niels & mellie esperson
A simple story of a Dane and a girl from the great plains of America.   Time would show, however, that there was nothing simple about Mellie and Niels, or the love they shard.

By: Thomas M. Ciesla
Originally published in April, 2001. Article has been reformatted for online publishing


The Year was 1872, the place Rhone, Denmark. A young, but stoutly built, 15-year old Niels Esperson was boarding a ship for a new exciting land: America.

On arrival, with a train ticket in-hand and $5 in his pocket, Niels set out for California where he would spend the next five years working on a sheep ranch. When not laboring in the fields, he taught himself English by studying Webster's Dictionary, asking those around him how to pronounce the words. He also practiced his handwriting by tracing script over-and-over again, until he eventually developed exquisite penmanship. This skill would serve him well in later years.

While in California, Niels also developed a keen interest in geology, studying with Professor Ireland, the state geologist. In 1889, he headed eastward to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, claiming his homestead tract in El Reno. That same year, young Mellie Keenan moved with her pioneer family from Kansas to the clapboard town of Yukon, between El Reno and Oklahoma City. When Niels met Mellie 4 years later, it was love at first sight. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married on December 20, 1893. He was 36, she was 18!

Niels handwriting skills and knowledge of geology quickly made him a successful real estate pioneer, and the unofficial records keeper for all land transactions in the area. In 1895, word spread like wild fire about gold in Colorado. Niels suprised Mellie at breakfast one day by announcing, "as soon as we eat, start packing". In Colorado, Niels toiled in the mines while Mellie washed his overalls and provided constant encouragement. The magic of gold would evade the Espersons, however, draining their savings and Niels health. He discovered that during his long hours in the mines, he had contracted tuberculosis.

The Espersons retreated to Chanute, Kansas where Mellie still had family. While he rested there, Niels began reading everything he could find on the new subject of petroleum exploration.

A devout Christian Scientist, Niels used rest and relaxation to overcome his illness in two short years. His remarkable recovery made a believer out of Mellie, who also embraced the religion. With his recovery complete, the Espersons were off to Texas, where Niels believed he would make his fortunes in oil.

Though he hadn't enough money to even pay for rigging timbers, Niels had a great vision, delivered with frankness and personal magnetism. He never had trouble getting money, even after several dry holes in the Humble Oil field.

When his fifth well hit oil, the tides turned and Niels was never in need of money again. He formed the Invincible Oil Company, and drilled over 200 successful wells. The hectic activity forced the Espersons to take up residence near the Humble Oil Field for a time, staying in the Lone Star Hotel to avoid the long train rides from Houston. He later sold the company for five million dollars.

With his oil profits, Niels began investing in Houston real estate, particularly in the downtown area. He had a vision that Houston would become a city of over a million people one day, and he wanted to play a part in its development. He was also one of the original developers and financers of the Houston Ship Channel, but his favorite parcel was along Travis Street. He dreamed of building a film theatre there and a skyscraper on the opposite corner.

As fate would have it, he never got to see his dream. While on a trip in 1922 to Chicago to visit with an architect for his theatre project, Niels died from a heart attack. He left behind large land holdings across Texas including 300 acres on the Ship Channel, 35,000 acres at the mouth of the Rio Grande, a 1300 acre ranch in Liberty County full of oil reserves, and numerous corporations in several states.

Mrs. Esperson put her grief aside and took the reins of the Esperson empire. She turned out to be a forthright business person. During their marriage, Mellie was always at her husbands side, listening and learning everything about the oil and real estate business. Niels and Mellie would talk about the business every day they were together. With this in-depth knowledge in her pocket, she oversaw the control of their far-flung businesses and construction of the Majestic Theatre . It was completed in 1923 and stood until 1971.

Upon completion of the theatre, Mellie asked architect John Eberson, who had designed the Majestic Theatre, to design an office building to complete her husband's dream. With Mr. Eberson at her side, Mellie scoured the United States and Europe looking for just the right materials and craftsmanship to complete the building. The result was the Niels Esperson Building, fashioned after a building Neils admired in Chicago. The 32-story, $4 million skyscraper was the tallest structure in Texas for two years after its completion.

It was 1927 when the Niels Esperson Building was dedicated. Two years had passed since Houston's first enduring radio station -- KPRC -- went on the air, and two years since the Warwick Hotel opened its doors. It was also two years since Mellie married Harry Stewart , a successful advertising executive and a man 20 years her junior.

The next year, Mellie sold the Esperson Building, keeping the 25th floor as a base for her business operations. When the building went into default in 1932 during the Great Depression, Mellie bought it back for three quarters of the original construction costs at a foreclosure auction. She had now spent a total of seven million dollars on her husband's memory.

In 1934, after less than ten years together, Mellie divorced Harry, who was by then living in Dallas. Details of the breakup were kept private.

During the period in her life after her divorce, Mellie Esperson Stewart, now Mellie Esperson, was all 'big business'. Surrounded by a large secretarial staff, she expanded the Esperson business base and was by all accounts a difficult person to get an appointment with because of her busy schedule.

The Niels Esperson Building had been a tremendous success for Mellie as one of the city's most prestigious and desirable locations for office space. Keeping with her desire to utilize the most recent advances in technology, Mellie had the entire building air conditioned in 1938. The next year, she again contacted John Eberson to create a companion building to the Niels Esperson building.

"But", she cautioned Mr. Eberson, "it must not be as tall as Mr. Esperson's building, nor as magnificent, I wouldn't want it to detract from his glory in any way. Let it be to the right of his building -- as I always was to him."

Thus the 19-story air-conditioned building would be very different from its 32-story companion. Its extreme modern design would contrast the Italian Renaissance architecture of Niels' building. The gray limestone facing standing pale against the bronze glow of the other buildings finish.

"But these buildings do not stand as monuments to Niels and Mellie Esperson. I do not like the word monument, do you? Rather they are practical, operating developments in a city that has been good and fair to us, and to which we owe so much.

"The work was just here for me to do, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do this work to occupy my time and life. I suspect it would have been a rather lonely one without it." ---Mellie Esperson

On the 14th anniversary of the Niels Esperson Building, the Mellie Esperson Building was officially opened in 1941. The two L-shaped structures, while separate are physically joined on all but two floors. Few people who watched Mellie cutting the cake knew that she couldn't see her grand building. By 1940, Mellie could barely distinguish light from dark due to cataracts, and being a devout Christian Scientist, she refused any medical attention. The blindness quickly progressed, robbing her of her sight by 1941.

She selected a trusted companion to be with her constantly, and continued her control of day-to-day business operations despite her blindness. If a check needed signing, she would sign it, even though she would scrawl across the face of the entire check.

In her later years, Mellie kept a promise shared by herself and her late-husband: to give back something to the city that had been so good to them. The Museum of Fine Arts numbered among the recipients of her philanthropy. In addition to the many works of art that she donated was a sundial she bought from the Charles Schwab estate. Entitled Hercules Upholding the Heavens, it was placed on the plot of lawn across from the Mecom Fountain.

After over two decades of running the business, "Mother Esperson" as she came to be known -- despite never having children of her own -- died in her Warwick Hotel apartment, in 1945 at the age of 75. She was buried in Forest Park Cemetery next to "Mr. Esperson" of whom she once said, "kept our marriage constantly full of surprises".

Mellie, that midwest farm girl, never stopped loving that big Dane.

Copyright 2002 - Thomas M. Ciesla

Last Update 11/5/2001