It may be hard to believe now, but 25 years ago the east side of downtown Houston was a no-man's land of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. City officials convinced voters to pass a bond issue to build a new convention center in that location — and the rest is history.
The George R. Brown Convention Center celebrates its silver anniversary on Wednesday, but its distinctive industrial exterior, which resembles the Pompidou Center in Paris, has remained fresh and modern. It anchors a revitalized area of downtown Houston, with Discovery Green, Toyota Center and the Hilton Americas-Houston as neighbors.
George R. Brown Convention Center as seen from Discovery Green
The yellow outline denotes the 34 city blocks that George R. Brown's company, Texas Eastern Corp. piecemealed together in the 1970s for its ambitious Houston Center complex, one of the city's first mixed use projects. Texas Eastern donated the property at the bottom of the outline for construction a new convention center.
As this photo shows, downtown Houston’s east side resembled a lunar landscape in 1986 as the land was prepared for construction of the GRB.
Building the convention center "was a big momentum change for our industry," says Luther Villagomez, general manager of the George R. Brown and CEO of Houston First. (He was originally hired at an event manager to open the GRB in 1987). "Before that, there was a hybrid of the Astrodomain and the Albert Thomas Convention Center, which had served its life. We desperately needed (the new convention center) to compete with the rest of the country."
The GRB was planned as a state-of-the-art facility, which at the time meant it had enough pay phones to accomodate a crowd of 10,000, Villagomez recalled.
Houston was favored to host the 1988 Democratic National Convention, but DNC chairman Paul Kirk was worried the GRB wouldn't be completed in time for the convention, so he picked Atlanta instead. The convention center opened on Sept. 27, 1987 on schedule, nine months before the political convention, and under budget. Covering the opening for the Houston Post, I wrote, "Eat your heart out, Paul Kirk."
The facility under construction in 1986
More than 20,000 people turned out for the opening and toured the building, which with portals and smokestack-like protusions, looked like the Love Boat. The food and entertainment activities on opening day were as lavish as anything on a cruise ship.
The building nears completion in 1987
Then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire with businessman Frank Horlock at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She predicted Houston would become one of the premier convention destinations in the nation with the new facility.
Fireworks lit up the nightime sky during the George R. Brown Convention Center grand opening ceremony on Sept. 26, 1987. The opening was termed "part Mardi Gras and part Brave New World." Coming in the middle of Houston's great oil bust, when there wasn't a lot of good news, it was such a big event that all three major local television stations covered the opening live. "The public is looking for something to bolster their spirits," Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau President Don Vaughn said at the time.
The convention center was named for Houston philanthropist George R. Brown, shown here with his wife, Alice Brown. (In addition to founding Texas Eastern Transmission, he founded Brown & Root.) George R. Brown died in 1983, but three generations of his family attended the opening. His daughter, Isabel Wilson, said he father would have "loved to have seen all of this come to pass."
The first convention in the new center was for the American Society of Travel Agents on Oct. 11, 1987.
The GRB sorely needed a nearby hotel for convention guests to stay at, so after years of wrangling, the Hilton-Americas Houston opened in late 2003, just in time for the Super Bowl in early 2004, with skywalks leading directly into the convention center. The hotel was part of a big expansion that doubled the size of the GRB, expanding it from three to five city blocks.
Former mayors Lee P. Brown and Bob Lanier shake hands at the grand opening of Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel/GRB expansion in 2003.
The 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston
The GRB has hosted a wealth of different activities surrounding such major events as the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations in 1990, the Super Bowl in 1994, and the NCAA Final Four in 2011. It also hosts New Year's Eve celebrations, like this one in 2011, and the annual International Quilt Festival.
The GRB and nearby Discovery Green have become the Houston version of New York's Times Square for New Year's Eve celebrations.
The GRB was the site of the NCAA Final Four Bracket Town in 2011.
A scene from the Contemporary Art Fair at the GRB in 2011. It will take place again at the GRB Oct. 18-21.
The area received a big boost when an 11.78-acre plot of land in front of the GRB was transformed into Discovery Green in 2008. In 1987, the area was rough, Villagomez recalls. "It had some green space in front of the convention center, but nothing compared to what it is now."
He recalls there was a lot of sentiment to build a convention center closer to The Galleria, but officials hoped that by locating it on the east side of downtown, it would spur economic development of the area. "It did exactly what it set out to do," he says.
The lake at Discovery Green, with the GRB in the background
A panoramic view of the GRB and Discovery Green from One Park Place, a nearby residential highrise.
The distinctive structure, designed by Mario Bollulo, remains in the top 12 convention centers in the nation in terms of size. While Houston lags behind such cities as Orlando, Las Vegas and Dallas in attracting conventions, a master plan for 2025 calls for additional hotel rooms, as well as retail and residential construction to cement the reputation of the area as a burgeoning part of Houston and attract more conventions.
The Endeavour space shuttle recently flew over the GRB on its way to California; 25 years after it was built, the convention center and its distinctive red portals have become a Houston landmark.