DI GIORGIO 1884. Michele DiGiorgio (1850-1927) and his wife, Ursula Ciulla (1855-1924), were born and married (1879) in Bisacquino, in the province of Palermo, in the District of Corleone on the island of Sicily, where the DiGiorgio family operated a flourmill. The couple had six children. Joseph and Rosalie were born in Bisacquino, Sicily; Lena, Gasper, Bernard and Mary in Texas. Joseph, Bernard and Mary predeceased their parents. Rosalie, Lena and Gaspar grew up in Houston and still have a large family living here.
The DiGiorgios immigrated to the United States in 1882. Michele and his brother Bernardo worked near New Orleans in the Thibodaux sugar cane fields on the Edward Douglas White plantation for fifty cents a day. Michele soon moved to Orange, Texas, where, using experience gained while working in the family’s flourmill in Sicily, he quickly rose to foreman at a lumber mill.
Through hard work, self-denial and economy, Michele saved $700 and moved his family to Houston in 1884. He operated a grocery store and saloon on the first floor of his home, as did many other Italian immigrants. He also was the delivery driver for the Magnolia Brewery, which allowed his grocery and saloon to sell the coldest beer in town. Because he could be trusted to exit with his paycheck intact, Michele was assigned to make deliveries to Houston’s red-light district.
In 1899, Michele built a large Victorian home at 918 Bagby where the City Hall Annex stands today. Eventually, the family changed its surname to DeGeorge.
DEGEORGE 1926. When Michele DeGeorge and his family arrived in Houston in 1884, he immediately began using his $700 in savings to make small real estate investments, buying mostly improved rental properties in the Fourth Ward. His investments were always near public transportation, first along mule-car lines, then electric trolley lines.
Taking advantage of ever-changing commercial trends, Michele saw business opportunities in the growing city of Houston. Through his careful study of local and regional development, he shrewdly moved his investments as the city and state progressed into the early twentieth century and Houston became known as the city “Where 17 Railroads Meet the Sea.” After the 1906 announcement that 12 city blocks east of Main Street would become the new Union Station, complete with railway passenger and freight terminals, he purchased the north half of nearby Block 49. In 1913, he built the extant DeGeorge Hotel at 1418 Preston Avenue to serve Union Station passengers, including visitors to the nearby 1910 Harris County Courthouse and traveling salesmen known as “drummers.”
A visionary entrepreneur, DeGeorge was not afraid to buy outside the garden district. Recognizing the future importance of Texas Avenue, he purchased 701-703 Texas Avenue at Louisiana Street in 1901. This corner lot was in a red-light district known as the Happy Hollow. By 1910, the soiled doves had vacated the area and moved to a newly designated red-light area called “The Reservation,” bordering today’s Allen Parkway.
In 1926, widowed but still healthy and energetic at age 76, DeGeorge built the Auditorium Hotel, a first-class hostelry with 200 rooms. It served actors, acrobats, business travelers, cowboys, musicians, opera singers, wrestlers, boxers, and horses. The hotel was named for the 1910 City Auditorium across Texas Avenue, which, decades later, served as the anchor for Houston’s Theater District. At the time of DeGeorge’s death in August 1927, local newspapers reported that he was one of the South’s wealthiest Italians, owning about 100 pieces of real estate.
1836. The Texas Revolution began in October 1835 with victories at the Battle of Gonzales, the Siege of Bexar, and the Grass Fight, and continued into the spring of 1836 with defeats at the Battles of Goliad and the Alamo. On April 21, 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto, one of the most important battles in world history, ended the revolution when General Sam Houston and the Texian colonists defeated General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and the Mexican army in eighteen minutes.
The San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Park is located in La Porte, Texas, 30 miles east of The Lancaster. An inscription on the base of the 570-foot-high San Jacinto Monument reminds us that this battle ultimately “led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.”
Although the State of Texas retained the right to become five states, it has never been divided. Perhaps that’s why people say, “Texas is a whole other country.”
