MELLIE KEENAN ESPERSON, businesswoman and developer, was born in Manhattan, Kansas, around 1870, the daughter of THOMAS and HANNAH MARIE (MCFARLAND) KEENAN. She moved to Oklahoma as a young woman. While living there she met NIELS ESPERSON, a native of Denmark. The couple married in 1893 and in 1903 moved to Houston, where Mellie learned the intricate dealings of the oil business while her husband became a pioneer developer of the Humble oilfield. Over the next decade the Espersons diversified their interests in Houston into real estate and other business efforts.
When Niels Esperson died in 1922, he left his wife substantial commercial wealth, including an oil-rich ranch in Liberty County, interest in the Reed Roller Bit Company in Houston and large holdings in a tile plant in Kansas. Her first project was to construct the Majestic Theater, a film venue that opened in 1923 and was demolished in 1971.
In 1924 Esperson initiated plans for an office building that her husband had envisioned for property he owned in downtown Houston. The 32-story Niels Esperson Building at the corner of Travis and Rusk Avenue opened in 1927, the tallest structure in Texas at that time. The Italian Renaissance building features a gold-leaf tower topped by an elaborate six-story tiered monument. Inside, terra cotta urns, bronze elevator doors, arabesque obelisks and extensive use of imported Roman marble convey the ornate sense that Esperson wanted. When completed the building reflected her forward-looking style, with an exercise area and adjacent parking garage included in its design. She had the structure air-conditioned in 1938.
Fourteen years after this building opened, Esperson completed the Mellie Esperson Building, a 19-story structure similar in style to its larger neighbor, which adjoins the first structure on most floors. The largest office building constructed in Houston during the Great Depression, it was also the first skyscraper in Houston to be built with central air-conditioning. The Esperson buildings remain a significant landmark in downtown Houston.
Apart from these projects, Esperson remained active in the oil business as a prospector and producer. She acquired substantial real estate holdings in Houston and the surrounding area. For some 20 years she oversaw all of these efforts from her suite of offices on the 25th floor of the Niels Esperson Building, taking great pride in her business judgment and ability to use wealth wisely.
In 1925 Mellie Esperson married Harry Ewing Stewart, a man some 20 years her junior. The couple divorced in 1934.
Esperson received much recognition for her visionary business sense and good spirit, including recognition in the 1930s as the city’s most successful businesswoman. She died in Houston on January 14, 1945, and was buried in Forest Park Cemetery.