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Start of the Houston Skyline: Neils Esperson Building

Start of the Houston Skyline: Neils Esperson Building

By Melinda Luna PE, Chair, History & Heritage Committee

Mellie Esperson constructed The Niels Esperson Building in Houston from April of 1925 through 1927, in honor of her late husband, Niels. To get design inspiration for the building, she traveled to Europe with John Eberson, the architect in charge of the project. 

The Esperson Building is 600,000 square feet and, at one point, was the largest office building in downtown Houston. The building stands 411 feet tall. The first four floors are made of Indiana limestone. The flooring material then transitions to high grade brick until the last five upper floors, which are made of terra cotta. S.B. (Samual Bailey) Houx, with the American Construction Company, led the construction of a steel frame within the building, in partnership with the American Bridge Company. His background included an engineering degree from Michigan University. 

Because of its size, the building created a large amount of work in a number of ways. There were 50 carloads of Travertine and Tavernille Marble weighing 1500 tons, making the Esperson Building the largest installation at the time by the Salt Lake Marble and Supply Company.  It was the John Eberson’s largest effort as an architect, assisted by resident architect Harry E. Weaver.  The Esperson Buildng was designed in Italian Renaissance style, and its columns and urns were modeled after a Dan Pieto courtyard in Rome. Gold leaf was added to the building’s tower. At night, with the aid of lights, the tower could be seen from a far distance, marking Houston’s downtown skyline.  Mellie Esperson had a suite on the 25th floor where she could look over the building and her many investments in Houston. 

The building and its construction was preserved in a 48-page book titled Neils Esperson Building, published by the Houston Post Dispatch in 1926. Various groups had input in the book, and it is now part of the digital library collection at Rice University.

The total cost of the building was 4 million dollars, which is 58 million in today’s dollars.  The building was considered a prestigious address, housing Oil Firms, Lawyers, and others. Its list of occupants has even included the King Ranch family.  Before the use of modern day elevations, elevator operators were required to help people to the upper floors. 

The Esperson Building was renovated at the cost of 11 million dollars. The renovation included a light panel wall to help improve the city’s pedestrian tunnel by providing more natural light.  There are plans to invest about 53 million dollars into then 92-year-old building to help preserve it.

Research for this article showed the Esperson Building is not listed on Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks or the Historic Architectural Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER).  Also not found were any names of engineers who may have helped in this effort, aside from S.B. Houx. Usually in efforts of tall buildings, engineers look to see how the wind will react to the design of the building and help architects with building materials and the impacts to maintenance of the building. 

Until Houston’s Gulf Building was completed in 1929, the Esperson building was the tallest building in Texas as well as west of the Mississippi River and the third largest in the United States.  Clearly, from the start of the design to the completion of the project, Mellie Esperson wanted to build a true monument to her husband. This was completed by carving his name to the building.  It also was the start to the Houston Skyline.   You can see the Esperson Building in downtown Houston at 808 Travis Street Houston Tx 77002. It is well worth the effort to visit such a historic engineering marvel.