives: July 2008

Epsom Downs and Arrowhead Park

[Epsom Downs]

[Epsom Downs newspaper advertisement]

[A.J. Foyt at Arrowhead Park –]

[Monorail prototype at Arrowhead Park –]

Pari-mutuel wagering was first legal in Texas from 1933 to 1937, during which time the two top horse racing tracks in the state were Arlington Downs, between Dallas and Fort Worth, and Epsom Downs in Houston. Arlington Downs was constructed and opened in 1929 by William T. Waggoner, at a cost of $3 million. Between 1929 and 1933, Waggoner used the park for prize races and civic events, and participated in the lobbying efforts that helped bring about the Texas state legislature’s legalization of pari-mutuel betting. Waggoner lived to see Arlington Downs’ early success, but died in 1934.

Epsom Downs was built at a location off Jensen Drive, then known as the Humble road, about six miles outside what were then the city limits. It was named after the famous Epsom Downs in England, site of the English Derby – the San Antonio paper did not think much of the name, opining that “Houstonians could have picked better.” The park was built by Montreal turfman Lou Smith, who had built the Rockingham Park track in Salem, New Hampshire. Epsom Downs was a replica of Rockingham Park (though papers often reported it as being a replica of the English park), and was built – in a hurry – for somewhere in the range of $400,000 to $600,000 (reports vary). The grandstand seated 4,000, and a terrace in front of it provided standing room for 25,000.

The inaugural race at Epsom Downs occurred on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1933, just after the end of a successful meet at Arlington Downs. The feature race was the six-furlong Thanksgiving Day Handicap. Governor Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson attended with her husband, former governor Jim Ferguson, skipping the annual U.T./A&M football game. Approximately 30,000 other spectators were also in attendance to see Gift of Roses win the handicap.

The Epsom Downs meet lasted 27 days and featured a “Galveston Day”, a “Port Arthur Day”, a “Beaumont Day”, a “Fort Worth Day”, a “Dallas Day”, a “Waco Day”, a “Temple Day”, an “Austin Day”, a “San Antonio Day”, and a “Corpus Christi Day”. More than 1,000 throroughbreds pariticipated.

Opponents of pari-mutuel wagering were successful in having the betting laws repealed in 1937, but the pari-mutuel wagering lobby did not abandon its cause. In the 1940’s, Houston oil man George H. Echols joined the fight. By 1947, a bill was introduced in the Texas legislature that would again make betting on horses legal in Texas.

Like Waggoner before him, Echols began building his horse track while pari mutuel wagering was still illegal. A February 9, 1947 newspaper article reported: “A racing plant estimated to cost $1,250,000 will open [in Houston] late in May, George H. Echols, Houston oil man, announced today. He said he expected to offer a year-round sports program with quarter horse races, rodeos, trotting races, horse shows, and cattle shows.”

An article published the next day suggested that Echols’ plans were unrelated to the bill pending in the Texas legislature, saying that Echols planned to build the race track regardless of the bill’s outcome. “Echols isn’t concerned over whether the bill passes or not; he’s going to conduct his racing strip for the sport that’s in it.” Echols was quoted as saying: “For a long time, it has been my ambition to build a race track for quarter horses. Those are the horses that had so much to do with building Texas. Quarter horses, sometimes called range horses or cowponies, are dear to the heart of all true Texans.”

The park would be called Arrowhead Park. It would encompass 121 acres, and the track would be a half mile oval with three-eighths of a mile straightaways. The grandstand would seat 3,450, the bleachers 1,500, and the clubhouse 300. Echols was installing a $68,000 light system so that events could be held at night.

A March 7, 1947 newspaper article reporting that the pari mutuel wagering bill was having a difficult time getting out of committee put a rest to any notion that Echols was building Arrowhead Park purely for the love of the sport. The article noted that Echols “already is building Arrowhead Park, a $1,250,000 racing plant on Old Spanish Trail six miles from downtown Houston.” If the Texas legislature did not pass the bill, said Echols, he would go forward with a plan to build a horse track just across the Louisiana border: “Then the Texas money can continue to flow out of Texas and the Baptist preachers can continue to stick their noses into politics, instead of staying in their pulpits.”

Arrowhead Park was built, but the pari-mutuel wagering bill did not pass. The park hosted quarter horse racing starting in June 1947. However, without betting, the venture was apparently not successful. By September, it was reported that Echols had leased the park to “miniature auto racing interests”. In 1954, ran for state representative, campaigning “on a platform of liquor by the shot and local option for horse racing,” but did not win.

Arrowhead Park would become known for auto racing and not horse racing. Indeed, Heights-born A.J. Foyt raced (and crashed) his father’s midget car at Arrowhead Park in 1955.

In that same year, a monorail prototype created by a Houston company, Monorail, Inc., was exhibited at Arrowhead Park.

