The Shamrock Hotel, built in Houston between 1946 and 1949 by independent oilman Glenn H. McCarthy, was one of the most extravagantly mythologized symbols of Texas in the 1950s. Its flamboyant dedication ceremony on St. Patrick's Day, 1949, occasioned the first national media sensation to originate in Houston. Edna Ferber transformed the Shamrock into the "Conquistador" in her popular novel Giant (1952), and as such it was featured in the film Giant (1956), directed by George Stevens. McCarthy planned the Shamrock as the first phase of McCarthy Center, a mixed-use hotel, shopping, and entertainment complex. This was to occupy a fifteen-acre tract that McCarthy acquired in 1945 at the intersection of Main Street and Holcombe Boulevard. The site lay three miles south of downtown and adjacent to the newly planned Texas Medical Center. The eighteen-story, 1,100-room hotel-the largest built in the United States in the 1940s-was conceived by McCarthy as a downtown-sized hotel scaled to the convention trade but set in a suburban locale and imbued with a glamorous, resort-like atmosphere. Flanking the hotel to the north was a five-story, 1,000-car garage (which contained a 25,000-square-foot exhibition hall); to the south was the hotel's profusely landscaped garden, terrace, and swimming pool. The pool measured 165 by 142 feet. It was repeatedly described as the largest outdoor pool in the world, so large that it could accommodate exhibition waterskiing. To celebrate the opening of the hotel, McCarthy brought in 175 film stars and executives from Los Angeles and journalists from across the country. The event, to which the public was invited, was so riotous that a live network radio broadcast by Dorothy Lamour had to be canceled. The notoriety of the Shamrock's opening reinforced the early 1950s image of Houston-and Texas-as a place that was larger than life, outrageously vulgar, yet oddly endearing. The conservative design of the hotel building and its opulent interiors elicited particularly caustic reactions, most famously from the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who toured the hotel shortly before its dedication. The Shamrock Hotel was designed by the Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick (who also designed the lanai wing built in 1957). Stone and Webster Construction Company and the Tellepsen Construction Company were general contractors. Robert D. Harrell of Los Angeles was the interior decorator, and Ralph Ellis Gunn was the landscape architect. The hotel complex was built for a reported sum of $21 million. Harrell decorated the hotel's public spaces and guest rooms in sixty-three shades of green to complement McCarthy's Irish heritage. Among the hotel's best-known interiors were the Emerald Room (its nightclub) and the Cork Club (a private social club).
During the 1950s the Shamrock was a popular social center for Houstonians. George Fuermann, in his book Houston, Land of the Big Rich (1951), described it simply as "Houston's Riviera." From 1949 to 1953 the hotel was the setting for "Saturday at the Shamrock," produced by the American Broadcasting Corporation. At the time this was the only nationally broadcast scripted radio program not produced in New York or Los Angeles. Despite its celebrity, the Shamrock experienced persistent problems with rates of occupancy and, consequently, financial performance. In 1952 McCarthy defaulted on a loan, and the property was taken over by the Equitable Life Assurance Society. In 1954, after McCarthy sold his right of redemption, the property was acquired by the Hilton Hotels Corporation, which operated it until 1986 as the Shamrock Hilton. Hilton encountered continuing problems in maintaining occupancy levels sufficient to ensure the hotel's profitable operation. As Hal Terry Shelton has shown, the Shamrock's tremendous size, its distance from the downtown business district, and the proliferation of popularly priced, auto-oriented motels put the Shamrock at a competitive disadvantage. In 1985 the Shamrock property was sold by Hilton to the Texas Medical Center, Incorporated. The Texas Medical Center retained the garage building but in 1987 demolished the hotel, its lanai wing, and the swimming-pool gardens, replacing them with a surface parking lot. On St. Patrick's Day 1986, the fortieth anniversary of the groundbreaking, 3,000 people, including Glenn McCarthy, demonstrated at the hotel to protest its demolition. During its thirty-eight-year existence the Shamrock remained a powerful symbol of Houston. It passed from being a dubious emblem of Texan exaggeration to a place valued by Houstonians for its generous public spaces and its association with an expansive era in the city's history.