Jesse Jones was born in 1874 and grew up on his family’s tobacco farm in Robertson County, Tennessee. At age 20, he moved from Tennessee to Dallas to work at his uncle M. T. Jones’s lumberyard. M. T., who owned sawmills, lumberyards and timberland throughout Texas, lived in Houston. When M. T. Jones died in 1898, Jesse Jones moved to Houston.
Upon his arrival in Houston, Jones began to build small homes as well as Houston’s first skyscrapers. He was instrumental in the development of the Houston Ship Channel, one of the nation’s first public / private partnerships. He raised private dollars to match the federal funding for the project and served as the first Chairman of the Board. He continued to add office buildings, movie theaters and hotels to the central business district in time for the opening of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914.
During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asked Jones to become director general of military relief for the American Red Cross. Jones accompanied the president to the Paris Peace Conference and after the war helped reorganize the Red Cross into the permanent international relief agency. Once the peace treaties were signed, Jones returned to Houston to focus on his business interests.
Jesse Jones married Mary Gibbs Jones in 1920. Mary Gibbs was born in 1872, in Mexia, Texas, where she grew up with nine brothers and sisters in a home filled with music and books. She attended Methodist College in Waco, Texas, at a time when few women went to college or even finished high school. Her exposure to literature, music, education and other cultures through extensive travel kindled a lifelong interest in learning and the arts.
Once married, the Joneses began making substantial donations to colleges, hospitals, orphanages, museums and other civic institutions. Jones continued to develop properties, completing a 35-story Art Deco building for the Gulf Oil Company and his National Bank of Commerce in 1929, just before the beginning of the Great Depression. When two Houston banks teetered on the brink of failure, threatening other banks across the region, Jones gathered the city’s leaders and worked for three days and nights to develop a plan to rescue the two faltering banks. As a result of Jones’s leadership and determination, no banks in Houston failed during the Great Depression.
In 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover asked Jones to serve on the board of the newly created Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). Following his inauguration, President Franklin Roosevelt expanded the RFC’s powers and made Jones its chairman. Under Jones’s leadership, the RFC disbursed more than $10 billion (about $200 billion in today’s dollars) to reopen banks, save homes, farms and businesses, rescue the railroads and bring electricity to rural areas. With World War II looming, Jones shifted the RFC’s focus from the domestic economy to global defense, using the corporation’s enormous clout to build and equip more than 2,000 plants that manufactured everything from airplanes and battleships to penicillin and synthetic rubber.
In 1940, after Congress passed a special resolution allowing Jones to become secretary of commerce while maintaining his RFC position, the Saturday Evening Post reported, “Next to the President, no man in the government and probably in the United States wields greater powers.” Today scholars give Jesse Jones tremendous credit for helping to save capitalism during the Great Depression and mobilize industry in time to fight and win World War II.
After 14 years of public service in Washington, D.C., the Joneses returned to Houston in 1946 and began to focus more intently on philanthropy.
Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones established Houston Endowment on September 25, 1937. They both believed they would prosper only if their community thrived. Toward that end, they helped to create and develop institutions and organizations that would nurture Houston’s people and encourage the city’s growth.
In 1938, the foundation’s first full year, Houston Endowment donated almost $15,000 to charitable organizations. As Mr. Jones began transferring his buildings and businesses to the foundation in the 1940s, Houston Endowment’s annual donations increased to more than $200,000. The Joneses’ giving included several college and university scholarship programs, which included minority students and were divided equally between women and men. By the time Mr. Jones passed away on June 1, 1956, the foundation had helped more than 4,000 students attend 57 colleges and universities.
Mrs. Jones brought opera to Houston radio, served on the general council of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and helped First Lady Mamie Eisenhower support military widows. She joined Houston Endowment’s board in 1954, and one year later the foundation made a $1 million grant to build the Mary Gibbs Jones College at Rice Institute (now Rice University) so women, for the first time, could live on campus.
In the 1950s, Houston Endowment began making even larger grants. The foundation donated $1 million to the University of Houston for the Fred J. Heyne Building—named in honor of Mr. Jones’s closest business associate and Houston Endowment’s first president. The foundation helped develop the Texas Medical Center by making substantial contributions for new hospitals, schools and a library and funding scholarship programs to train nurses. The foundation helped to support Houston’s low-income citizens through grants to health and human service organizations and added to the city’s vitality by supporting established and emerging arts organizations.
Before he passed away, Jones told his nephew John T. Jones, Jr., that he hoped Houston would one day have an outstanding center for the performing arts. As Houston Endowment’s president, John Jones went before the City Council in 1962 and offered to build and donate a downtown performing arts hall to the city. Just the week before, Houston Endowment had donated land to the Alley Theatre for a new building. Mr. Jones explained to the Council, “We hope to help the whole area culturally with these gifts.” Four years later, the Jesse H. Jones Center for the Performing Arts opened to great acclaim and began the area’s transformation into a thriving arts destination.
Until the 1960s, Houston Endowment owned and operated major buildings and businesses developed by Jesse Jones in Houston, Fort Worth and New York City. In response to the Tax Reform Act of 1969, the foundation began selling the businesses and buildings and investing the proceeds in securities. The sale of the Houston Chronicle for $415 million to the Hearst Corporation in 1987 completed the process.
During the 1990s, Houston Endowment took important steps to modernize. Computers replaced ledger books; the foundation moved into larger and more efficient space; and the professional staff expanded as assets grew.
Throughout the 2000s, the foundation has continued to rigorously examine its grantmaking activities and enhance its ability to identify and support organizations that deliver sustainable and observable results for the greater Houston community. Today Houston Endowment continues to work toward the Joneses’ vision of a community where all have the opportunity to thrive.