The Texas state legislature did not authorize pari-mutuel betting again until 1986.


Original DePelchin Faith Home Building (1913)

As an organization, the DePelchin Faith Home (now the DePelchin Children’s Center) dates back even further than 1913. Houstonian Kezia Payne DePelchin was born in 1828, in the Madeira Islands. She lost both her mother and father by the time she was eight, and was raised from that age, in Houston, by her father’s second wife, an English governess. She married during the Civil War, but the marriage failed. Immune to yellow fever, she spent many years as a nurse. She later became the first female matron at the Bayland Orphans’ Home for Boys.

DePelchin founded the “Faith Home” in 1892. While the home’s original purpose seems to have been to fund the care of two homeless children (elsewhere described as “three unwanted babies”), the home was organized to provide day care for the children of working mothers, charging only those mothers who could afford to pay.

DePelchin’s September 1892 report of donations to the “Faith Home” notes: “We have eight besides the matron, although they come and go. Per week, 75 cents; per day, 10 cents. None turned away. . . . This is for little children.” The report also mentions that “one of our little ones died and the cemetery company gave it a resting place.”

DePelchin herself died just a few months later, in January 1893. In that same month, in honor of her memory and to carry on her work, 100 Houston women organized the “DePelchin Faith Home”, which continued operating primarily as an orphanage.

In 1913, Jesse Jones commissioned a building for the orphanage at 2700 Albany, in the Fourth Ward. Jones also led the fundraising for the project, raising $55,000. The neo-Mediterranean-style three-story stucco building was designed by the St. Louis architecture firm Mauran & Russell, which also designed the Rice Hotel and the Hotel Galvez. The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance notes that “[i]ts broad eaves and sleeping porches were important features in the days before air conditioning when dozens of children lived here.”

Jones continued to raise money for the home after it was built. Copies of some of his fundraising letters, including letters to “Messrs. Neuhaus & Co.”, “Messrs. Sakowitz Bros.”, and Howard Hughes are posted on the DePelchin Children Center’s website. While all are very straightforward, one of the more humorous letters, to “Mr. Bassett Blakely”, reads: “You have not sent me your check for Faith Home. For all I know, you are responsible for some of these unfortunate children, and whether you are or not, you have got to kick in just the same. So come on across for $2,000. I asked you for $1,000 the first time, but you did not hear me.”

The orphanage relocated to its current Memorial Drive location in 1938, and the Albany building was later purchased by Lorraine Priester, who ran a club on the first floor called either the Rams Club or Ram’s Club (depending on the source) from the mid-1950’s to 1970. However, Priester carried on DePelchin’s philanthropic tradition by using income from the Rams Club to care for the elderly residents to whom she gave rooms on the upper floors of the building.

The Rams Club was an upscale private supper club frequented by leading Houston politicians. Houstorian commenter Elizabeth Rinker recalls it as a “fantastic place” featuring “dancing to Jose Ortiz’s orchestra,” and remembers her father being given the microphone “for several songs each and every time we went.” (Pianist and band leader Jose Ortiz was popular in the area as early as the 1940’s – a 1948 newpaper article describes Ortiz and Victor Lombardo (Guy Lombardo’s younger brother) playing together at the Balinese Room in Galveston. Ortiz’s history requires a separate posting.)

Other generations of Houstonians remember the building for the clubs that came later. In the 1970’s, a gay dance club called The Farmhouse was located there. The Farmhouse later became The Officer’s Club, popular during the disco age, and supposedly once visited by Robert Plant.

In the 1990’s, the 1913 building housed the memorable music club Emo’s – and, for a time, the after-hours club Club Some. (In 2000, the Houston Press reported that the building had been sold and that Club Some had already vacated, but that the general manager of Emo’s, which had been there for more than 10 years, promised that “[w]e’ll always be here.”) Reportedly, the swimming pool that Emo’s patrons will recall as a depository for empty beer bottles, remains.

While many Houstonians were sad to see Emo’s leave in 2002, the transformation of the Fourth Ward to “Midtown” was already underway and property values were on the rise, threatening the aging building’s existence.

The former DePelchin Faith Home building would have yet another patroness in Linda Bramlett Stewart. Stewart, along with her partners in HHN Homes LP, acquired the property in 2001 and renovated it to house condominiums. Stewart’s grandmother lived across the street from the building, which is now known as Villa Serena, and she remembered it from visits as a child.

More information:

M. McDermott Hamm, “Saving a Slice of Houston History – Good Brick Awards Honor Diverse Preservation Efforts”, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 26, 2003.

GHPA, 2004 Good Brick Awards, HHN Homes LP for Villa Serena.

J. Mathieu, “Pam’s Last Stand”, Houston Press, Apr. 25, 2002.