By Sandra Lord
Although the Downtown Houston Tunnel System is one of Houston’s best-kept secrets, most of downtown’s 150,000-person workforce – and hundreds of visitors – use it every week day, particularly when it’s raining or close to 100 degrees above ground. This system of air-conditioned sky walks and subterranean walkways has been given many different names – mall, concourse, connection, underground, promenade – but Houstonians continue to call it simply “the Tunnel.”
What IS the Tunnel? Depending on who is defining the Tunnel, it is as old as the 1930s or as young as the 1960s. In 1935, inspired by shops he had seen below Rockefeller Center in New York City, Will Horwitz connected his three theaters – the Iris on Travis and the Uptown and Texan on Capitol – with a tunnel constructed under Capitol between Travis and Milam. Located beneath today’s JPMorgan Chase Tower, Horwitz’s tunnel included shops, restaurants, a penny arcade, and German wine tavern.
In 1947, Foley’s Department Store (1100 Main Street, demolished in 2014) built a tunnel connecting its new building and parking garage. This tunnel was separate from other parts of the Tunnel System until April 2003 when it was connected under Dallas Street to a new tunnel under RRI Energy Plaza at 1000 Main Street. Although Foley’s Department Store no longer exists, the 2003 tunnel now connects the 1000 Main Street Building with the new Hilcorp Building, whose address is 1111 Travis Street.
In the 1950s, other downtown buildings were connected by tunnels and, during a construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s, private developers expanded the Tunnel to most of its present form. Tunnel connections continue today, with at least five new buildings in the planning stages or under construction.
Where Is the Tunnel? Set about twenty feet below Houston’s downtown street system, today’s seven-mile Tunnel is a series of underground passageways which, with above-ground sky walks, link 80 buildings to hotels, banks, corporations, government offices, restaurants, retail stores, and the Theater District. Only one building, Wells Fargo Plaza, offers direct visual access from the street to the Tunnel; otherwise, you must enter the Tunnel from street-level stairs, escalators, or elevators located inside a building connected to the Tunnel.
While the City of Houston’s portion of the Tunnel links the Theater District’s parking garages to Bayou Place, performance halls, City Hall, and the Lanier Public Works Building, the majority of buildings connected to the Tunnel are privately owned. These private owners execute legal agreements to connect to each other, forming a “system.” Each private building owner then leases space in its lower level (basement) to retailers and services. Many property owners decorate their sections of the Tunnel with unique flooring, recessed lighting, display windows, and art, so you usually can tell when you are leaving one building for another just by noticing the change in Tunnel decor.
What’s In the Tunnel? Just about every service – with the exception of a major supermarket – is available via the Tunnel. In addition to several major food courts, you will find shoe repair shops, sandwich shops, quality restaurants, snack bars, specialty shops, copy and printing services, post offices, express mail services, banks, flower shops, dentists, doctors, clinics, drug stores, optometrists, eyeglass centers, beauty salons, and barber shops.
The Tunnel is also connected to the Theater District’s performance halls and Bayou Place’s eight-screen Sundance Cinemas, Revention Center, and the Hard Rock Café, as well as to downtown’s only shopping mall, the Shops at Houston Center.
How Safe Is the Tunnel? Building property owners maintain security by placing guards at strategic locations throughout the Tunnel and by installing cameras to monitor pedestrian traffic. Building owners ask that you not take photographs in their lobbies. Wells Fargo Plaza requests that no photos be taken inside or from the building.
When Is the Tunnel Open? The Tunnel is open during regular business hours, Monday through Friday. It is closed at night, on weekends, and national holidays.
Finding Your Way through the Tunnel. The Houston Downtown Management District publishes several maps online, including an excellent interactive map. You can also order a copy of their printed Above & Below Downtown Houston Map by calling (713) 650-3022 during regular business hours.
