Southampton Civic Club Inc.

A Brief History of the Southampton Civic Club

by Marshall Verniaud

There was a time gap of six years between the founding of Southampton and the organization of its civic club.

Twenty-two residents of the addition met in Poe School on May 24, 1929, to draft a constitution and by-laws for the proposed club "to work in a consolidated body to secure all the civic improvements to which a progressive community aspires."

At a second meeting, on June 7, the constitution by-laws of the Southampton Civic and Improvement Club were adopted.

A slate of officers recommended by a nominating committee was elected by acclamation. A.E. Kerr became the first president. Other officers chosen were W. H. Blades, vide president; Allan H. King, secretary, and Herbert Eldridge, treasurer. Directors for the club's starting year were J. A. Wilkins, Judge Langston King and Mrs. T. N. Watkins.

Problems meriting club attention came quickly. They ranged from roaming livestock and the dumping of trash on vacant lots to seismographic shootings outside the city limits that jolted residential serenity and cracked plaster walls.

The club as a body asked the city to clamp down "at a reasonable hour" on noises from carnival grounds near what was then the end of Main Street.

Efforts to blame the developer and trustee for shortages of streetlights and some lag in paving improvements brought evasive replies.

The City of Houston, perhaps apprehensive of the Great Depression that was already gripping cities in the East, showed no enthusiasm for financing extensions of water lines and fire hydrants.

There was fretting - unnecessary, as it turned out - that Southampton would simply be overlooked in the city's street marking program.

Partway through the first decade of its existence, with the Depression a spooky actuality, the club had to discourage some lot owners who built garages and lived in them to avoid, or at least delay, compliance with restrictions.

It stopped a lot owner's construction of a small building at Shepherd and Bissonnet when word got around that the place was to be used as a collection agency for laundry and dry cleaning. The unhappy lot owner then sought to recoup some of his loss in the aborted laundry snaffle by renting the property for display of a liquor store sign.

The club's enforcement committee bore down on one early resident who operated a plumbing business out of his garage, on another who started a flower shop, and still another who set up a kindergarten.

It dissuaded a prominent physician from double-numbering his home entrance in order to rent out part of the house.

Militant members nosed out a fertilizer distribution business on a lot in the 2200 block of Bissonnet. The site belonging to a nonresident owner had been loaned or rented to the fertilizer merchants by a real estate company that then claimed it had no legal right to halt the venture.

Somewhere among the difficulties the city engineer blandly told club officials that the city could do nothing to help enforce restrictions.

He recommended that the club do its crying on the developer's shoulder.

At one time the club's building committee, which checked construction cost estimates of new homes, proposed that no questions be asked where stuck costs were within 75 percent of the restriction minimums since, it said, "building cost has been reduced so much since the Addition was first put in."

Club members firmly rejected the proposal and went on record as being opposed to lowering of the restrictions in any manner whatsoever.

Matters that might be considered trivial in later times continued to rate attention from the civic club. Complaints, for example, of "improperly clad men" using the tennis court. And drinking parties in the park - horrors!

A painful disappointment was the club's inability to persuade the school board to build a new highschool on a tract at Kirby and West Alabama instead of on Westheimer across from River Oaks.

The board chose the Westheimer site for its Mirabeau B. Lamar High School.

An occasional project had an upbeat. One was the effort to unduplicate the "Rice" and "Sunset" street names in other parts of the city.

By action of the City Council, at request of the civic club, Rice Street, in the Second Ward, was changed to "Nagle." Sunset Avenue, between Canal and Avenue Q in Magnolia Park, was renamed "Hedrich Street."

But there was no denying by the mid-Thirties, that resident participation in club activities was waning. To counteract apathy and encourage attendance at the club's monthly meetings in various homes, the word "Improvement" was dropped from the club's name because many residents felt it denoted a money-raising organization to which they could not afford to contribute.

Musical and vaudeville-type entertainment was added to lure residents to meetings. Among early entertainers were Mrs. V. B. Gillingham, pianist; Ventriloquist V. O. Alexander and his dummy Isadore; Sigmar the Magician; the Harmony Dictators; Miss Alice Repsdorph, singer; Miss Mary Bethany and her puppets.

The special entertainment at one meeting was a motion picture about the social life of termites.

Some hint of the scope of club finances is preserved in minutes of a membership meeting on March 2, 1936. The custodian of the Special Building Restriction Fund reported a balance of $5.57 on hand and a debt of $105 for attorney fees.

So it was that the Southampton Civic Club found problems enough to keep its committees busy as they looked forward to the entertainment and social contacts of their next meetings.

Committees were assigned, for example, to investigate the feasibility of hiring a policeman to ride through the addition at night and keep the streets clear of parked cars, to draw up a resolution to be sent to nearby airports protesting low-flying airplanes over the addition, to consider support of a group trying to get legislation for removal of signboards along highways, to draft a strong complaint that buses were speeding through Southampton.

As Christmas drew near in a waning year of the Depression, residents were asked to bring canned milk and canned tomatoes to the club's monthly meeting for distribution to poor families.

The pattern took form:

Club members attending a meeting on October 10, 1938 heard reports on the completion of new water lines on Shepherd and on a portion of Rice Boulevard. They appointed a committee to investigate complaints of poor drainage on Rice Boulevard in rainy times, and of too much shell dust from the new Rice Institute parking lot in dry times. They voted to change meeting dates to the second Monday in each month to avoid a conflict with the Houston Symphony Orchestra's concert schedule.

After that - well, let the club's official minutes speak:

"Mrs. Lena Kershner, accompanied at the piano by Mrs. Betty Knox Hurd, and at the organ by Mrs. H. R. McLean, let the members in several of the old favorite songs.

"After the music Mr. (L. H.) Williams invited his guests to the dining room for punch and tiny cakes. The members enjoyed the refreshements after their lusty signing; - the more so, perhaps, because the serving of food is against the rules of the club."

On May 20, 1939 - less than four months before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II - club members, with their families and guests, gathered for their monthly meeting at the bay home of J. A. Wilkins where croquet, horseshoe pitching and swimming preceded a "stupendous" dinner of barbecued elk, venison, lamb, beef, pork suasage and sweet potatoes with several kinds of salads, spaghetti with Mexican sauce, buns, coffee, milk, Coca Cola, cakes, potato chips, dill pickles and cheese.

Then, in a brief business meeting, the members voted approval of a resolution censuring residents of the addition "who kept untidy premises and who maintained assorted nuisances, such as roomers who parked their cars all night in front of neighborhood property."

Clearly the Southampton Civic Club had become in ten years a social group that scolded erring neighbors in a voice heavy with gastro-cultural undertones.

Tougher tests lay ahead.