On the corner of Congress and Main in Downtown Houston stands a hundred-year-old monument to commerce, recognizable by its original marble arches and signature red awnings. Once a functioning bank and office tower, this edifice is now home to the young and vibrant Hotel Icon, a fine steak and seafood restaurant, and a bar that features prominently in local ghost hunting pub crawls.
Why supernatural attention? In addition to the physical evidence that remains in this carefully preserved historical landmark, the grimmer days of the Icon’s history as a hub of business dealings and speculation seem to have left a subtler mark upon the place.
Or so many guests have come to believe in the middle of a sleepless night.
Hotel Icon History
Union National Bank
The building that is now the Hotel Icon was constructed in 1911 as the Union National Bank. It was briefly the tallest building in Texas before being surpassed in 1913, and it continued banking operations until the 1970s. Legend has it that Bonnie and Clyde once cased the location, but ultimately decided against targeting it.
Only the first two floors of the building were used by the bank, with the remaining ten devoted to offices for prominent businesses and entrepreneurs of the day. Even so, the palatial, Greek-inspired architecture clearly broadcasts the building’s banking origins, from the original Doric columns in the lobby to the front façade with its rows of Corinthian pillars and busts of Hermes, the Greek god of commerce.
Most striking of all is the enormous bank vault that now stands behind the Icon’s front desk. This too is all original, down to its inner gears, and is now used for staff offices.
Though modifications to the building have been done with care to preserve points of historical interest, the accommodations of the Hotel Icon are lushly modern, introduced in 2004 and updated in 2011. Guests are invited to dine on an ever-changing selection of fresh seafood and steak at the upscale Line & Lariat Restaurant or relax in the onsite spa and order from a broad and indulgent room service menu.
For special occasions and events, the Icon offers luxurious penthouse suites, themed accommodation packages ranging from sports weekends to romantic getaways, and even a private, chef’s table dining room.
The experience of staying at the Icon today is one of comfort and glitz, but that hasn’t always been the story of those who’s spent their days surrounded by its marble splendor.
The Union National Bank went through several mergers and buyouts, with the structure itself changing names to the Continental Building, the Pan American Bank Building, and even the Natural Gas Building. Meanwhile, rentals of the once high-demand office spaces on the upper floors dwindled over the decades. By 1973, there were only five upstairs tenants, and soon after, the last incarnation of a bank to inhabit the space closed for good.
In 2000, attempts were made to build a luxury apartment high-rise on the spot, but the City of Houston’s Archeological and Historical Commission declared the building a landmark, preventing the sale of the land.
The building’s 2004 transformation into the Hotel Icon, while applauded by historians, tourists, and locals alike for its respectful yet updated use of the space, cost $35 million and bankrupted the hotel’s independent first owners. In spite of steady bookings, the hotel was sold within two years to the hospitality management company that eventually signed with Marriott in 2011, kicking off the secondary $1 million renovation.
It seems those statues to Hermes may not have succeeded at winning the god of commerce’s attention, or at least not the way the designers intended. Hermes is known to be a trickster too, after all.
Ghosts of Hotel Icon
Ghosts of the Crash
Like most places that were around to see it, the most dramatic turning point in the Icon building’s history of economic struggle was the 1929 stock market crash. This opening blow of the Great Depression spelled the beginning of the end for many of the businesses operating out of the upstairs offices, and the bank itself, like many others, was unable to cover the sudden rush of customer withdrawals, having invested and lost so much in the collapsing market.
In the flood of mass panic that accompanied and exacerbated the very real financial losses of the crash, a wave of investors from both the bank and the upstairs businesses are said to have committed suicide on the property. Some guests report seeing, or more often hearing, the final moments of the dead repeating.
The most common phenomena are the phantom sounds of gunshots and bodies hitting the floor, and the image of a man in a 1920s business suit sitting on one of the guestroom windowsills, facing outward, before finally pushing himself over the edge.
Guests have also woken in the night to the sound of a stranger’s voice, or the distinct feeling of an intrusive presence in the room.
Regardless of the misfortunes that have befallen business owners and investors within the Icon’s walls, it remains a gorgeous luxury hotel, proud of and generous with its history. Even if you’re not staying the night, consider stopping for a drink in the L&L bar, browsing the lobby’s mini-museum, and soaking in the unique ambiance.