The owners of the Houston Chronicle announced late Monday that they plan to leave their longtime downtown Houston headquarters and relocate to a 21-acre property near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and the West Loop once occupied by their former rival, the Houston Post.
For some employees of the Post, like myself, the building, which resembles the Alley Theatre, was affectionately known as "Fort Hobby."
When the Chronicle purchased the assets of the Post from Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group after a fierce Houston newspaper rivalry came to an end in 1995, it included the contemporary building built by the Hobby family. For some Post employees, like myself, the building, which resembles the Alley Theatre in design and looks like a concrete castle, was affectionately known as "Fort Hobby."
As a cub reporter at the paper in the early 1980s, I was among a small group of new employees who had tea with owner Oveta Culp Hobby in her top-floor office, with a magnificent marble fireplace, antique rugs and fine furnishings. Mrs. Hobby, as everyone called her, periodically welcomed new reporters in this manner, with fine china and good conversation, but otherwise largely stayed away from the newsroom on the floor below.
The Hobbys sold the paper to the Toronto Sun in 1983. Four years later, MediaNews Group bought the paper.
The building has remained largely empty since then, although an adjoining structure that houses the presses has been used by the Chronicle to print the daily newspaper.
Over the past 15 or so years, rumors have occasionally surfaced that the Chronicle would abandon the downtown space for the former Post property, which is accessible from two freeways and has lots of land for parking. But the cost of removing asbestos from the building and bringing it up to code were considered prohibitive.
However, with prices of prime real estate skyrocketing to record levels, seasoned real estate observers surmise that the Chronicle's parent company, the Hearst Corporation, figured it is a good time to sell the downtown block, which is strategically situated between office towers and the increasingly residential highrises planned around Market Square. But in moving, the newspaper is giving up a big chunk of its history.
Iconic Houston businessman Jesse H. Jones financed construction of the 10-story building at 801 Texas Avenue in 1909 and in 1926 acquired the newspaper. In the 1960s, the building was revamped with a more modern-looking stone-and-glass exterior. Yet it has a strange configuration, cobbled together from four buildings on the block, and isn't easy to navigate. I never quite got used to the layout when I worked there after the Post closed.
Ambitious plans to refurbish the downtown Chronicle building as a state-of-the-art news facility vanished in the early part of this century as former newspaper readers increasingly turned to the Internet for information and profits plunged.
A "significant renovation" of the former Post property is expected to take 18 months, Chronicle officials said.