The earliest reference to the existence of a red-light district called Happy Hollow in Houston was on July 9, 1874, in the Galveston Daily News, which reported, “Happy Hollow was well represented in the Police Court yesterday.” Vinegar Hill, the city’s first red-light district, was being eliminated.
The geographic area of Happy Hollow was between Prairie Avenue on the north, Capitol Avenue on the south, Milam Street on the east, and Smith Street/Buffalo Bayou on the west. Possibly the area was so named due to a gully that was formed by a spring flowing west from Milam Street to Buffalo Bayou between Texas and Prairie avenues (through Blocks 59, 60, and 61 south side of Buffalo Bayou). Cartographer Augustus Koch drew this spring and gully on his 1873 bird’s-eye map of the city. Samuel Oliver Young, Jr., wrote about this gully in his book True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians. On his 1913 map, cartographer W. E. Wood referred to this as the Prairie Avenue Gully.
Sanborn fire maps from 1896 showed many of the two-story wooden dwellings in this area as female boarding houses, a euphemism for brothel. The federal census of 1900 listed the lodgers as inmates with the occupation of prostitution. Madams, who operated the houses, were referred to as “Lodge House Keepers.” Other occupants were the cook, porter, and housekeepers. Residents of Happy Hollow included Anglos, African Americans, and a small number of Tejanas. Most were young and illiterate. Prostitution may have begun in this area after the Civil War. On their periodic raids of Happy Hollow, the police would round up some of the workers and charge them with vagrancy, being inmates of a house of ill fame, opium overdose, or keeping a disorderly house.
In the Fourth Ward at the edge of the business district, life in Happy Hollow was full of murder, suicide, robbery, burglary, assault, and other outlawed acts. From 1874 through 1907 and beyond, Happy Hollow was in the news with headlines and stories: “In the calaboose this evening about fifteen or twenty soiled doves were imprisoned, in default of payment of $15 fines, for infraction of the bagnio ordinance”; “It was reported on the streets this forenoon that a man had been murdered about Happy Hollow, but it was a knock-down”; “Two Houses Burned. The place was popularly known as Mahogany hall...”; “Happy Hollow was again raided by the police last night and nineteen women [were] taken into custody...”; “Too Much Opium…Fannie Kingdon died from the effects of too much opium.”
In an effort to restore order in 1897, Houston Police Chief Jones began to enforce an old closing ordinance, which required saloons to close between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. Of the thirty saloons that stayed open all night, the majority were located in Happy Hollow. The White Elephant Saloon was located at 701 Texas Avenue and attached to a brothel at 703 Texas Avenue.
During the early twentieth century, citizens, businessmen, and churches—especially Shearn Methodist Episcopal Church one block east on Texas Avenue—had become annoyed at the illicit activities. A petition was drawn up, signed by 130 citizens, and then put before the city government. Citizens wanted to get rid of the debauchery in the business district.
A motion that was lasting and effective had been found. Licenses were refused to such persons who were proven unworthy of operating saloons in compliance with the liquor law. Detectives and police officers were given the opportunity to testify against the keepers of dives. Licenses were refused after a trial in open court, where applicants for licenses were required to disclose any past record to the court. Additionally, in 1908 the city council formally designated a new location for a red-light district, just west of town. By 1910 the federal census showed that the prostitutes had left the central business district and moved to the “reserved” area known as the “Reservation” in the Hardcastle section of Freedmen’s Town in the southwestern section of the Fourth Ward.
After 1930 public housing was built at the site and in the 2010s was known as the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway. The former Happy Hollow now houses Houston’s theater district, the Lancaster Hotel (formerly the Auditorium Hotel), Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, the Wortham Theater Center, and the Alley Theatre and office buildings.
In February 2016 the Texas Historical Commission and the Houston Archeological Society conducted an Emergency Salvage Archeological Survey and Shovel Test at 509–511 Louisiana on Lot 8, Block 59, after two brick buildings dating from 1906 were demolished. The team discovered “a representative sample of over 1,100 artifacts, including bottles, ceramic shards, glass, tile, buttons, nails, and other buildings materials.” Bottles were recovered that could have been used by the ladies who lived in the female boarding houses—Dr. Bell’s Pine Tar Honey for Cough and Colds dating between 1897 and 1908; Lydia Pinkham’s Medicine, a patent medicine of the nineteenth century containing an herbal-alcoholic women’s tonic meant to relieve menstrual and menopausal pain; a Zombie Perfume bottle; a Chamberlain Medicine Company bottle, its contents famous for relieving menstrual cramps due to its high alcohol content; and Ballard Snow Liniment, a popular remedy for “rheumatism, neuralgia, spasm, bruised, still joints, bunions, chilblains, and any inflammation on man and beast.” The Listerine Lambert Pharmaceutical Company bottle once held Listerine, which had many unusual early uses: surgical antiseptic, a floor cleaner, a cure for gonorrhea, and finally chronic halitosis.