Houston's Birthplace: Restoring the International Coffee Building

On a hot — humid August day much like this one -- Houston was born 174 years ago. One of the city's early landmarks was the international coffee building -- and city planners want to make it a destination once again. Laurie Johnson reports.
If you face north at the corner of Main and Commerce, look down toward Buffalo Bayou. You'll notice a dilapidated green warehouse with crumbling brick and gaping windows. That's the International Coffee Building, built 100 years ago at the edge of what was then the city's busiest commercial district. Local historian Louis Aulbach says it was built by W.D. Cleveland, a wholesale grocer.

"And built this building about 1910/1911 for the International Coffee Company and their brand, Sunset Coffee. Now just think, Starbucks...Sunset Coffee -- they were one of the prime distributors of coffee throughout the town and the state out of this building. They imported Columbian just like we do today, it was a premium grade of coffee. And so this building was the center of that operation."

At the time, the International Coffee Building was at the edge of Houston's wharves. The spot is now known as Allen's Landing, the site where Augustus Allen found the real estate that he and his brother, John Kirby, would later turn into what they called the Town of Houston.

"The ocean-going vessels could make it all the way up to Allen's Landing, or to the city wharves, and this is where the commercial adventures of the city began and operated until 1912. This was actually the Port of Houston until 1912."

About a decade later, the warehouse closed. It stood empty for some 40 years, until local artist David Adickes, famous for the giant Sam Houston statue near Huntsville, bought the building.

"And then they built the Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine, his psychedelic music venue, in 1967. It was part of a local redevelopment of the downtown area as an entertainment venue during that period. There were a number of clubs on Market Square. He operated it for about 18 months and then sold it and the club itself closed about 1971. And it's been vacant since then."

And that's where the folks at the Buffalo Bayou Partnership come in. They purchased the property and started a capital campaign to turn the International Coffee Building into the bayou's main destination. Project Manager Ian Rosenberg says it'll house a kayack, canoe and bike rental first, as a way to draw people to the area.

"Ideally, we'd like to have a cafe, the Partnership may office here. And then there's an education and event type space, so this floor we're on right now, which is the top floor pretty much is an open plan. It could be used for receptions, meetings, conferences, exhibitions. And it'll be connected to the roof and we're creating a roof terrace upstairs. Again it's all about creating visibility and recognition for the bayou."

The restoration and improvements will cost about $8 million. The partnership has raised $6 million so far. The goal is to complete the work and reopen the International Coffee Building by next August, just in time for Houston's 175th birthday.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF News.
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...