Michele DeGeorge, businessman, real estate investor, and founder of the DeGeorge and Auditorium hotels in Houston, was born Michele Di Giorgio on September 29, 1850, in the province of Palermo, in the district of Corleone, on the island of Sicily. He was the son of Joseph and Rosalie Di Giorgio. He served in the Artillery Corps of the Italian Army for almost three years but then returned home to work in the family flourmill to support his mother, younger brother, and two sisters after the death of his father.
In 1879 Michele Di Giorgio married Ursula Ciulla (1855–1924), also of Bisacquino. They had six children. Joseph and Rosalie were born in Bisacquino, Sicily; Lena, Gasper, Bernard, and Mary were born in Texas. Joseph, Bernard, and Mary predeceased their parents. Rosalie, Lena, and Gaspar grew up in Houston, and their family descendants still lived there in the early twenty-first century.
In 1882 the Di Giorgios immigrated to the United States. They initially lived near New Orleans, and Michele and his brother Bernardo worked in the Thibodaux sugarcane fields on the Edward Douglas White plantation; they earned fifty cents a day. Michele soon moved to Orange, Texas, and worked at a lumber mill.
Michele Di Giorgio saved $700 and in 1884 moved his family to Houston, where he operated his first grocery store and saloon at the southwest corner of Milam at Prairie streets. His second grocery was located on Houston Avenue at Edwards, and his third grocery business was on San Felipe (renamed West Dallas Street). Using his draft horse and dray, Di Giorgio was also a delivery driver for the Houston Ice & Brewing Company/Magnolia Brewery. Consequently, his store had the reputation of selling the coldest beer in town. Because he could be trusted to exit with his paycheck intact, Michele was assigned to make deliveries to Houston’s red-light district.
When Michele and Ursula Di Giorgio immigrated to Houston so did their siblings. Michele and his brothers-in-law Antonio and Bartolomeo Ciulla jointly began making small real estate investments and purchased mostly improved rental properties. By 1892 they split partnerships, and each man continued independently. Michele’s investment properties were always near public transportation—first along mule-car lines, then electric trolley lines.
By the 1890s Di Giorgio had accumulated a considerable amount of rental property in Houston’s Fourth Ward. At that time his final grocery and saloon was in a two-story Western-style frame building at 902 Bagby at Walker. The family resided upstairs. In 1897 he purchased most of the balance of the block totaling nearly four acres. In 1899 and 1900 the newly-minted “DeGeorge” family built a large Victorian home at 918 Bagby at McKinney; the residence was one of the first to be served by electricity as well as by gas. The DeGeorge compound, including several rental and boarding houses, was the site of Houston’s City Hall Annex building in 2016. Michele once also owned half of the block across Bagby Street, where city hall was built in 1939.
Michele DeGeorge’s keen business sense led him to observe Houston’s changing commercial trends, and through his study of both local and regional development and technological and transportation advancements, he moved his investments and partnerships accordingly as Houston became known as the city “Where Seventeen Railroads Meet the Sea.”
In 1901 he purchased the northeast corner of Texas Avenue at Louisiana on Block 59 on the south side of Buffalo Bayou. He waited until 1926 to build his second hotel, the Auditorium Hotel at 701 Texas Avenue. After a substantial renovation in 1982 the hotel was rebranded as the Lancaster Hotel.
After the 1905 announcement that the Houston Belt and Terminal Railway Company was condemning twelve city blocks east of Main Street to build a vast rail complex and Union Passenger Train Depot, DeGeorge purchased the north half of Block 49 on the south side Buffalo Bayou in 1906. In 1913 he built his first hotel, the DeGeorge Hotel, at 1418 Preston Avenue.
When Michele DeGeorge died in Houston on August 16, 1927, newspaper articles described him as having risen from poverty to become one of the wealthiest Italians in the South. He owned about 100 pieces of real estate. In addition to two hotels and multiple rent houses, he left a three-story wholesale furniture warehouse at the corner of Hamilton and Commerce streets.
Michele and Ursula DeGeorge, both active in civic affairs in Houston, were founders and members of Italian societies, devout members of Annunciation Catholic Church, and patriotic Americans. After denouncing his allegiance to the King of Italy in 1892, Michele DeGeorge became a naturalized American citizen in 1902. He and his wife are buried, along with several descendants, in the Michele DeGeorge Mausoleum in Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston.