The Auditorium Hotel, known today as the Lancaster Hotel, is located at 701 Texas Avenue on its original site at the northeast corner of Texas Avenue and Louisiana Street in Houston, Texas. The hotel was constructed in 1926.
The construction of the Auditorium Hotel, along with the redevelopment of Texas Avenue, reflected Houston’s flourishing economic climate in the 1920s. The hotel opened the same week that Texas Avenue, Houston’s “Newest Business Street,” was lauded as the best well-lit avenue in the nation. This bustling stretch of thoroughfare ran from Union Station at Texas Avenue and LaBranch Street to Texas Avenue and Louisiana Street where the City Auditorium and the Auditorium Hotel stood. A reporter described, “Newly paved and widened, this street has overnight become a veritable canyon of commerce. Man-made cliffs of stone and steel cloak the hurrying crowds in sun-streaked twilight.”
As a visionary entrepreneur, Sicilian-born Michele DeGeorge (nee DiGorgio) purchased the northeast corner of Texas Avenue at Louisiana in Block 59 on the south side Buffalo Bayou for $6,000 on December 14, 1901. At the time, the White Elephant Saloon and a boarding house occupied this corner in a red-light district known as Happy Hollow. DeGeorge, a savvy real estate owner who had made investments in residential rental properties to accommodate the influx of new arrivals to Houston, realized the potential of owning a corner on downtown’s widest street. The wood-frame buildings were eventually demolished. In 1913 he hired Austrian-born architect Joseph Finger to design his first hotel, the DeGeorge Hotel at 1418 Preston Avenue near Union Depot. In 1926 DeGeorge, widowed for two years but still active in business, teamed up for the second time with Joseph Finger to build his second hotel, the Auditorium Hotel. Michele awarded Bellows-McClay, Inc., their first construction job in Houston.
Groundbreaking took place on March 1, 1926, with Mayor Oscar Holcombe, Michele DeGeorge, Joseph Finger, DeGeorge’s son-in-law Tanny Charles Guseman, and other civic dignitaries in attendance. After only nine months, the Auditorium Hotel opened on November 21, 1926.
The hotel is a classically-derived style, complete with Italian Renaissance detailing. The arched windows on the upper floor mimicked the Florentine windows on the (now extinct) City Auditorium across Texas Avenue. The café was designed with its own entry door as was the (now extinct) drugstore and soda fountain. The hotel has twelve stories, fireproof construction of concrete and steel, and a full basement. Large glass windows enticed the public to enter. Walnut wainscot, stained-glass skylights, and painted tile floors created a homey feeling in the lobby. The hotel originally had 200 bedrooms.
The Auditorium Hotel has long had significant cultural connections with the performing arts due to its central location in Houston’s Theater District. The City Auditorium was constructed in 1910 across Texas Avenue but was replaced by Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in 1966. The Alley Theatre, the Wortham Theater Center, the Music Hall, and the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts eventually followed.
On opening day November 21, 1926, the first guests to register were the vaudeville actors from the nearby Majestic Theatre at 900 Rusk Avenue and members of the Palace Theatre. In 1927 and 1928 the Auditorium Hotel’s guest roster included Clark Gable, a then-unknown performer at the Palace Theatre. Family legend relates that management once held his trunk for ransom due to his failure to pay rent.
Over the years, hotel guests have included a horse, opera singers, musicians, actors, dancers, screen writers, film stars, poets, authors, famous speakers, politicians, wrestlers, boxers, circus and rodeo performers, patrons of the arts, numerous business leaders, and lawyers. Wrestlers often practiced on the hotel roof prior to their matches at the City Auditorium. At the 1928 National Democratic Convention a few blocks away, Al Smith was nominated to run against Herbert Hoover. Delegates stayed at the Auditorium Hotel and caucused in smoky rooms.
