Jesse Jones's Archives Available at Rice University

More than 150 large boxes filled with private letters, rare photographs, revealing contracts and copies of speeches nationally broadcast during the Great Depression and World War II recently arrived at Rice University’s Woodson Research Center. Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation established in 1937 by Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones, donated the historic records produced by its founders and their family to provide access to those interested in discovering more about one of the nation’s most powerful appointed officials and Houston’s preeminent developer during the first half of the twentieth century.

Jesse Jones Among its many treasures, the vast collection includes deeds, contracts, corporate records and photographs of major buildings and early subdivisions built and owned by Jesse Jones. Documents about land purchases, building construction and the operation of early skyscrapers, theaters, apartments and hotels in Houston, New York City and Fort Worth are available for review, including Jones’s request to Captain James Baker to add his signature to his on any revisions made to the 1914 Rice Hotel, which was built by Jones and largely financed by Rice Institute under Baker’s leadership. The papers filed under Block 58 also show Jones bought part of that downtown block from Baker for his 1908 Houston Chronicle Building. Taken together, just these documents alone reveal intriguing aspects of the emerging relationship between Jones and Baker, as well as the connection between Rice Institute and the city’s development; insights into Jones’s business practices; and facts about local buildings where many people enjoyed life and formed lasting memories.

The archive, now available for viewing, goes beyond early Houston and encompasses national events that offer perspective. For instance, in the past, U.S. Presidents had no pension or ready access to wealth. Jones, who revered Woodrow Wilson and served in his administration, established an annuity for the President after he left office. The exceptional contract is part of the collection, and its associated documents also reveal Jones’s close relationship with Stockton Axson—Wilson’s brother-in-law and an original Rice Institute English professor.

Jones was a prominent Democrat and captured the 1928 Democratic National Convention for Houston. It was the first major political convention held in the south since before the Civil War and one of the first to be widely received over radio. The event put Houston on the map and Jones in the spotlight. Photographs, tickets, programs, the finance committee’s canceled checks and the convention hall floor plan are part of the collection. The documents show that unlike today the entire effort, including selecting the city and constructing a building large enough to hold 25,000 visiting delegates, took six months from start to finish and cost a pittance to stage, even though the objective of selecting candidates to run for national office remains the same.

During the Great Depression and World War II, next to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jesse Jones, as chairman of the federal government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), was considered to be the most powerful person in the nation. The speeches, publicity, correspondence and photographs in the collection verify this astonishing claim and show how during the nation’s most devastating economic catastrophe, the federal government, through the RFC, simultaneously salvaged the economy, helped millions of citizens and made money for the U.S. Treasury. The recent Troubled Asset Relief Program, also known as TARP, was modeled on Jones’s 1933 Bank Repair Program. Like TARP, Jones’s RFC program saved the United States banking system and made money for the federal treasury, a feat worthy of examination now.

In the late 1930s, as war spread through Europe and as the public and Congress dithered over intervention, Jones and FDR converted the RFC’s focus from domestic economics to global defense and militarized industry. The collection’s black and white pictures and its perfectly typed documents, painstakingly produced on manual typewriters, reveal influential and unappreciated accomplishments from that critical period. For example, the RFC developed synthetic rubber, moving from lab experiments to mass production only months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor. First and foremost, the federal government’s investment in this nascent industry enabled the Allied Forces to mobilize its equipment and weaponry; furthermore it also eliminated reliance on a vital foreign commodity, enlarged the Gulf Coast economy, and in the end, made money for the United States government.

The Joneses moved to Washington, D.C., in 1932, and returned to Houston in 1947. Interesting minutiae found among the documents from their move home show that a Spruce Goose model given by Howard Hughes to Jesse Jones had a propeller with a missing blade. Property and building records show how Houston had changed during the Joneses’ absence: To accommodate the flood of cars coming into the booming central business district, Jones for the first time included parking garages in his new buildings, a practice still followed by others.

Other contracts and correspondence include Jones’s plans to demolish his first Houston skyscraper—the 10-floor Bristol Hotel (1907)—and to replace it with his last skyscraper—the 18-floor Houston Club Building (1954), which was recently demolished. Like most everything represented in the collection, the Bristol Hotel and the Houston Club Building are gone, but their associated photographs and documents testify to their existence, establish their context, recount the singular accomplishments of a unique figure in Houston and U.S. history and offer future possibilities by preserving successes from the past.

— By Steven Fenberg

For more information: http://news.rice.edu/2015/06/15/jesse-jones-archive-now-at-rice-university-2/

Steven Fenberg and architectural historian Barrie Scardino Bradley assembled the Jesse Jones archive for Houston Endowment. Fenberg was executive producer and writer of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones,” which was narrated by Walter Cronkite and broadcast nationally on PBS. Fenberg also wrote the biography “Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism and the Common Good,” which was published by Texas A&M University Press. (For more information, see www.jessejonesthebook.com)