Sunday, March 10, 2013

Norris of Houston and the World's Largest Barber Shop



Norris in Texas Parade Magazine, 1972.

My grandfather, Norris Womack, started cutting hair in his father's barber shop at 814 South 75th Street (now demolished), at Lawndale Avenue, in Houston's East End neighborhood back in 1952 at the age of 16.  His father, Leamon, had learned the craft from his own father (my great-great grandfather) who cut the hair of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.

Leamon, standing behind the first chair in Womack's Barber Shop in East Texas.

Norris, standing behind the third chair in Womack's Barber Shop on 75th Street and Lawndale.

Norris quickly learned the business and before long was already being called the "King of Flat Tops" in Houston.  Even though most customers preferred the shorter, conservative haircuts of the time, Norris was not one to follow these cultural norms.  Instead, his curiosity lead him to Austin's university area to pick up on the newer hair fashions coming into vogue.  Norris was ready to challenge the patterns of respectability and shock the rest of the culture as Elvis Presley, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack were doing with their own work.  They, among others, had provided the model for the wider and more deeply felt social revolution of the 1960s.

Norris "The King of Flat Tops" at his father's shop in 1953.

Back in Houston, Norris opened his first barber shop, with his wife Sue, in the newly built and highly successful Westbury Square shopping center near the intersection of Chimney Rock Road and West Bellfort Avenue in 1962.  50 years ahead of its time, Westbury Square pioneered the neo-town square lifestyle center retail model.  The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Gray quoted Barry Moore, an architect who writes for Cite magazine, describing Westbury Square as a "retail Brigadoon" and said that it was as if Disneyland's Main Street USA had been translated into an actual place where people could buy real stuff, and then walk home to an apartment on the second floor above the shops.

Entrance to Westbury Square, 2011.

His one-chair barber shop, nestled among an ice cream parlor, candle shop, and needlecraft store in old world charm would seem more nostalgic than a means to social revolution.  But this was social change for Houston.  Westbury Square became a destination where the places outside and around the shops were just as important as the shops themselves--a huge departure from the generic retail strip centers quickly filling up the streets as Houston grew after World War II.  

It was a make-believe environment and while his customers were evolving and showing a growing preference for the longer hair of the counter-culture movement, he introduced manicures for men done by his wife who was trained as a beautician.  Norris had learned to style long hair back in Austin, but he never considered himself a hairstylist, only and always just a barber.

Womack Barber Shop, at 653 Westbury Square (now demolished), was located down an alley behind this building.

In 1964, Norris moved to a 3-chair location at 3406 Louisiana (now demolished) in Houston's "emerging" French Quarter of what is now known as Midtown, near the present-day Brennan's of New Orleans restaurant.  The old house had a men's clothing store on the first floor, called Norris of Houston, with the Womack Barber Shop above.  Within a few years, he expanded the barber shop to the whole house and now had 9 chairs.  At this point, he opened his first barber college on the Eastex Freeway, near Jensen Drive, and later another barber college on the Gulf Freeway, near Edgebrook Drive, whose main functions were to train barbers for his own operations and fill the chairs.

By 1965, he was ready to take the big leap and set up shop in the elite Warwick Hotel (now Hotel Zaza) overlooking Hermann Park and the Museum of Fine Arts at the request of oilman John Mecom, owner of the Warwick and the New Orleans Saints.  It was here that Norris of Houston was introduced to wealthier Houstonians, celebrities like John Wayne, Evil Knievel, Milton Berle, Tony Martin, Liberace, and all the astronauts at NASA who frequented his shop when in town and became lifelong customers.

Warwick Hotel, before the pool and terrace were added.

Liberace, who autographed this photo for my mother after dropping in.

After a vacation in Santa Fe one year, Norris was busy planning the opening of his third barber shop near the soon to be developed Galleria site on South Post Oak Road (now Post Oak Boulevard) which still resembled more of the wild west with horses and cows behind barbed wire fences.  Norris was inspired by the timber columns and heavy plaster he had seen in Santa Fe and set out to build the swankiest barber shop Houston had ever seen.

Post Oak Drive-In movie theater, where the Galleria and Transco (Williams) Tower are now.

In 1968, Norris of Houston opened at its present-day location at 2033 Post Oak Boulevard, between Westheimer and San Felipe, next to Norton Ditto.  The shop featured 20 chairs in private booths for the barbers and the lobby came with all the cobwebs, cowhide, chandeliers, and woodwork from the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe.  Even the enormous paintings were rumored to be of Womack ancestors (they were not) as if Norris needed any additional street cred among his well-heeled customers.

Exterior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Interior, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Norris of Houston on Post Oak with more recent suburban stucco enhancements.

Current interior of Post Oak location with recent additions.

