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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Atlanta, c. 1972

Songwriter Bettye Crutcher, singer Billy Eckstine, Novella, and Lydia Isbell, wife of Al Bell (co-owner of Stax from 1970-1975). Photo taken around 1972.

Corrected: It turns out the photo was taken not in Houston's Shamrock Hilton, but in Atlanta, on Lydia's birthday. But that's Billy Eckstine for sure, and I'll keep the 1985 New York Times story below about the hotel's demise.

New York Times, December 29, 1985
by Robert Reinhold

Older Houstonians still talk about the dazzling night of March 17, 1949, when Glenn McCarthy, the wealthy wildcatter, threw a blowout party to open his new Shamrock Hotel.

He brought in a trainload of celebrities from Hollywood to christen the hotel, 18 stories of superlatives: the world's largest bath towels, a swimming pool big enough to ski in, a 1,000-car garage with four brands of gasoline and a refrigerated garbage room ''to retard the development of odors.''

It was a hotel that Texans, flush with new oil money and not averse to displaying it, could be proud of. Over the years the hulking tan brick hotel with its roof of emerald-green tiles came to symbolize the brash and daring style that made Houston great, rich and, to some, a bit crude. Countless oil deals were struck there, and many a fortune made or lost over a handshake, or sometimes a punch, in its bottle club.

The other day the current owner, the Hilton Hotels Corporation, announced that it would close the landmark hotel because it was unable to compete in Houston's lagging economy. The announcement marked more than the end of a hotel.

For the Shamrock Hilton, as it is now called, was sold - almost given away, in truth - to the Texas Medical Center, a loose federation of 32 hospitals and medical colleges that adjoins the 22.6-acre tract.

Symbol of Houston's Change

The Shamrock is valued at $46 million, but the Texas Medical Center paid $14.9 million. The remaining $31.1 million was a gift from Hilton, presumably for tax benefits.

The sale is a symbol of changing economic realities in Houston, of a painful passage into uncharted waters for America's fourth largest and, in many respects, most unusual city.

The battered petroleum industry, long the source of Houston's wealth and distinctive identity, is receding, and Houston's leaders are turning to the city's thriving medical institutions, among other things, to provide the gushers of the future.

The medical center, an administrative structure that provides services to the member institutions and maintains common property, is one of the few Houston enterprises that is expanding. It now covers more than 500 acres, and includes such prominent institutions as the Baylor College of Medicine, the M. D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, Methodist Hospital and the Texas Heart Institute.

Center Has 47,000 Employees

The medical center, bursting at the seams with 47,000 employees and 11,000 students, has yet to disclose its plans for the property. It is generally assumed that the hotel will be razed.

When it opened, the Shamrock's site was the southern fringe of Houston. Mr. McCarthy, who celebrated his 78th birthday Christmas day and who still sometimes lunches at the hotel, is said to have spent $21 million on it. No expense was spared. Every room had air-conditioning and television, rare amenities in those days.

The Shamrock had a staff of 1,200, headed by a manager imported from the Waldorf-Astoria. The 5,000-square-foot lobby still exudes the flavor of those days, with its paneling of Bolivian mahogany and its Art Deco trim. Mr. McCarthy ordered almost everything done in shades of green, in honor of his ancestral Ireland.

Some cynics said that for Mr. McCarthy, the son of a laborer who became a millionaire the Texas way, by striking oil, the hotel was a bid for social acceptance. In the words of a Life magazine account, ''He is barred from several Texas clubs which have found that he works, drinks and brawls with equal vigor.''

'Most Dazzling Exhibition'

The opening-night guests included Ginger Rogers, Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Pat O'Brien, Hedda Hopper, Errol Flynn and Don (Red) Berry, who waas a cowboy actor shown in a Life photograph as he ''gallantly sips from slippers'' of an oil heiress. According to contemporary accounts, the noise and crush of guests, invited and uninvited, was such that Dorothy Lamour, trying to broadcast her radio show live, was cut off by the network and fled in tears.

It was, in Life's words: ''the most dazzling exhibition of evening dresses and big names ever seen in Texas. Everyone had to concede it was quite a party and quite a hotel.''

The next few years were just as tumultuous. A private bottle club, the Cork Club, became a center for oil dealing. One who remembers those days is Steve Chazanow, who has sold jewelry from his shop in the lobby for 36 years. ''The Shamrock brought together most of the oil people, and million-dollar deals were made over handshakes,'' he said. ''The Cork Club was the only place you could go into, mind your own business, and get the stuffing kicked out of you.''

True to form for a rough-and-tumble wildcatter, Mr. McCarthy, lost his fortune and his hotel. After the Equitable Life Assurance Society foreclosed, Hilton acquired the Shamrock in 1954.

Still, it remained a fixture, where Houstonians could dance to the music of big bands in the Emerald Room. For the last 10 years the Shamrock has been the site of the annual Western Heritage Sale, where prize bulls and horses are auctioned from the stage of the grand ballroom before crowds of wealthy ranchers and oilmen in tuxedos and cowboy boots.

But these are hard times for hotels in Houston. The slump in the petroleum industry and the loss of Mexican clientele because of the collapse of the peso have left the city vastly oversupplied with hotel rooms. Only the other day the downtown Sheraton Houston declared bankruptcy.

The Shamrock, still the second largest hotel in Houston with 735 rooms and 245 suites, was not prospering. It had become frayed around the edges and, in the judgment of Hilton, was not worth remodeling.

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