“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”– Dr. Seuss
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I walk past it with every trip to my toolbox for another wrench: the tool I really needed when I thought the one in my hand would work.
It’s a short journey through the door separating my workshop where the toolbox resides and the garage where my antique road warriors slumber. However, the small hotel room placard attached to that door still evokes a smile when I glance at it.
“Shamrock Hilton Rate Posting Law – Room 532,” the placard reads. Following a paragraph of hotel legalese certifying the room for four guests, the daily rate typed in for those four to spend the night is $143. The three-guest price noted is $127. For two, $111. And for one person to stay in what was once the grandest hotel in Houston and the largest hotel built in the 1940s, the 1986 rate was $95.
Oh, and the checkout time was 1:00 p.m.
The Shamrock, as it was called when it was built between 1946 and 1949 by oil wildcatter Glenn McCarthy, was constructed southwest of downtown Houston, next to the Texas Medical Center.
The grand opening in 1949 is still cited as one of the most significant social events ever held in Houston. The St. Patrick’s Day party was touted in the newspapers as costing an estimated one million dollars. Stories reported a glamorous array of Hollywood stars in attendance along with the most elite of the oil industry and social citizenry.
For 37 years, the hotel was a favorite spot for Houston events such as debutante balls, galas, conventions, and business meetings. Its lavishly landscaped garden, 5,000-square-foot mahogany and marble lobby, and 165- by 142-foot swimming pool (described as the world’s largest outdoor pool accommodating exhibition water skiing and a 3-story diving platform) made it a popular gathering place for more than three decades.
The Shamrock was referred to as “Houston’s Riviera” in the early 1950s for its exclusive private Cork Club where singer Frank Sinatra performed and where oil deals were often made on the back of cocktail napkins. In 1953 singer Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters launched her brief solo career in the hotel’s fashionable Emerald Room nightclub.
The Hilton chain added the hotel with it’s reputation for elegance to their line in 1955 and operated it until 1985. With Houston in the grips of a local recession at that time, and the hotel in need of renovation and updating, the hotel property was donated to the Texas Medical Center.
Demolition of the grand old hotel began in June 1987, and it was gone from the skyline by August. Before that, however, the last Shamrock St. Patrick’s Day party was in 1986, and the hotel’s last days open to the public for guests was the first weekend of June of that same year.
That summer weekend, I was the last guest in room 532.
Arriving Friday at the still elegant facility, I joined the throngs of the curious where parties were already in progress. Banquets, reunions, and even one birthday party. I was there to “close up” the landmark hotel with Houston’s classic Thunderbird club.
Gathering to say goodbye bore a note of sadness. Mother Nature added to that mood by contributing clouds that obscured the sun all weekend. She also threw in off-and-on rainfall that suggested the shedding of tears for the structure’s eminent passing.
There was no somber mood among the employees, however, who talked openly about her closing and destruction. Festivities filled her many banquet rooms for the last time.
The car club staged a T-Bird show around the hotel’s entrance drive late Saturday evening. But weathering the pesky mist of rain put a damper on outside activities, so some of us cruised our old cars over to the nearby Prince’s Hamburger Drive-In, another Houston landmark.
Back at the hotel that night, a line outside the restaurant waited to buy glasses, silverware, or anything that bore the Shamrock Hilton logo. Noticing empty sign frames in the elevator, I commented to a hotel worker making the trip up with us that it looked like the souvenir hunters had been busy.
“We’re encouraging it,” he said. “Better to leave as someone’s keepsake than to go the way of the hotel demolition. And be sure to get the rate sign off the door in your room,” he added after a pause. “You will have it to remember that you were one of the hotel’s last guests on the last night … and the last person to stay in that room.”
The sun was finally trying to make an appearance Sunday morning as most were leaving just before checkout time. Some of us joked about it being close to 1:00 p.m., laughing since it was closed to the public once we were gone anyway. Others were in tears. “Are you coming to the wake tomorrow,” I heard someone say?
“Wake,” I questioned with a smile. “No, I’m sad she’s gone, but I’m smiling because she was here.
Funny thing though. I still smile when I see “Checkout time is one (1) p.m.” on my workshop door. On my way to find the right tool again.