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Ben Milam Hotel At 1717 Texas Ave.


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All About The (Working!) Old Ben Milam...

I'm wanting to start a series of posts in this thread for those who have memories/photos of the Ben Milam/YWCA/Old Ben Milam during its years as a working hostelry. For me, those years were 1979-82 when I was in or just graduating high school and had time for some 'industrial archaeology'. My primary interests were (are) railroads, but as the Ben Milam was just across the street from the Union Station building I spent a significant amount of time there.

In those days Union Station, although half a decade since the departure of its last scheduled Amtrak train, was still a bustling hub of railroad activity as the Houston Belt & Terminal had its offices there and Missouri Pacific had its regional HQ on the fourth floor. There was also a corner of the second floor which was leased to the Houston Society of Model Engineers who had constructed a jaw-dropping model railroad layout which they called the "Texas, Crawford & Prairie RR".

Across Texas Avenue from the hotel was the Houston World Trade Center, which was a hub of consulate offices and other international activities. A couple of blocks down the street was the Greyhound bus terminal. These all provided a modest revenue stream to the hotel's 'Y-W Cafeteria', which was a relic of the years when the building was owned and operated by the Houston YWCA. The Y-W had a good reputation and I ate there several times; it was open from breakfast into the early dinner hours. After the Greyhound station restaurant closed it was really the only decent place to eat within easy walking distance and it remained open as a cafeteria for at least a year after the hotel itself closed as a hotel.

In those years the Old Ben Milam was what we euphemistically term a 'residence' hotel. Low rates (IIRC, about $24/night for single nights with discounts available for week- or month-long terms) which drew in seniors and working poor who might otherwise find themselves on the streets. In one of the photo archives up-thread the roving photographers found a door labeled "Restaurant; Open 7 AM, Close 7 PM, Saturdays & Sundays only." This was towards the rear of the second floor addition which held the swimming pool and was opened in the 1980 time frame after the Greyhound restaurant closed. The Y-W Cafeteria was only open Monday through Friday and the residents were complaining that there was no suitable place to eat on weekends, so the hotel opened this tiny (~8 tables) eatery which could be staffed with one cook and one waiter to provide a weekend alternative to starvation. I ate there once or twice, the menu was mostly burgers and sandwiches and the like but it would keep you going until Monday.

More coming later for those who are interested....

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Air-Conditioning the Ben Milam...

Undoubtedly one of the Ben Milam's strongest selling points in its early years was that it was the very first hotel in Houston to be completely air-conditioned in all public spaces and guest rooms. Unfortunately, though, that would eventually become a bit of a boat anchor as, to the best I can tell (and I'm in the commercial HVAC business by profession), the system was never updated.

I never got into the Ben Milam's chiller room or air handler, but I strongly suspect it was similar to those in the Cotton Exchange building (1926[?] - now Harris County Annex 44) and the Niels Esperson Building, both of which I've seen. What I do remember clearly is that the air distribution was through exposed (and ugly) sheet metal ducts which ran through the corridors into the original transom windows of each room. If there was any duct insulation it was internal; you can get away with uninsulated ducts through a conditioned space if the dew point of the conditioned air is lower than the temperature of the exposed sheet metal but it's a very near thing; sweating and/or drips are likely.

As far as I could tell, going from memory, there was no individual room temperature control except perhaps for a damper which the occupant could open or close. Quite likely (I'm speculating here) there were one or two pneumatic thermostats on each guest floor but the zone temperature control had to be primitive. The couple of times that I was on the guest floors, though, I don't remember being at all uncomfortable so that probably wasn't a major issue.

What was a major issue was the claustrophobia. The Ben Milam's guest floors were built with low ceilings to begin with and the addition of the ductwork brought them down to the point where for basketball players it would have been "Ducka You Head, Lowla Bridgeda..." to quote a Looney Tunes cartoon. While it didn't drive away the bargain-hunting 'residence' clientele, I can see where it would put off someone looking for something fresh and in a holiday spirit.

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The Ben Milam's Swimming Pool...

Reference: Arch-ive.org's Ben Milam Page

The referenced page has an article, estimated as ca. 1957-58, on the grand opening of the new "rooftop swimming pool" of the Ben Milam. The pool was actually a part of a two-story addition that filled up the southwest (assuming a project north up Main Street) corner of the block. The photographs in the article show it as being an open air pool with a raised kiddie pool/waterfall and sun deck behind it.

