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Jesse Jones

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Subject: Fractal, Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Tee Productions, Board of Economic Warfare, Washburn Tunnel, Charles Harwood, Architecture of Houston, James A. Elkins, Post Rice Lofts, Hove Festival
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Jesse Jones

Jesse Holman Jones (April 5, 1874 – June 1, 1956) was a Houston, Texas politician and entrepreneur. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce from 1940 to 1945. His most important role was to head the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), (1932–45), a federal agency originally created by Herbert Hoover that played a major role in combating the Great Depression and financing industrial expansion in World War II.[1][2] Jones was in charge of spending US$50 billion, especially in financing railways and building munitions factories.[3]

Early life

Born in Robertson County, Tennessee, Jones was the son of tobacco farmer and merchant William Hasque Jones and Laura Anna Holman. His mother died when he was six years old.[4] His father sent him to manage a tobacco factory at age 14, and at 19 he was put in charge of his uncle's lumberyards. Five years later, after his uncle, M. T. Jones, died, Jones moved to Houston to manage his uncle's estate and opened a lumberyard company, which grew quickly. During this period, Jesse opened his own business, the South Texas Lumber Company. He also began to expand into real estate, commercial building and banking.

Business activities

In 1908, Jones constructed a new office and plant for the rapidly growing Houston Chronicle in exchange for a half-interest in the company, which had been solely owned by Marcellus Foster."[5] The relationship between Jones and the "Chronicle would last the rest of his life." In 1926, Jones became the sole owner of the paper and named himself as publisher. In 1937, he transferred ownership of the paper to the newly established Houston Endowment Inc. Jones retained the title of publisher until his death in 1956.[6]

Sometime after 1908, Jones organized the Texas Trust Company. By 1912, he had become president of Houston's National Bank of Commerce. This bank later merged with Texas National Bank to become the Texas National Bank of Commerce, and grew into a major regional financial institution. It became part of JP Morgan Chase & Co. in 2008.[7]

In 1911, Jones purchased the original five-story Rice Hotel from Rice University. He then razed the original buildings and constructed the present 17-story building, now formally named as the Post Rice Lofts. The new Rice Hotel building opened on May 17, 1913. Jones soon made his mark as a builder across Houston, and helped to secure federal funding for the Houston Ship Channel, which opened in 1914 and made the city a viable port.

Political activities

President Woodrow Wilson offered him the position of Secretary of Commerce, but Jones turned him down to focus on his businesses — though he could not refuse when Wilson asked him to become Director General of Military Relief for the American Red Cross during World War I.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation chairman

When the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was established in 1932, President Herbert Hoover appointed Jones to the RFC's board, even though Hoover was a Republican and Jones a Democrat. In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made him the Chairman of the RFC, while also expanding the RFC's powers to make loans and bail out banks. This led some to refer to Jones as "the fourth branch of government."[8] Roosevelt reportedly called Jones "Jesus H. Jones."[9] According to Joseph P. Lash, the President considered Jones too conservative and shot down a strong movement to make Jones the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1940.[10]

Jones retired from the RFC in on 17 July 1939, to become Federal Loan Administrator (head of the Federal Loan Agency, which supervised the RFC and some other bodies).

Secretary of Commerce

Jones later served under Roosevelt as Secretary of Commerce in 1940—the same position he had turned down a quarter-century before—and served until 1945, when he was forced out in favor of Roosevelt's outgoing Vice President, Henry A. Wallace.

Suite 8F Group

Jones was also an active participant in the so-called "Suite 8F Group." This was composed of very wealthy, politically active businessmen who met in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel in downtown Houston. The group raised money to elect influential politicians who supported their conservative business and political views. Beneficiaries included, but were not limited to, Congressman, Senator and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congressman Albert Thomas, and Governor and Secretary of the Navy John Connally.

Houston Endowment Inc.

In 1937, Jones and his wife, Mary Gibbs Jones, established Houston Endowment Inc., which eventually became the largest private foundation in Texas. It was the principal beneficiary of the Jones' estates, ultimately owning a large number of businesses and buildings, mostly in Houston. Jones was named president of the foundation, and remained so until his death. He was succeeded as president by his nephew, John T. Jones.


Thanks in large part to the largesse of The Houston Endowment, the name of Jesse H. Jones is memorialized throughout Houston. The home of the Houston Symphony is Jesse H. Jones Hall in the Houston Theater District.[11] Jones High School[12] and Texas Southern University Jesse H. Jones School of Business are historically black institutions. The Jones family had a strong influence on Rice University as well, with the eponymous Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management founded in large part by a gift from Houston Endowment Inc., and Jones College named for Mary Gibbs Jones. The Jesse H. Jones Student Life Center, a recreation facility at the University of Houston–Downtown was also named for Jones.

In the Texas Medical Center (Houston), there are the Jesse H. Jones Rotary House Hotel, a hotel for MD Anderson Cancer patients and family members,[13] the Jones library building for the Houston Academy of Medicine/Texas Medical Center;[14] and the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Pavilion (1977) connecting Memorial Hermann Hospital to the University of Texas Medical School.[15] The original site of Texas Woman's University Houston campus, across the street from the HAM/TMC library, included Mary Gibbs Jones hall; TWU moved to a new location in 2006 and the original site became part of The Methodist Hospital.

Other Jones buildings include the main building for the Houston Public Library downtown (central) branch and the headquarters for the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross.[16]

The University of Texas at Austin's College of Communication is named after Jones, where there is also the Jesse H. Jones Chair in the Liberal Arts, held by the renowned philosopher T. K. Seung. Baylor University's central libraries comprise the Jesse H. Jones Library (1992) and the Moody Memorial Library (1968).[17]

In 1956 a hospital was built in Springfield, Tennessee, named the Jesse Holman Jones Hospital, which replaced the original hospital there. This hospital operated until 1995 when a new facility, NorthCrest Medical Center, was built.

Beyond buildings, one can also visit the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center in Humble.[18] or drive across the Houston Ship Channel (for which Jones was the driving force) on what was once (1982–1994) the Jesse H. Jones Memorial Bridge.[19]

Newspaperman Bascom N. Timmons penned a biography of Jones in 1956 entitled Jesse H. Jones: The Man and the Statesman.[20]


Further reading

  • Jones, Jesse H. Fifty billion dollars: My thirteen years with the RFC, 1932-1945 (1951) detailed memoir by longtime chairman
  • video: Strange, Eric, prod. "Brother, Can You Spare a Billion? The Story of Jesse H. Jones." (1999) Color and black and white. 57 min. Distributed by Houston Public Television, Houston, Tex.
Political offices
Preceded by
Harry Hopkins
U.S. Secretary of Commerce
Served under: Franklin D. Roosevelt

September 19, 1940–March 1, 1945
Succeeded by
Henry A. Wallace

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