Two months after the hotel opened, an equine star showed up at the front desk. Betty Rand, a hotel guest and wealthy actress from Houston, owned an intelligent horse named Phantom. The duo became international celebrities by traveling together on chartered airplanes. They appeared on stage and in films. Phantom was in town to perform in a movie in Houston and Galveston. Later in 1927 the hotel sponsored a futurity race in Galveston for a greyhound dog race which was won by a canine called Speedy Boy.
During World War II the hotel basement was transformed into the Stage Canteen, a circus-themed cabaret free on the weekends for enlisted servicemen. It operated from December 30, 1942, until January 1, 1946. Opening the Stage Canteen was the brainchild of Mrs. Dewey Roussel, president of Houston’s Little Theatre. Roussel patterned the Houston establishment after the Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre in New York City. One celebrity who entertained the troops was singing cowboy Gene Autry. While performing in town at the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo, Autry rode his horse Champion down the stairs into the Stage Canteen and entertained his audience with some Western songs.
From 1911 to 1936 the Galveston–Houston Interurban Electric Railroad, a train that commuted between the two towns eighteen times a day, passed on Texas Avenue in front of the Auditorium Hotel. Passengers hopped on the Interurban and rode to Galveston to attend dog races, visit gambling establishments, seafood restaurants, seaside hotels, beaches, and shops on The Strand.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Auditorium Hotel’s role declined with the city’s sprawl into the suburbs. An update in décor gave it the mid-century modern style, but deferred maintenance built up. Such was the type of hotel that Paramount Picture Corporation needed in 1977 when the studio rented the lobby and exterior as its background to film parts of Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.
In 1982 a multi-million dollar restoration occurred by a group of investors under a long-term lease with General Leisure Corporation and Lancaster Partners (led by J. W. Sharman, Jr.). No expense was spared in creating Houston’s first boutique hotel. With a goal of casual elegance, the hotel was outfitted in the style of an English country manor, and the name was changed to the Lancaster Hotel. The café became Bistro Lancaster. The number of bedrooms was reduced from 200 to ninety-three. Hightower-Alexander, A.I.A., were the architects. Interior design was carried out by Bordelon Henry & Associates, while Linbeck Construction served as the general contractor. In 1984 the hotel became a recorded Texas Historic Landmark.
Upon the death of Michele DeGeorge in 1927, the hotel passed to his two daughters, Rosalie DeGeorge and Lena DeGeorge Guseman, and son Gasper DeGeorge. Tanny Charles Guseman, husband of Lena, oversaw management of the three downtown hotels owned by the family: DeGeorge Hotel, Auditorium Hotel, and Travelers Hotel. Eventually John J. Toomey replaced him. Ultimately Lena Guseman became the sole heir. Upon her death in 1970 her three daughters became owners: Lenora Guseman Smith, Ursula Guseman Lusk, and Michelene Guseman Toomey. In August 2009 sole ownership of the Lancaster Hotel (won in a coin toss by Charles Michael Lusk, III, great-grandson of Michele DeGeorge) was transferred to the Lusk family. The Auditorium Hotel/Lancaster Hotel, Houston’s longest continually-operating hotel, is the city’s only hotel owned and operated by descendants of the original developer.
In 2013 the hotel underwent another major renovation, this time by Continental Construction. Gensler was the interior designer assisted by interior designer Charlene Lusk Dwyer (great-granddaughter of DeGeorge). The firm of Jackson & Ryan served as the architects. The furnishings and light fixtures are traditional with some transitional elements. A glass chandelier and sconces on the ground floor were custom made in Murano, Italy. As a tribute to local history, bedroom art displays posters from the neighboring performing arts groups. Bistro Lancaster has posters from films made in Houston and Texas. A feature in the lobby is an enlarged photo of the horse named Phantom inside the hotel in 1927. Historic photos and maps adorn the walls in meeting rooms named 1836, Block 59, and Fourth Ward, and suites named DiGiorgio 1884 and DeGeorge 1926. The hotel stands as a centerpiece in the heart of Houston’s business and theater districts.