Historic Sugar Land Auditorium is the last remaining public building of the original company-owned town of Sugar Land and the only building left from the original Sugar Land Independent School District #17. Sugar Land Auditorium’s story is very much a part of the history of Imperial Sugar Company and the early settlement of Fort Bend County.
A group known as “the old three hundred” settled throughout Fort Bend and surrounding counties on the large land grant given by Mexico to Stephen F. Austin. In an effort to prevent the area from being settled by France and other nations interested in acquiring large holdings in America, several hundred acres were given to the heads of “the old three hundred” families. These large land holdings became plantations that grew vast amounts of sugar cane, potatoes, cotton, and grain crops. Early on the settlers learned to boil the sugar cane in large iron kettles to make sweet syrup and a crude form of sugar.
Interest in the making of sugar on the Ellis and Cunningham properties, later sold to Kempner and Eldridge, led to the establishment of the sugar refinery, Imperial Sugar Company. To provide labor for the refinery, Imperial contracted with the prison and hired indigent workers, who lived in tents and temporary housing near the refinery. Because of the type of people who lived here, the little settlement became know as the “hell hole on the Brazos,” a very unflattering beginning for the city of Sugar Land.
Kempner and Eldridge realized that if the refinery was to be successful, they needed to bring in good workers to improve the image of the area. To do this, they would need permanent housing. They laid out streets, water and sewer lines were installed, and some four hundred homes were erected in the portions of Sugar Land nearest the refinery. The new homes brought good, hard-working men and their families from the surrounding communities and soon there were about 1200 people living in Sugar Land.
In 1912, Imperial Sugar Company erected a small, two-room wooden building at the corner of Wood and Lakeview (then 3rd St.) to serve as a school during the week and as a church facility for all faiths on Sundays. It soon became apparent that the original two-room wooden building was not going to meet the needs of the growing community for long. Recognizing this, Imperial Sugar sent an employee, M. R. Wood, to California to look at a campus they thought would serve as a good model for a local school. Wood returned with plans and construction of a new school began in 1916 on the north bank of Cleveland Lake on land donated by Imperial Sugar. The total cost for the beautiful new campus, consisting of eleven buildings, was $100,000. The original cost of the auditorium was $25,000. All the buildings were finished in white stucco on the outside and had large windows that allowed fresh air to circulate and cool the buildings. The superintendent’s office was at the front of the auditorium and there was an apartment for the custodian on the second floor of the auditorium. Not designated a school district at the time of construction, the expense was totally funded by Imperial Sugar Company.
The Sugar Land Independent School District #17 was incorporated in 1918 by an act of the Texas Legislature and was soon fully accredited with the state. Students from the school had no difficulty in attending colleges and universities and competing with those from much larger districts. In April 1959, Sugar Land I.S.D. #17 consolidated with Missouri City I.S.D. and became part of the newly formed Fort Bend I.S.D. Combined, these two excellent schools later emerged as one of the premier districts in the state.
There is no doubt that the auditorium was one of the earliest and finest auditoriums available on a public school campus in 1918. The auditorium had a raised stage and a large movie screen and projector and originally seated 500. The community would gather there to watch films, which were originally silent movies, for dances that were held on the flat-tile rooftop, and for other events.
In 1993 the auditorium was given a historical marker from the Texas Historical Society, as well as a marker was for Sugar Land Independent School District #17. These markers, as well as the original preservation and restoration efforts, were made possible by the work of Jane McMeans as President of the Sugar Land Heritage Society. The society has raised over $50,000 for the restoration effort.
Although in good condition, the building required significant work to meet current laws to accommodate the needs of the handicapped, replace wiring, add air conditioning, and redo floors and chairs. The Sugar Land Cultural Arts Foundation (SLCAF), a tax-exempt organization, was formed in 1999 to raise the additional funds required for restoration of the auditorium, to develop policies for the use of the building, and to protect the investment for future generations. From the very start, the SLCAF received outstanding support from generous members of the community, including Fort Bend I.S.D. which agreed to provide the air conditioning, the City of Sugar Land which gave $100,000, and the George Foundation, which established a $50,000 matching grant. Additionally, Houston Endowment, Inc. awarded the SLCAF with a $100,000 Challenge Grant in 2006. Today, the interior is restored and upgraded with state of the art sound and lighting equipment and the building is regularly rented for recitals, performances and meetings. Phase 2 restoration efforts were completed in 2011, with the renovation of the building’s exterior, the construction of a backstage area, provision for handicap access to the stage and upgraded lighting and landscaping.