Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings
   Louis F. Aulbach   
A Monument to Gus Wortham

Wortham FountainThe south bank of Buffalo Bayou from Montrose Boulevard to Waugh Drive is a profound, but subtle, tribute to one of Houston's most significant benefactors, Gus Wortham.

The most visible, and public, recognition of Wortham is the Gus S. Wortham Memorial Fountain which is located on bayou park land near Waugh Drive. The Wortham Fountain was designed by William Cannady and construction was complete in 1978. The spray and mist created by the nozzles at the end of the copper tubes that radiate from the center of the fountain provide the fountain with its common name, the Dandelion Fountain.

Even more impressive is the tract of land which is bounded by Allen Parkway on the north, West Dallas Avenue on the south, Montrose Boulevard on the east and Waugh Drive to the west. Most of this tract is owned by the American General Corporation, the gigantic insurance conglomerate that was founded by Gus Wortham in 1926.

This site was mostly rural pasture land throughout the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century. By 1924, however, there was some development on the tract. The A. T. Lucas Brick Company occupied a large block next to the Magnolia Cemetery and the complex included three dry kilns, a dirt shed, an office, a reservoir, a general storage building and a caretakers dwelling. The only other improvements on the tract were a handful of scattered dwellings or farms on Link Road (now Peveto Street).

In the economic prosperity of the post World War II period, businesses and residences began to appear along Waugh Drive. The  Buffalo Town House Hotel Tourist Courts at Allen Parkway, the Ineeda Laundry on Peveto Street, and the Carnation Milk Company on Waugh Drive at D'Amico Street were the commercial developments. A few residential dwellings also were built along Waugh Drive and West Dallas Avenue.

American General CenterIn the 1960's, the American General Corporation began to acquire the land  for its own business development. Over the next twenty years, the forty-four acre American General Center took shape. The center eventually came to consist of five high rise office buildings, three parking garages and a health spa. The complex's flagship high rise, the America Tower, was constructed in 1982 and contains 956,380 square feet of improved space. A 2007 market appraisal of the American General Center placed its value at a cool $200,421,755.00.

Gus Sessions Wortham was born in Mexia to John Lee and Fannie Sessions Wortham on February 18, 1891. He began his career in insurance in 1912 when he went to work for the Texas Fire Rating Board in Austin. In 1915, Gus and his father moved to Houston and founded the John L. Wortham and Son insurance agency. In 1926, Gus Wortham and Houston businessmen Jesse H. Jones, James A. Elkins and John W. Link organized the American General Insurance Company, with Wortham was president and John W. Link as chairman of the board. It was one of the first multi-line insurance companies, writing both fire and casualty insurance and that proved to be a key to the company's success that has persisted through the Depression, World War II and the post war period to the present day.

After years of successful acquisitions, the American General Insurance Company became a general business holding company in 1980. Twenty-one years later, in 2001, the American General Corporation was acquired by the American International Group. The American International Group became a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average on April 8, 2004. The AIG logo was added to the exterior facade of the Wortham Tower in the spring of 2007 to join the ever-waving American flag atop the building.

Magnolia Cemetery parkGus Wortham married Elizabeth Lyndall Finley on October 4, 1926, and they had two daughters. Throughout his life, he was devoted to his family, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Grand Opera and the general well being of the city. During the 1950's and 1960's, Wortham was a member of the "8-F Crowd"  - a group of business leaders who met for lunch in Suite 8-F of the Lamar Hotel to chart Houston's civic affairs. He served two consecutive terms as the president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce.

In the 1970's, Wortham helped to rescue a neglected cemetery that lay adjacent to his American General Center. It was said that he hand picked his final resting place in Magnolia Cemetery because it gave him a view of his American General headquarters building.

Henrietta Steiner buried her family members John P. W. Steiner and Arthur Steiner on a tract of land on the north side of the San Felipe Road near the western edge of Houston in 1884. Shortly thereafter, the First German Methodist Church of Houston (now known as the Bering Memorial Methodist Church) established this tract as the Magnolia Cemetery for its members. In 1892, the Magnolia Cemetery Company amended its charter to permit membership privileges to persons who were not members of the church.

Wortham MausoleumThe Magnolia Cemetery was originally a ten acre tract extending from the San Felipe Road (now West Dallas Avenue) to Buffalo Bayou. In 1929, the trustees of the Magnolia Cemetery deeded about two and a half acres of unused cemetery land to the City of Houston to provide the right of way for Buffalo Drive and to pay the cemetery's part for paving the roadway.

By 1970, the Magnolia Cemetery had fallen into a state of disrepair. The trustees of the Magnolia Cemetery sold an unused section of land on the north end to Gus Wortham's American General Insurance Company in 1974. That parcel later was converted into park space for visitor and local citizens. In 1970, an acre on the cemetery's south end was sold to establish a perpetual care endowment. This tract on West Dallas Avenue is still owned by AIG American General Life Insurance and is vacant commercial land.
Today, the Magnolia Cemetery, 809 Montrose Boulevard, consists of six acres in a peaceful, park-like environment and contains about 4,000 burials. After his death on September 1, 1976, Gus S. Wortham was buried in a mausoleum in the cemetery. When his wife Elizabeth Wortham died July 12, 1980, she joined him in eternal rest in the picturesque tomb.

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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2007

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