One of the surest ways to know an out-of-towner is if they pronounce it “HUE-stun” instead of “HOW-stun” Street. But have you ever wondered why we don’t say it like the Texas city? The Times received this question from a reader and turned to Gerard Koeppel‘s book “City on a Grid: How New York Became New York” for the answer. According to Koeppel, “Houston the city is named after Sam Houston. Our street was named after a fellow named William Houstoun, who was a prominent Georgian, from a long line of Scotsmen.”
East Houston Street looking west in the 1890s, via NYPL
William Houstoun was born in 1755 in Savannah, Georgia. He began legal training at London’s Inner Temple, but returned to Georgia in 1783 to represent his state in the Continental Congress. He was a delegate in the 1787 Constitutional Convention and was one of the original trustees of the University of Georgia at Athens, but despite his “southern pedigree,” it was his wife who “had the kind of clout that earns a person a street named in his honor,” according to Koeppel.
Houstoun married Mary Bayard in 1788. She was a member of the prominent Bayard family, mostly lawyers and politicians from Wilmington, Delaware who were leaders in the Democratic party and traced their roots to Peter Stuyvesant. In New York, the family owned several large farms, but the same year she was married, Mary’s father, Nicholas Bayard III, fell on financial trouble and had to sell his 100-acre farm in present-day Soho.
In a separate interview with NY1, Koeppel explained, “He figured the only way he was able to hold onto the land was to lay it out into a grid and sell it off in lots.” So he carved it into 35 blocks, naming the east-west streets and numbering the north-south streets (the latter were later renamed for Revolutionary War generals like Wooster and Greene). He named one of these thoroughfares “Houstoun Street” in honor of Mary’s husband. The southern boundary was renamed Bayard Street, which also still exists today. But why do we now spell it “Houston?” Koeppel’s theory is that Sam Houston was gaining so much fame that people began confusing the two spellings.
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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on January 27, 2017.