At this time Discover Houston Tours does not offer tunnel tours. Please contact Mike Schmidt at Houston Urban Adventures at 832 768 9255 or Keith Rosen at Houston Historical Tours at 713 392 0867. Neither Urban Adventures or Houston Historical Tours are associated with Discover Houston Tours.
The Haunted Bar
La Carafe Bar, is housed in the oldest commercial building in Houston, and dates from 1847. It is on the national registrar of historic buildings, and believed to be the oldest bar in Houston in its original location.
It originally housed the Kennedy Bakery, and was passed down through several generations of Kennedys until sold to the Wenglar family in the late 1980’s. While there, you might run into a ghost that will tell you he’s a bartender at La Carafe. It seems that a long deceased bartender from La Carafe can be heard shouting out ,”Last call for drinks” from the second floor staircase. Maybe you can hear him if you are at the bar around midnight.
You might also run into a woman in a white dress who that kind of “floats around.” You’ll have to go on my ghost tour to get all of the details! Call me or fill out the convenient form on this website for ghost tour information. If you’re coming to Houston why not pay a visit to La Carafe Bar located at 1813 Congress. 713.229.9399.
Wardrobe Malfunction and the Houston Super Bowls
The first Super Bowl held in Houston was Super Bowl 8 on January 13, 1974. It pitted the Miami Dolphins against the Minnesota Vikings. Miami won the game 24-7. It was not held at the Astrodome, instead it was held at Rice Stadium. Reason-The Astrodome wasn’t big enough. 71,882 fans attended the game that day. The capacity of the Astrodome in 1974 was approximately 52,000. The Super Bowl did not return to Houston until 2004. That of course was the famous “Wardrobe Malfunction” Super Bowl 38 – No one remembers who played in the game, but they certainly remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. In case you are wondering, New England won the game against the upstart Carolina Panthers 32-29. It was played at Reliant Stadium, now called NRG Stadium. Then Houston hosted its third Super Bowl, 51, again played at NRG Stadium in 2017. In Overtime New England proved victorious against Carolina 34-28.
Watch Out Chicago
Since 1980 Houston has been the fourth largest city in the United States. If current growth patterns continue Houston will become the third largest city in the United States, surpassing Chicago sometime in the decade of the 2020’s. Here’s why. For the past 70 years Chicago has lost population in each census taken every 10 years. In fact Chicago’s population today is about the same as it was in 1920, about 2,700,000. Chicago’s population peaked in 1950 at 3,620,962, so as you can see the city has lost almost a million people in that period of time. There is no reason to believe that this downward spiral for Chicago will not continue for the foreseeable future. The years of 2015, 2016 and 2017 showed even more decline after a small increase in population since 2010. So it looks like Chicago will be at about 2,695,000 during the census in 2020. If you take some averages, Chicago has lost an average of 150,000 people each 10 year census period over the past 70 years so if we project that out to the 2030 census, Chicago’s population will be 2,540,000. Even if the population of Chicago stabilizes at its current level, it still appears that Houston will surpass the Windy City before 2030.
Unlike Chicago, Houston population has boomed over the past 100 years. According the World Population Review Website Houston ‘s population by 2020 will be 2,520,000. In fact when Chicago had 2,700,000 in 1920 Houston only had a paltry 138,000. Houston’s population then became to zoom into the stratosphere doubling every 20 years until 1970. Houston’s population gains since 1970 have averaged about 13% every 10-year census period, so any way you slice it, Houston will surpass Chicago as the United States third largest city by about 2028. It looks like Houston will be at 2,725,000 and Chicago will be at 2,540,000 by 2030.
The reasons that Chicago’s population has diminished and Houston’s population skyrocketed are numerous, some of them factual some of them conjecture. First , the factual- Houston took advantage of a Texas state law which allowed for a dominate city to annex unincorporated areas and make them part of the City of Houston. This practice was helped because Houston has a vast unincorporated land area that Chicago does not. The incorporated City limits of both cities favor Houston by a 3 to 1 margin so Houston had the room to grow within it city limits which through the middle part of the 20th. Century kept expanding.