What began as a short tunnel connecting a few buildings in the 1930's has slowly evolved to nearly seven miles of color coded corridors that allow pedestrians to navigate downtown Houston without being exposed to 100 degree weather with 100% humidity.
Inspired by the underground system at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, the system grew for different needs. One early adopter connected a few of his theaters just to save on air conditioning.
People are usually shocked when they first hear of the tunnels. Those having lived in and around Houston for years (even their entire lives) have no idea this system exists. They immediately assume it's some sort of urban exploration trek, akin to a large sewage passage or abandoned subway tunnel.
In fact, they are painfully boring.
Imagine a mall that hit its peak two decades ago or a regional airport terminal. Wandering the carpet-covered walls in the mid-afternoon reveals a florescent-lit ghost town twenty feet under the city. Through a good chunk of the near-Brutalist geometries of the meandering hallways, it feels like you just snapped out of a day dream only to realize you have been working a soul-crushing job for the last thirty years.
This is truly a utilitarian design.
The entire experience isn't doom and gloom. The labyrinth has grown into a popular service station during the lunch hour. The hallways are populated with banks, doctors, barbershops, and cleaners, but mostly filled with food court-esque restaurants. Short stretches are adorned with Houston memorbilia ranging from sports to NASA.
Turning corner after corner in this tiled bunker can dull all senses. Every so often you are rewarded for your resolve by a visual breath of air. Windows offer that escape, either exposing you to a courtyard or reminding you of the magnitude of the buildings you are under.
Only a small area was undergoing construction after damage from Harvey. In 2001, after Hurricane Allison, large metal doors were put in place to seal the entire area off from flooding. Shipbuilders came in and fitted doors akin to submarine hatches across the tunnel system. As only a short stretch was affected, I'm sure a lot of small business owners throughout are incredibly grateful for this level of precaution.
The tunnels serve a purpose and offer an interestingly banal view of the people and companies that use them on a day-to-day basis. In fact, this is one of the few places I've visited where one of the more popular places to eat is just called "Chicken Etcetera." Looking forward to its future rival, "Food Here."
There are multiple ways into the tunnels. The only street level entrances are at Wells Fargo Plaza and McKinney Garage. All others are in the lobies of buildings and aren't too hard to discover.