A Legacy of Real Estate Business Innovation
By Willam Bragg Ewald Jr.
Urban Land Institute Copyright © 2005 ULI-the Urban Land Institute
All rights reserved.
The Man Himself
George Patton was a man for World War II, an astute real estate executive once observed. And, the executive continued, Trammell Crow was a man for the postwar boom — a man who loved to be out there on the edge, loved to gamble, often without any cash. But in 1945 on VJ Day, who would have made this comparison, this prediction? Who could have foreseen the transformations he would make in cities across the face of America, the organization he would create in the field of real estate that would outdistance Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts in worldwide reach and alter the significance of real estate itself as a microcosm of the American economy over the next half century?
Fred Trammell Crow was born on June 10, 1914, in a tiny frame house at 1318 Fitzhugh Street in Dallas. It had one story, three rooms, a sleeping porch, a kitchen, one bedroom, one toilet, no hot water, no bathtub, and no electricity. The family got light from a kerosene lamp and hot water from a big kettle that they poured into a big galvanized washtub. Nine people lived there. The mother and father and the newest baby slept in the bedroom; the others — six boys and girls — slept on the porch.
That house, long since moved to clear the lot, has been replaced by an also- junky pink stucco residence with its central front door only six feet from the sidewalk. When Trammell Crow was born, Fitzhugh Street, Dallas's city limit, was unpaved. Today, if you walk 100 feet from the house to the corner of Fitzhugh and Bryan and look west in a straight shot, you can see, less than two miles away, two towering Trammell Crow monuments: 2001 Bryan, a look-alike for the Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue, and the spectacular Trammell Crow Center.
* * *
Crow's father was a runt, a financial nonstarter, a rigid Christian, and a lover of poetry. Each feature colored his son's life.
Jefferson Brim Crow, born in 1874 in Longview, Texas, was 40 years old when his fifth child, Trammell, was born. He stood only five-feet-three-inches tall and had a bad right arm he could not straighten. Trammell thinks he got it when he fell out of a tree as a boy. Trammell's brother Davis thinks he got it when he tried to crank up a car and it kicked back. Jefferson Crow never owned a car; he rode everywhere on a bicycle. He seldom ate any meat. His favorite food was rice. When the family had potatoes, he would have the skins baked separately, put them in a sack, and carry them around with him to nibble on throughout the day. He bought the family's furniture from the Goodwill. He had only one skill and only one job in his life that counted — bookkeeper for one Collett Munger, who was developing some 140 acres in north and east Dallas as Munger Place, bounded by Fitzhugh, Live Oak, and Swiss Avenue. As a real estate broker, Jefferson was unsuccessful; when talking to customers, he tended to dwell on the defects of the piece of property in question. "Think of this," Crow wrote late in life, "longing to be somebody," all against the backdrop of his father, whom he described as "a little nothing." "I never acted or allowed myself to feel any embarrassment or defensiveness about Father. I stood with him and, wincing inside, smiled outside to him and with him, no matter what."
Throughout his life, Trammell Crow would maintain that he had no role models. "I was not influenced by many people," he has said. "I got a little here, a little there. I've done my own thing totally — influenced others more than been influenced by them, been my own man, learned from everyone, big and small."
Yet more than anyone in the world, Jefferson Crow towers as a role model for his son. And although Trammell insisted constantly on being unlike his father, he has acknowledged that his father influenced him on his personal standards. "But," he adds, still rebellious, "in no other way."
As much as anyone, Crow continues, Jefferson Crow influenced "how I relate to others." "I was my fathers' best friend," he has recalled. His father would take him walking along the Santa Fe Railroad right of way. Trammell helped him with the yardwork. Jefferson once declared Trammell the only debtor who ever came back to repay him what he owed ("I could never carry an unpaid debt in my heart," Trammell recalled). And Jefferson Crow brought religion into his son's life, as both a treasure and a trouble.
* * *
Crow's mother, Mary Simonton Crow, was a saint, tall and beautiful, with such penetrating eyes, one of Crow's young companions has recalled, "you couldn't look into them and tell a lie." An extraordinary woman who led a seemingly ordinary life as a housewife in an honorable and stable family, when she died in a nursing home, the other residents kept her accustomed chair vacant for six months.
From his parents Trammell Crow learned religion. Trammell's father thought constantly about his relationship with God. "I spent some time on that too," Crow adds: "God is everything. We are part of God. And we have free will." His mother put her whole life into her chores. Both parents sang hymns as they worked about the house. When a grade school playmate took the name of the Lord in vain, young Trammell went off by himself behind some bushes in the schoolyard and cried. Twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday evening Jefferson Crow would lead his family in procession to the East Dallas Presbyterian Church on the corner of Swiss and Carroll Streets. At home they said grace before every meal and family prayers on their knees every night in the living room.