Norris of Houston went on to open another shop downtown in the Tenneco (Kinder Morgan) Building and by then had become the most profitable such enterprise in the world grossing over $1 million a year.  He was the first barber shop to offer men's hair and scalp analysis, shampoo and conditioner treatment, followed by a styled cut with hair products and blow drying.  Additional services included manicures and pedicures, shoeshines, facials, massages, and even hair loss treatments, toupees, and wigs.  All, of course, by appointment only, as walk-ins were not welcome.  He also discouraged female customers, as he didn't want the men thinking they were walking into a beauty shop.

Tenneco (formerly El Paso Energy, now Kinder Morgan) Building downtown.

In 1972, planning began on his largest establishment yet and Texas Parade magazine was there to tell the story.  Stating "He's getting in Houston's hair ... as well as its pockets!  Waving his magic scissors, Norris turns hair into gold ..." and then posing the question, "How much do you tip a high school dropout who became a barber, last year grossed a cool million, and next year will probably gross twice that?"




Norris with his daughter Sherry (my mother) and his son Norris, Jr.  Both have worked for the business in the past.

Groundbreaking for new shop with then city councilman Jim McConn, who later became mayor of Houston after Fred Hofheinz and before Kathy Whitmire. 

By 1974, his new flagship super-shop had opened at 3303 Audley near Greenway Plaza.  By far his largest barber shop at over 6,000 square feet with 60 chairs all in private booths.  It was designed by renowned architect Walter Barrineau III (best known for his futuristic design of the DFW International Airport air traffic control tower).  The architecture was unlike any of his previous shops.  The building form was progressive and the use of natural light was inventive.  

While his shop on Post Oak garnered immense local press upon opening, the Audley location caught the attention of national and international media.  Soon the Guinness Book of World Records was knocking on his door to include the business in their latest edition under a new category: The Largest Barber Shop in the World.  A title he held into the 1980s when the category was retired with the advent of Vidal Sassoon, Visible Changes and the like, who all chose the more profitable franchise and licensing routes for business expansion.

Guinness Books of World Records.  I think I've set my own record for tracking down all the old copies :)

On a recent trip the Houston Metropolitan Research Center downtown, I was delighted to discover they house all the old photo negatives from the Houston Post archives.  The negatives are kept with their original photo assignment and caption sheets given to the photographers when a story was about to run.  From the comments on the sheet, it seems that the Houston Post hadn't caught up to the women's rights movement they were writing about at the time.

Note the sexist remark... in writing... and signed.  Sigh.

Norris of Houston at 3303 Audley in 1976.

Waiting area.

Private booths.

Looking down from conference area.

Shampoo sinks.

Norris with his "pretty female barbers"

As the business continued to grow, Norris of Houston was involved in several lawsuits that led to the Texas Supreme Court's decision on how non-compete agreements are handled in the State of Texas.  The most notable cases were:





However, in 1976 Harvard University chose to compile a case study on the success and growth of Norris of Houston and it would become part of the curriculum of their prestigious Harvard Business School.

The Houston Post, 1976

. . .


Surprisingly, the shop at 3303 Audley still stands.  So what does it look like these days?  Houston Medical Imaging is in the building now and aside from some deferred maintenance, the exterior has only seen minor changes.

The building is mostly obstructed from the street by overgrown landscaping.

New stretched canvas entrance canopy, stone veneer tiles falling off of walls, and fake stone ceramic tile on the steps.

Newer clerestory windows and more stone veneer tile falling off.

Overgrown landscaping.

The shop at 3303 Audley closed in 1990 when another shop opened on Post Oak across the street in the Post Oak Towers designed by architect Philip Johnson, designer of several notable buildings in Houston and around the world.  By the end of the decade, Norris of Houston had consolidated into and expanded the original location on Post Oak Boulevard.  It operates as a hair salon and day spa now where women make up the majority of the customers these days and they specialize in bridal parties.

Post Oak Towers, designed by Philip Johnson

Norris, with grandsons Landon and Spencer, in front of the original Post Oak shop.

Norris cutting Landon's hair, with me observing.

. . .


* * * UPDATE * * *


Norris atop a pile of his barbers at the end of the book, "Houston: The Once and Future City" in 1971.

Norris Womack passed away on June 4, 2013.  He will be greatly missed by all that knew and loved him.  A guestbook can be signed with condolences here.


11 comments:

  1. Wow!!!!!!!! Norris!!!! Omg I am dying!! My dad lived at Norris for years and years and years. I wonder where he goes now, I'll have to ask him. He's 89!! Wow. In fact one of my bffs used to work there as a receptionist a long long time ago. Great story!!!!! Loved this! You should send it to swamplot.com. This is right up his alley. He would link it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a coincidence, Joni! I wish I could find some interior photos of the original Post Oak shop showing the western glam design. Looking back it was really just Belgian style with a little cowhide :)

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  2. Nothing about his Barber College?
    I went there in the mid '70s'.Sandy Tielson was my instructor for a bit,and he left a strong impression on me,teaching me with enthusiasm.I'll always remember him.

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    Replies
    1. My parents actually met at his barber college on Edgebrook and I-45. My mother was the manager and my father came in with his friends for a free haircut. After they got married and started a family, Sandy took over the management at that location :)

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