When I got to know the hotel in the 1980 time frame the pool area had been enclosed, the waterfall had been covered over with a deck and a "Universal Gym" multi-station exercise machine (forerunner of Nautilus, et. al.) set up on it. The sun deck area was also enclosed and was used as a kind of event space. Presumably (I'm speculating) this work was done under YWCA ownership and the enclosed area was intended to be a gymnasium. I remember it as being large enough for a basketball court although any evidence of that use had been covered over (parquet floors) or removed. Access to the pool area was, as best I recall, only through the locker rooms which had been built in former guest room space on the third floor. There must have been another access for events or at least as a fire exit but I don't remember details of that. And, unfortunately, I didn't have a good camera in those days.

Advertising further down the referenced page touts the Ben Milam as being "the only downtown hotel with swimming pool and sun terrace." That may have been true as far as the sun terrace goes, but probably some here are familiar with the story of the Rice Hotel's 'lost' Natatorium. (It must be on this site somewhere, but I haven't found it yet...any help?) As I heard the story, though, the Rice was built with a basement swimming pool modeled on an ancient Roman bath and named the 'Natatorium.' During the Depression years it was closed and then in the ensuing war years reopening the pool was not a high priority. Following the War the pressure was on to renovate the Rice and bring it up to date, and rather than tackle the long-neglected swimming pool the renovators simply paneled over the doors leading to it and it was forgotten. Decades later as the Rice was being redeveloped into the Rice Lofts, the architects wondered over what might be in the 'missing' space in the basement. They cut into the walls and...lo and behold, the basement Natatorium, still as it was left during the Depression. It's now a feature of the redeveloped building.

Other items on the referenced page which might be of interest: Photo 'milam007' is of the "mileage chart" which showed the driving mileage to various cities and the major highways which led to them (all pre-Interstate, of course). This was on the outside wall under the portico which connected the hotel with its garage, next to what was likely a valet parking office. The hotel also had a belt 'manlift', abandoned in place before I found it, to carry parking attendants to the upper levels of the garage. (For What It's Worth, the Hyatt Regency downtown was built in 1972 with the same sort of manlift to its basement valet parking but that was scrapped, reportedly following an injury. Some remnants of it are still visible.)

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What Killed the Old Ben Milam?

Nota bene: This is all speculation. I never had access to any finances, but I did speak with some of the employees during my 'industrial archaeology' expeditions. Basically, though, it was the same thing which killed the Rice Hotel a few years earlier: The Houston Fire Code.

The Ben Milam, as built, had ONE fire exit stairwell. And it wouldn't have met today's codes as Joseph Finger designed the service elevator, in a common shaft with the two guest elevators, to open up into the stairwell. (The service elevator outer doors on each floor, by the way, were wire-reinforced glass; you could look right into the shaft...fascinating for a junior industrial archaeologist!) The service elevator, best I could tell, was no longer in use in the 1979-80 time frame and was permanently parked in the basement; housekeeping used the guest elevators. In case of fire, the primary means of exit were exterior fire escapes which had become a flashing red 'no-no' by the late 1970s.

There were, apparently, plans to work around this. As the service elevator was out of service its doors could have been bricked up or, for some additional investment, it could perhaps have been 'turned around' to open on the opposite side of the shaft. There were plans to build a second, code-approved, exit stairwell in the opposite (southeast) corner of the tower. This would have required sacrificing one guest room on each floor, but the adjoining guest room could be enlarged. The Ben Milam, as a 1926-vintage design (the heyday of the railroad traveling salesman), had quite a number of one-bed rooms...and when I say 'one-bed room', I mean a room which was physically so small that it could not accommodate a second bed. These tiny rooms were not an asset in the early 1980s. During those final months one could see flyers up touting the "Trade Center PLAZA Hotel - Coming Soon!" but the Ben Milam never operated under that name. Luke 14:28 springs to mind. For whatever the reason, management threw in the towel. The cafeteria, as noted above, soldiered on for a while longer but when even that closed the building slowly degraded into oblivion. Demolition was a final mercy.

Edited by ehbowen
Clarify elevator doors
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