The Allen brothers hired surveyor and newspaper publisher Gail Borden (who later created condensed milk) to design a town of 62 blocks. Having an inland port for seagoing vessels was the goal of the Allen brothers. Houston’s first port and Turning Basin were located at the foot of Main Street in an area known since the 1960s as Allen’s Landing Park. In 1914, the new Port of Houston and Turning Basin opened about eight miles east of downtown. Today, Houston is one of the largest ports in the world, even though it is located 52 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico.
FOURTH WARD. On June 5, 1837, Houston, along with 16 other towns in the new Republic of Texas, was incorporated as a city. By 1840, it encompassed nine square miles, was divided into four political wards and governed by a mayor, eight aldermen, a secretary and treasurer, tax collector and constable. Two aldermen were elected from each of four wards and, together with the mayor, comprised City Council.
The boundaries of the original four wards were:
First Ward – north of Congress Avenue and west of Main Street
Second Ward – north of Congress Avenue and east of Main Street
Third Ward – south of Congress Avenue and East of Main Street
Fourth Ward – south of Congress Avenue and west of Main Street
Two wards were added after the Civil War:
Fifth Ward (1866) – north of Buffalo Bayou and east of White Oak Bayou
Sixth Ward (1894) – north of Buffalo Bayou and west of White Oak Bayou
Native Houstonians and the media still refer to many neighborhoods by their ward designations; however, in 1906, the mayor-alderman form of government was replaced by a mayor-commissioner form. Today, Houston is governed by a mayor and sixteen council members. Eleven of the council members represent geographic districts for roughly the same proportion of populations, while five are elected at-large by all voters. They are all elected every two years, in odd-numbered years, and are limited to serving three terms of two years each.
Both The Lancaster and the site of the DeGeorge family’s Victorian home and residential compound on Bagby at Walker streets are located in the Fourth Ward. In the nineteenth century, the Fourth Ward also boasted City Hall in Market Square, as well as Sam Houston Park (Houston’s first park), two cemeteries, a red-light district called the Happy Hollow, stores, restaurants, saloons, a few churches, and Freedman’s Town, where freed slaves moved after the Civil War. In the twentieth century, the Fourth Ward added the current City Hall, City Hall Annex, high-rise office buildings, the second largest Theater District in the United States, restaurants, bars, the Julia Ideson Library, Jones Central Library, and the Heritage Society in Sam Houston Park.
BLOCK 59. Having a legal description that includes “South Side of Buffalo Bayou” or “SSBB” is considered prestigious in Houston because it represents a location in the original Town of Houston. The Lancaster sits on Lot 6, Block 59, South Side of Buffalo Bayou. The former DeGeorge Hotel at 1418 Preston Avenue sits on Lot 5, Block 49, SSBB. Ursula and Michele DeGeorge’s first relationship with block 59 was upon arrival in Houston. Their first grocery store in 1884 was located on Block 59’s northeast corner, which would also be the southwest corner of Milam at Prairie.
Block 59 has unique features. The old Town of Houston had at least five gullies crossing its terrain. Springs, which flowed toward Buffalo Bayou, created these gullies. In the late 1800s, City Council suggested residents throw their trash into these gullies, hoping the gullies would fill up and become flat, creating more buildable land and a larger tax base. A spring formed a gully that ran west from Milam to Buffalo Bayou, between Prairie and Texas avenues. Evidence of the gully is still under 509-511 Louisiana, just north of The Lancaster. Where the spring crossed Smith Street, a pool of water collected in an area known as the Indian Campground. In the early days of the Republic of Texas, several tribes came to the new Town of Houston to whoop it up in saloons and powwow with President Sam Houston.
After the Civil War, the area bounded by Milam, Prairie, Capitol and Buffalo Bayou was called the Happy Hollow. It was full of female boarding houses, whose residents’ occupation was listed by the1900 census takers as “prostitute.” Jones Hall, The Alley Theatre, The Lancaster, 515-517 Louisiana, and 717 Texas Avenue all sit on the sites of these former brothels.
By 1910, the soiled doves had flown the coop and moved to The Reservation, a newly designated red-light district bordering what is now Allen Parkway.