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Market Square
Market Square.

Market Square and the Case of the Wandering Clock

Through the first century of its existence, Houston revolved around Market Square, bounded by the streets Preston, Milam, Travis, and Congress.  The square was donated to the city in 1854 by Augustus Allen and was used as an open air produce market, and the downtown business district grew up around it.

Old masonry and new pavement in Market Square. Artwork of artists Malou Flato and James Surls.

Early city landmarks in the neighborhood included the briefly-used Texas Capitol and White House, now long-gone, and several City Halls rose and fell at Market Square. Two were brought down by fire and the final one was demolished in the ‘60’s, long after the City had moved its offices to the 1938 Art Deco City Hall at Hermann Square.

At that time , the tower clock, which had told time from atop the building since 1904, was dismantled and stored at the nearby M&M Building, now the home of the University of Houston-Downtown.  It passed from the city’s collective memory in its storage place and wound up, through a mysterious chain of events, in a junkyard. 

It was bought and hauled off to Tyler County, where it was installed at a historical park in Woodville.  When the City of Houston discovered it there, they requested its return, and, since its sale through the junkyard had never involved the City, the clock’s legal owner, the historical park agreed to do so.  Its owner, Mr. Clyde E. Gray, was proclaimed an honorary Houstonian for his restoration of the old clock and for its return.

The Louis and Annie Friedman Clock Tower

In 1996, the Market Square Clock was returned to use as a Houston landmark.  An elegant new tower was constructed to house it, and now its 4 faces look out on the city once more.  The 65-foot tower was paid for by Saul and Elaine Friedman, in honor of his parents, immigrants from Hungary.  The parcel of ground it stands on, directly across from Market Square at the corner of Travis and Congress Streets, was sold to the City for $10.00 by Kenneth B. Meyer.

The clock cost the City $1100 when it was originally bought for the 1904 City Hall.  It is teamed in the new tower with a 2800-lb fire bell that survived the 1903 City Hall fire which prompted the construction of the 1904 building.  Its 4 faces are 7 ½ feet across, and it is wound up every 8 days.

The Neighborhood

The park at Market Square is a sylvan oasis near the busy Harris County Courthouse complex and the Theater District. Its design is the work of Douglas Hollis and Richard Turner, and it incorporates multiple historic newspaper images turned into tiles by Paul Hester. Shade trees invite office workers to take picnic lunches outside, and there are several art-tile benches in the park, the work of artist Malou Flato.  The centerpiece of Market Square is James Surls’s sculpture Points of ViewAnd don’t miss the faces staring out of the monument at Travis and Preston. The walkways at Market Square are paved with masonry salvaged from demolished (and some standing) buildings as a reminder of the neighborhood’s history.

While much of Houston’s historic architecture has succumbed to the wrecking ball, a number of fine old Nineteenth Century edifices still surround the Square.  The current trend toward renovating old structures has brought an active population to the neighborhood.  An eclectic assortment of restaurants and watering holes lends the area an aura of after-hours excitement, but a stroll around the Square in the daytime shows off yesterday’s quaint charm reinterpreted through today’s tastes.  The Kennedy Trading Post and Bakery, considered the oldest public 2-story frame building in Houston, is still active as La Carafe

Nearby, Minute Maid Park brings ballpark excitement, the Rice Hotel and a number of other renovated buildings offer elegant addresses for downtown residents, and Allen’s Landing and the ongoing renovation of the banks of Buffalo Bayou are a short stroll away.  While sidestepping the business-suited lunch crowd or revelers out for a night on the town, take a few moments to soak in the atmosphere of one of Houston’s oldest and proudest neighborhoods.  And don’t forget to check the old clock so you don’t miss your dinner reservation! But rely on your Rolex; it is over a century old after all.