Foley’s, a leader in Houston’s retail industry, first opened in 1896 as W.L. Foley Dry Goods Company at 214 Travis. Founder William L. Foley, an Irish businessman, convinced his nephews James A. Foley and Pat C. Foley to join him in Houston. Trained under their uncle’s tutelage, the brothers opened Foley Bros. at 507 Main Street in 1900.
Foley Bros. offered fabrics, needles and menswear and recorded 138 sales on opening day. By 1922, after moving three times, Foley’s was the largest department store in Houston and was well on its way to becoming the “finest department store in the South.”
As WWII was ending, plans were made for a new downtown location. Foley’s broke ground on their new store at 1100 Main Street in 1946. Dubbed “the store of tomorrow,” the building cost $13,000,000 to complete and included air conditioning and a windowless design. The only windows were the display windows on the street level, which drew crowds to see the latest fashions and the elaborate Christmas displays each winter. Foley’s now also offered extra amenities to their customers, including a beauty shop, wedding planning services and a deli.
In the 1960s, Foley’s first branch store was built in the Sharpstown neighborhood, an early leader in Houston’s suburbanization. By 1986, 16 branch stores existed, and the Foley’s empire would eventually extend to five other states.
From the beginning, Foley’s was committed to serving Houstonians in many capacities. In 1927, the Foley Bros. building included an auditorium that acted as a civic center and rehearsal hall for the Houston Symphony. The company often supported the Girl Scouts™ and Little League® teams, and in 1950, Foley’s sponsored the first Santa’s ride from nearby Union Station to the Main Street store. This event became the annual Foley’s Thanksgiving Parade that Houstonians enjoyed for 44 years. During the period of branch expansion, Foley’s studied Houston’s growth, including transportation and traffic patterns, and worked with state and local entities to improve the nearby sewers and water lines.
Foley’s was not immune to conflict, however. In the early 1960s, the store became a central figure in Houston’s desegregation. Activists from TSU gathered inside and outside the busy store, demanding racial equality in a time when Jim Crow laws allowed stores like Foley’s to deny services to African Americans. In an effort to avoid racial conflict and seeing a potential new market, the store quickly welcomed African American customers and employees. Foley’s successful example inspired other area businesses to desegregate as well.
In 2006, after a series of ownership changes, all Foley’s stores changed their name to Macy’s, thus closing the door on Houston’s most successful department store brand. The downtown store was demolished in September 2013.
Reprinted from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Houston, a project in cooperation with the Houston History Alliance. For more information, visit www.HoustonHistoryAlliance.org.