"My father's observance of Sundays was rigorous," Crow has remembered. "The comic strips couldn't be unfolded until Monday. The Sabbath was passed in going to church and coming home to listen to Father read the Bible or Youth's Companion. Only late in his life did my father allow the family to listen to a baseball game on the radio on Sunday. ... he wouldn't let us use the word 'bet'. ... we had to say 'venture' as in 'I venture he'll be here in an hour.'"
When a physician ordered Jefferson to take a bit of whiskey every day for medicinal purposes, Trammell asked his father after a week how he felt.
"Just the same," Jefferson replied.
"How much whiskey have you been drinking?"
"One teaspoonful a day."
Religion was what his parents did. And, Crow observed later, it was about all they did. Crow bitterly resented religion for its drain on his father's — and mother's — energy in the real world. Crow's father wanted to live so that if Jesus returned to Earth, "He wouldn't find me doing something He wouldn't want me to do." "Isn't that sweet?" Crow asked kindly. "And isn't that pathetic?"
The early teachings and examples nonetheless reached to the center of his heart and soul: honesty, detestation of drink, and passionate love of old favorite hymns, which he revered as works of art.
From his father, Crow also learned poetry, and it remained with him as an unalloyed joy. "My love of poetry," he wrote years later, "goes back to my childhood. The years, my own fatherhood, and thoughtful experience have taught me the wisdom of my own father in attempting to direct me into the experience of poetry. He gave me five cents for each poem I would memorize, urging upon me first his favorites, which included Bryant's 'Song of Marion's Men' [from which the first two lines below are taken] and Longfellow's 'A Psalm of Life' [from which the last four lines below are taken]. Even today, I feel and am stimulated and am retaught by lines of these two":
Our band is few but true and tried,
Our leader frank and bold.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way,
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
"I don't believe that man can grow beyond the greatness and wonder of such beautifully expressed thoughts, even the man who wrote them. But they make one try to grow up to them."
Crow goes on in an observation similar to that of Alexander Pope in An Essay On Man: "Poems fill another need. ... somehow we forget or lose a thought we want to retain and use again. ... Usually poems convey the author's finer feelings about important matters of life or circumstances. I've ... expanded and enjoyed living this early learned love of poetry. And I welcome the pop recall of lines pertinent to a moment, and the stray shots as well."
* * *
Six brothers and sisters eventually shared that Fitzhugh Street sleeping porch with Crow: Brim, born in 1909; Kathleen, 1910; Davis, 1912; Stuart, 1913; and his younger brother and sister, Howard and Helen. The last four, with Trammell, were born on Fitzhugh Street. Virginia, the youngest sibling, was born elsewhere, in 1925.
Crow entered Fannin Grade School one semester ahead of his age group. He always had to run hard to keep up. He remembers few incidents from Fannin: breaking a leg on the playground; buying a big ice cream cone instead of a sandwich for lunch when his parents were out of town; walking by the house of a little girl he fancied — the first one he later took to a Christian Endeavor party.
Jefferson Crow eventually got enough money together to buy a more spacious lot — about 100 feet square — at 6218 Prospect Street in an area called Empire Heights, and built a more spacious house. Crow, now ten and in the fourth grade, could luxuriate in a dwelling two stories high, 60 feet wide, with three bedrooms, a sleeping porch, living room, kitchen, and a bathroom that now had a tub and lavatory but still no hot water. To keep warm the family heated the living room with coal; they cooked with kerosene. For more than 20 years they paid off the mortgage at $90 a month.
"I always wondered how all ten of you lived in that little house on Prospect," former Congressman Jim Collins, a friend from boyhood who grew up nearby, once joked to Crow. "Jim," Crow answered, "I always thought of that place as being rather spacious. When we lived out on Fitzhugh, now life there was sort of crowded."
On the whole, those were happy years. They were poor, but didn't know it. The boys could go around with the wealthy kids. And, living on the edge of town, they remembered Dallas as more country than city. Dallas in those days had its shopping center downtown, not scattered around the suburbs. It had little or no crime and, Crow's brother Davis has recalled, no abusive drivers or inconsiderate people. It was not yet a city where you could, in his words, "hate Northwest Highway and half the people on it."
