Look at an early picture of Montrose Blvd., circa 1911, and you'll see a grand avenue complete with wide, treed esplanade and sidewalks, freshly carved out of Houston dairy farmland. You'll also see echoes, however faint, of the Montrose we know and (mostly) love today.When the area we now call Montrose was still being grazed by cows, in the late 19th century, suburbs were starting to come into favor in other cities around the country. New York City, in fact, had had commuters traveling to and from Brooklyn by ferry since the 1850s. But for a young, inland city like Houston - bayous and ship channels notwithstanding - it would take an entirely different mode of transportation to make the suburbs take off. And that happened in 1891, when the electric streetcar came to town.In a streetcar, what was previously a 30-minute walk was now a quick 10-minute ride, much faster even than a horse and buggy. Suddenly, possibilities arose for those who worked in downtown, but wanted to live on a peaceful, tree-lined street, out of the city-center fray. It was around this time that the Heights neighborhood came into being, no coincidence as its developer opened his own streetcar line to carry passengers to and from his new development. Houston officially had its first suburb. Others followed in its path - Woodland Heights broke ground, just to the west of the Heights, some 15 years later, and the development of Bellaire began a short time after that. Enter J.W. Links, a turn-of-the-century multi-hyphenate (lawyer-lumberman-politician-developer), who had a vision for a "great residential addition." In 1911, he set out to create Houston's poshest neighborhood, complete with four grand boulevards landscaped with "seven train car loads of palm trees and 4,000 shade trees," boasting paved sidewalks and modern curbs. In fact, Link decided to live in the neighborhood himself, building a lavish $60,000 home on the main boulevard, as if to set the tone for future residents. And in order to convey a regal feel, he named it after Scotland's Royal Borough of Montrose.Other wealthy Houstonians followed suit, and soon a collection of stately homes dotted Montrose Boulevard, including one owned by Humble Oil founder Ross Sterling. Despite all of this, Montrose was not exclusively for the wealthy. Link planned a variety of lot sizes and locations so that people of more modest means could live there, too, with the stipulation that homes cost a minimum of $3,000. By 1925, the Montrose neighborhood was all built out, with a collection of larger, lavish homes mixed with Craftsman-style bungalows, reflecting styles of the times. From the 1920s to World War II, Montrose was considered to be a distinguished address. In fact, it was in those early days that Montrose was home to two future distinguished Americans. Future president Lyndon B. Johnson lived on Hawthorne Street when he was a high school teacher in the 1930s, and Howard Hughes lived on Yoakum Street - now a part of the University of St. Thomas.Things started to change for Montrose, though, in 1936 when deed restrictions which had kept the area strictly residential expired. By that point, the automobile had surpassed the streetcar in popularity, and Houstonians were seeking even further-out places to live. Suddenly, Montrose's homes looked more attractive as potential offices or gas stations. Many homes were subdivided into duplexes or apartments, or even demolished outright. By the late 1940s, in order to ease congested traffic, the tree-lined esplanade on Montrose Boulevard was removed.Not surprisingly, the original genteel character of the neighborhood began to change. By the 1960s and 70s, Montrose became a hub for those seeking a laid-back, hippie or alternative lifestyle. According to "A Walk Down Montrose" from Cite magazine, "Houses were converted into antique shops, topless joints, boutiques, bars and restaurants and were frequently treated to decorative makeovers that reflected the anything-goes aesthetic of the hippie culture."For the past several decades, like so many Houston neighborhoods, Montrose has experienced a roller coaster ride of wealth, dilapidation, and resurgence. And, also similar to so many places, each turn has left many longing for the "good old days." When its original stately homes were turned into businesses or fell into disrepair, old residents lamented the area's decline. As some of the funky businesses from the 70s became town homes of the 2000s, others bemoaned Montrose's loss of character.Regardless of what some may perceive as the area's shortcomings, Montrose is something truly unique in Houston. It has evolved into an eclectic mix of quirky and refined, from funky antiques to priceless antiquities, with offbeat shops at one end and elegant museums at the other. It also happens to be, arguably, the most pedestrian-friendly area in the city, where trolling for shopping finds and grabbing a bite to eat can be done on foot as easily as by car. And while it's not what it used to be (few things are), Montrose is a vibrant, funky, urbane 100 year-old gem in the heart of Houston. Happy Birthday, Montrose.
read more: Montrose - One Funky Neighborhood in Houston Texas