An Elite Mansion, A Courthouse, and A Brewery
Was the NRC House really a part of Quality Hill
Correction: the original post identified the posted map as the 1869 Wood Map. It is the 1873 Birdseye Map. I apologize for this error.
According to Louis Aulbach, Peter Gabel started his brewery on Preston Street between Caroline and San Jacinto in 1849. Gabel was a skilled cooper who entered the brewing business after failing as a soap manufacturer. Beer was not the most popular drink in antebellum Houston. While early taverns advertised their porters and ales in Houston newspapers, there are no large stocks of beer found in the few extant records of inventories from this period. Perhaps there were local brewers of these English-style beers, but there is no reason to believe they were popular or produced in large quantities. Henry Schulte joined Gabel as a partner the next year and was likely the master brewer. This brewery grew during the 1850s. Schulte, however, left the partnership and started the second known brewery in Houston around 1854. The Gabel Brewery expanded its facilities in 1857.
1873 Birdeye Map of Houston. Circled is the Gabel Brewery complex, which included a brew house, a warehouse, and lodging. This map looks due south. Near the foreground is the Nichols-Rice-Cherry-House and behind it is the Harris County Courthouse. On the right are some tallish and massive buildings which contained many law offices.
The Houston Town Company designated Courthouse Square as public property in the 1836/1837 Borden Survey. Courthouse Square is Block 31, bounded by Fannin and San Jacinto, and by Congress and Preston. The present County Courthouse was opened in 1910. The courthouse portrayed in this 1873 map was the second building to serve this purpose. A traveling landscape artist, Thomas Flintoff, captured a watercolor image of both the Harris County Courthouse and the Nichols-Rice-Cherry House in 1852.
The Nichols-Rice-Cherry House (NRC) is preserved at Sam Houston Heritage Park in downtown Houston. The first owner of the house was Ebenezer B Nichols, a successful Houston merchant. He built the house around 1850. If he ever lived there, it was only briefly, because he left for Galveston to establish a branch mercantile store. He sold the house in 1852 to his business partner, William Marsh Rice, who later established the trust for Rice University. So Flintoff captured the house when it was only about two years old and as it appeared when Rice first occupied it. It was a stately Greek Revival with a wrap-around double gallery.
Local historians constructed the narrative of Quality Hill in part around the NRC. According to this narrative, there was an elite residential neighborhood which emerged along a corridor of the Second Ward of Houston in the 1850s. This account depends upon thinking of these elite houses as disembodied artifacts rather than thinking of them in terms of their relationship within a neighborhood. While this essay does not treat the Quality Hill narrative as a whole, I regard it as flimsy. However, this brief essay only demonstrates that the NRC could not be a part of Quality Hill if such a neighborhood existed.
There is no surviving map of Houston from the early 1850s and only incomplete records for the neighborhood. However, we know the precise locations of the NRC, the Harris County Courthouse, and the Gabel Brewery. They were still at the same locations in 1873. The NRC was directly opposite of the courthouse, which in addition to lawyers, its comings and goings included criminal defendants, and there was a jail on the premises. Walking out of the front portico of the NRC, it was just one block south on San Jacinto and a half block on Preston that separated this elite mansion from the first brewery in Houston. These were their relative locations in 1869, but the Gabel brewery and the courthouse were already established here before the NRC was constructed on Lots 1 and 2 of Block 22 at the northwest corner of Congress and San Jacinto. The salad days of Quality Hill were ostensibly in the 1850s when Rice lived in the NRC.
Even in 1852, the NRC was located in proximity to non-residential properties. The brewery is arguably a nuisance, even by standards of some antebellum cities. The courthouse is clearly non-residential. Based on American vernacular, “residential neighborhood” means an area where only residential land use is permitted. “Elite” implies something even more restrictive. There is no denying that the NRC was an elite house, but this elite house was not located in an elite neighborhood, nor was it located in a residential neighborhood. It was located in a mixed-use neighborhood. Therefore, if an elite residential neighborhood existed in 1850s Houston, the NRC was certainly not a part of such a neighborhood.
Louis F. Aulbach, Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings (Houston: Louis F. Aulbach, 2012).
Barrie Scardino Bradley, Improbable Metropolis: Houston’s Architecture and Urban History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020).
Dorothy Knox Howe Houghton, et al, Houston’s Forgotten Heritage: Landscapes, Houses, Interiors, 1824-1914 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).
Sidonie Sturrock, “Uncovering the Story of Quality Hill, Houston’s First Elite Neighborhood: A Detective on the Case,” Houston History Magazine 12:2 (2015), 7-12.