The boys roamed freely in the 100-plus acres of Munger Place, and even down in the Trinity district, before and after the levees were built to tame the river. Their father taught them to swim at the local YMCA, and Trammell and Davis would walk to Munger Hole or White Rock Lake to cool off in warm weather. If they found a boat unlocked at the water's edge, they might requisition it, paddle out to the middle, dive overboard and swim around, and then return it. Crow once swam White Rock Lake shore to shore.
In school, Crow did badly in writing and art, well in arithmetic. His mother once took him to a child guidance center and told the counselor there he was "fractious and sensitive." But he was beginning to show himself as a leader. He and his brother would ride the streetcar to the end of the line and walk seven miles to a Boy Scout camp, where Trammell would always tell the others what to do.
In 1927, Collett Munger died. Jefferson Crow lost his job. He had been earning $225 a month, and now that was gone. Never again would he have steady work, apart from small bookkeeping fees. They had never had much. In junior high school, Crow got 17 cents a day for lunch money plus Boy Scout dues of a nickel a week. Otherwise, he got no money at all from his father, except once when he asked for the loan of a quarter. The family had some chickens that supplied two or three eggs a day until "some enterprising somebody" made off with the birds. They had some peach trees in the yard. They had not yet bought their first radio.
Now, in 1927 — even at the peak of the 1920s boom — they faced stark poverty. "Believe me!" Crow wrote many years later, "I am more qualified to opine and relate about poverty than most men I have met. Qualified because I have lived it, lived it. Because I have seen my parents live it. And my brothers and sisters, especially the younger ones. I am qualified because I have come out of it, slowly, diligently, purposefully. Qualified because our poverty was not compounded by poor spirit, poor standards, poor hope, poor efforts, hate, self- pity, complaining, seeking hand-outs.
"I recall vividly the moment when, at 14, I looked at Father's fruitless struggle to earn a living and realized for the first time that our family was poor. I felt a dull pain at the knowledge."
* * *
Trammell's oldest brother, Brim, had gone to the University of Texas. But no one else in the family ever would. Brim would never amount to much. When the crisis hit the family, he had married, moved away, and was working at a menial accounting job.
Though the second son, Davis, would later become a family stalwart, in boyhood he had shown a mildly rebellious streak. He'd started smoking in high school and, when he got caught, refused to deny the misdemeanor, as two of his accomplices had. He had run off with a friend headed for California, hitchhiked as far as El Paso, turned around, and come home. After his father lost his job he worked in San Antonio for the Sun Oil Company — where he worked for the next 40 years — at a starting salary of $50 a month. He married a Jewish girl (Dallas had little or no anti-Semitic prejudice) and remained with her even longer than with Sun Oil.
With only his sister Kathleen working, for ten dollars a week, Trammell increasingly became the head of the family. "I had come to feel," he later wrote, "that my mother and father were naive and inadequate in many ways of the real world. I decided that they didn't get the whole picture. And I made up my mind then to be somebody."
He took all kinds of jobs. From the age of ten he had mowed lawns, caddied, pumped gas, even jerked sodas on Sunday until his father put a stop to it. Years later he passed a filling station with journalist A.C. Greene, pointed to it and said, "That's where I got my start."
By 1932, as the Depression deepened, he was plucking chickens and cleaning old bricks for reuse in new houses. He worked on a construction site for 15 cents an hour, clerked in grocery stores, helped unload Clabber Girl baking powder and Spreckles sugar from railroad boxcars, wheeled them into the warehouse, and stacked them up. For a dollar or two he would drive a new car from the Dallas Ford plant over to Fort Worth. From his earnings he gave his mother half to run the house and paid off his father's $600 grocery bill.
All of this did not leave him embittered. "The whole attitude of the world today toward poverty, particularly that of socialists and writers who have never been there, is out of sync with reality," Crow wrote. "We didn't suffer any lasting personal, emotional, or educational injury from our circumstances. We also learned things that many people never know. We learned desire. We learned the benefits of unity. We learned that you can do without. We learned that you can aspire and work and achieve without being fed from the outside. We learned not to feel sorry for ourselves. That might be the biggest lesson of all." Consequently, he voted for Alf Landon in 1936 and for every Republican presidential candidate since, with the exception of Barry Goldwater. Trammell Crow voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and later wished he hadn't.
* * *
Crow entered high school: first Bryan, a 45-minute walk from home, and then in 1928 Woodrow Wilson. He flunked Spanish. His chemistry teacher held him up as an underachiever — the brightest student he'd ever had, one who could do wonders, but who wouldn't do them unless he buckled down and got to work. (Continues...)
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