1987: The year that changed Houston
cliff notes

1987: The year Houston became a more livable, more interesting city because . . .

1987: The year Houston became a more livable, more interesting city because . . .

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Wortham Theater Center and Fish Plaza Courtesy of Photo courtesy Houston Grand Opera Archives
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Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson and board member Harriet Bath look at construction of the Wortham Center in the 1980s. Courtesy of Photo courtesy Houston Grand Opera Archives
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Menil Collection Courtesy photo
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Art Car Parade, Women Rock art car Photo by Chinh Phan
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George R. Brown Convention Center Photo by Michelle Watson/LastNightPics.com
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At the time, 1987 didn't seem like an especially eventful year in Houston's history.

Historians could argue that other years made much more of an impact: 1836 (when the Allen brothers founded the city just a few months after the end of the Texas War for Independence), 1901 (the discovery of oil at Spindletop), 1914 (when the 52-mile-long ship channel opened to the Gulf of Mexico, officially making Houston a port city), 1945 (when the Texas Medical Center was chartered) or 1963 (when NASA opened a manned spacecraft center in Clear Lake).

Anyone who made it through Tropical Storm Allison (2001) or Hurricane Ike (2008) would attest that the floodwaters from those storms changed Houston in ways that still are yet to be fully determined.

But if I were going to pick a "turning-point" year, where Houston put things in place to become a more livable and interesting city, I would pick 1987.

Nationally, it was the year when Prozac, disposable contact lenses and The Simpsons made their debuts; locally, Houston's two daily newspapers changed hands (the Chronicle was sold to the Hearst Corporation; the Post was sold to Dean Singleton's Media News Group), Joske's became Dillard's, the Texas Medical Center tore down the Shamrock Hilton, its massive swimming pool covered with a parking lot, and the city was starting to come out of a dark period when the price of oil had plunged to less than $10 a barrel.

But what made the year especially unique — and promising for Houston's future — were these four happenings:

The opening of the Wortham Theater Center

Why it was special: Funded entirely by private donations in the midst of the oil bust, the Wortham Center opened on May 9, 1987,with an inaugural show featuring Tommy Tune, Diahann Carroll, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Houston Ballet principals Janie Parker and Li Cunxin. It became the home for the Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera and a host of other performing arts groups.

Why it remains special today: Although not everyone was wild about the architecture, it remains a stately, grand building befitting a major arts city. The lofty foyer has become a favorite spot for charity balls and the outdoor Fish Plaza hosts a variety events, including the Bunnies on the Bayou party every Easter. A walk on the promenade along Buffalo Bayou, amid the massive Mel Chin "Seven Wonders" sculptures situated on the side of the building, is one of Houston's undiscovered treasures.

The opening of the Menil Collection

Why it was special: Dominique de Menil put Houston on the worldwide arts map with a breathtakingly simple museum in a quiet Montrose neighborhood. The building, designed by then little-known architect Renzo Piano, to house de Menil's incomparable art collection, opened on June 7, 1987. De Menil told the crowd. "I have been asked many times whether this building corresponded to my dreams. It does. Actually it surpasses my dreams."

Ours, too.

Why it remains special today: The Menil has such a storied reputation that just about every notable who visits Houston stops in to see the building and the collection. But what might have made de Menil just as happy (she died in 1997) is the way Menil Park, near the museum, has become a gathering spot for Houstonians of all ages and incomes.

The official organization of the Art Car Parade

Why it was special:  In 1987, Houston International Festival officials asked the Orange Show to organize a parade built around decorated arts cars after some Houston artists had created a parade with 20 artists floats and art cars as part of the New Music America Festival in 1986. (The art car idea had been bubbling since 1984, when Houston artist Jackie Harris had transformed a donated 1967 Ford station wagon into a Fruit Mobile for a benefit item at The Orange Show Foundation's gala and Ann Harithas curated an exhibition called "Collision" at Lawndale Art Center that featured two art cars.)

The first official Art Car Parade debuted in April 1988 with 40 cars.

Why it remains special today: As this past weekend's 25th anniversary parade proved, the Art Car Parade has become a beloved Houston institution, drawing big crowds and an overwhelming number of decorated works-of-art-on-wheels.

The opening of the George R. Brown Convention Center

Why it was special: The east side of downtown Houston was a desolate place when the George R. Brown Convention Center opened on Sept. 27, 1987. But the long, sleek white building with red accents that looked like an ocean liner added some instant sparkle — and a promise to remake that area of the city.

Why it remains special today: The center, which continues to look like the "Love Boat," nevertheless remains remarkably fresh and modern for a 25-year-old building. No one at the opening could imagine that it became the hub of a revitalized east side of downtown Houston, with the Hilton Americas-Houston, Discovery Green, Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park and BBVA Compass Stadium all within a short walk away.

In this special CultureMap editorial series, we will look more in-depth at how these major markers came about and how they continue to influence the city's future. If you have any memories of that year in Houston or any of these events/openings, send your recollections to clifford@culturemap.com.