Why your out-of-town friends can’t pronounce Houston

The history of the street is as interesting as its pronunciation

William Houstoun and Houston Street
William Houstoun and Houston Street

The pronunciation of Houston Street separates the tourists from the locals surer than a camera and a subway map. But the reason New Yorkers say “HOW-stun” rather than “HUE-stun” isn’t some linguistic accident. In fact, there is a surprisingly interesting history to the name.

Gerard Koeppel, author of “City on a Grid: How New York Became New York,” tells the New York Times that “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.”

William Houstoun had an unusual life. He was born in the colonies (in Savannah, Georgia) in 1755, but returned to London to train at the Inner Temple, part of England’s court system. But he returned to the Georgia once again in 1783 to represent his state in the Continental Congress, according to 6sqft.

He was a delegate in the 1787 Constitutional Convention and one of the original trustees of the University of Georgia at Athens. It’s impressive, but how did a transcontinental Southerner give his name to one of Manhattan’s most important streets? The answer is his wife Mary Bayard.

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Bayard traced her ancestry to Peter Stuyvesant and her family was prominent in the Northeast. Her family owned a 100-acre farm in present day Soho but when the family ran into financial trouble, they carved it into blocks and sold it off.

He named the east-west streets and numbered the north-south streets. But he also named one of these thoroughfares “Houstoun Street” in honor of Mary’s husband. The southern boundary was renamed Bayard Street.

So why is modern day Houston Street no longer spelled Houstoun? Koeppel thinks that Sam Houston grew so famous that people began confusing the two spellings. [NYT | 6sqft]Christopher Cameron