A Lasting Legacy: Jesse H. Jones

Jesse H. Jones and his wife, and Mary Gibbs Jones, loved Houston and believed they owed their success to this city. They established Houston Endowment to ensure future generations benefit from a strong, vibrant region where the opportunity to thrive is available to all.

In recognition of Jesse Jones’s 150th birthday, take a look at the timeline below to learn how Jones became one of the city’s most impactful businessmen and civic leaders, literally helping to put our city on the map.

Jesse H. Jones | April 5, 1874 – June 1, 1956

Jesse Holman Jones was born on April 5, 1874, and grew up with three sisters and a brother on his father’s successful tobacco farm in rural Tennessee. He left school after the eighth grade.
Moving to Houston
Jones moved to Houston — a town of 40,000 — to manage his Uncle M. T. Jones’s vast estate of timberland, sawmills, and lumberyards. Jones also began to develop his own lumber business and his relationship with Mary Gibbs, who was born in 1872.
Building the City
Jones built Houston’s first three tallest buildings, each 10 floors tall. Construction of the Houston Chronicle Building brought him a half-interest in the newspaper, which he later bought outright; the Texas Building brought Texaco and the petroleum industry to Houston; and the Bristol was one of Houston’s first luxury hotels. He was also building chairman of the 1910 City Auditorium, which brought conventions and international performing arts companies to town and was home to the Houston Symphony from 1931 to 1955.
Rice Hotel
Jones built the Rice Hotel, what he later called “a bold and somewhat doubtful venture at the time.” He added: “Fortunately, it was built far ahead of the demand both in capacity and quality, and is a modern hotel today.”
Houston Ship Channel
Jones raised Houston’s half of the funds required to develop the Houston Ship Channel in what was one of the nation’s first public-private partnerships. Federal dollars funded the rest. He served as the first chairman of the Houston Harbor Board. He oversaw the construction of the piers and warehouses that welcomed ships from around the world and opened three more 10-floor Main Street buildings in time for the inauguration of the Port of Houston.
American Red Cross
As Director General of Military Relief for the American Red Cross, Jones led the effort to recruit and train thousands of doctors and nurses to rehabilitate wounded soldiers on European battlefields; organized ambulance networks and field hospitals; built canteens to provide rest and recreation for weary soldiers; and aided homeless citizens and orphans displaced by the war. In 1919 he wrote to his closest associate Fred Heyne: “As soon as it appears to me that the work I am doing is not important to our country and to the world, then I will immediately return … For one to know the conditions existing as I see them and be content to go about his own affairs is more than I can understand.”
Jesse H. Jones and Mary Gibbs Jones Wed
Jesse Jones and Mary Gibbs Jones were married in Houston, Texas, on December 15, 1920. They honeymooned in New York City for two months, where they attended operas, plays, and symphonies while Jesse Jones assembled real estate in Manhattan for new skyscrapers and began the most ambitious phase of his building career in Houston, New York City, and Fort Worth, Texas. He also assumed full ownership of the Houston Chronicle. “I am happiest when planning and building,” said Jones.
Democratic National Convention
Jones, as finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, erased the Party’s persistent debt and captured the 1928 convention for Houston, the first national convention held in the South since before the Civil War and one of the first to be widely received over radio. Said Jemes A. Elkins to Jones, “You have caused the South and Texas to receive greater recognition than any other individual in the history of this country.”
Reconstruction Finance Corporation
Soon after his inauguration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Jesse Jones chair of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the federal government’s lending agency that saved and expanded the United States economy during the Great Depression and later militarized industry in time to win World War II. He was known as the second most powerful man in the country after Roosevelt.
Houston Endowment
Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones established Houston Endowment on September 25, 1937. They believed education was essential for a healthy society and created college scholarship programs throughout Texas, divided them equally between men and women, and included students of color. Houston Endowment also improved community life by providing opportunities for those in need. Jones said of his education giving: “My own educational training was decidedly limited, and I have keenly felt it a great handicap, and when I can do so am glad to assist other ambitious young men and women in equipping themselves for life’s problems with a college training.”
Industrial Expansion
Jones joined President Roosevelt’s cabinet as Secretary of Commerce on September 11, 1940, after a unanimous vote by Congress exempted Jones from federal laws prohibiting one person from holding two government jobs. As Federal Loan Administrator and Secretary of Commerce, Jones orchestrated the industrial expansion required to fight and win World War II.
Return to Houston
Jesse and Mary Gibbs Jones returned to Houston from Washington, D.C., after 14 years of public service. They focused on philanthropy while Jones added to earlier skyscrapers and built new ones, including the Houston Club Building, his last skyscraper, which he built on the site of the Bristol Hotel, his first.
Jesse H. Jones passing
Jesse Jones passed away on June 1, 1956. From the time he arrived in Houston in 1898 at the age of 24, Jones nurtured a reciprocal relationship with his community, intent on both building his business and improving his city. To Jones, they were connected—only if the city prospered, would he succeed. As an active community volunteer, Mary Gibbs Jones, who passed away on August 20, 1962, was Jesse Jones’s devoted partner in this effort and in life.