William and Michael Hogg, the sons of former Texas Governor Jim Hogg, and attorney Hugh Potter established River Oaks in the 1920s. Potter obtained an option to purchase 200 acres around the River Oaks Country Club in 1923, and in the following year William Hogg established the Country Club Estates in order to support the development of the community. The two brothers promoted the sale of lots in the subdivision for $2,200 apiece in 1928 ($27,638 in 2008). The brothers, along with sister Ima Hogg, oversaw the construction of Bayou Bend, a stately southern-style home on the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
The development plans ensured that River Oaks's parks and esplanades were planted with live oaks, shrubs, azaleas and other flowers. Every detail of the development was planned to establish a well-integrated community. Advertised as a "distinguished experiment in fine living," River Oaks became a national model for community planning. River Oaks was published in national newpapers, real estate media and design journals featuring the development's planning standards, residential architecture, and landscape design during the 1920s and 1930s. Deed restrictions at the time restricted home prices to over $7,000 (about $88,000 in 2008) and specified architectural styles, with a gentlemen's agreement excluding blacks, Jews, and other minorities. Homes along Kirby Drive were restricted to American Colonial or English Tudor style architecture.
During the 1920s, River Oaks was so effectively organized, planned and restricted that it became the most expensive neighborhood in Houston. Bus service to Downtown Houston opened in 1927. After the start of the Great Depression 300 families lived in River Oaks. After World War II River Oaks became predominately of upper class residents. After World War II as Houston experienced its greatest growth, River Oaks would become a haven for the wealthy of the city, and the middle classes and below had to look elsewhere for affordable housing.
River Oaks has been the subject matter of scholarly studies, primarily because its significant contributions to Houston's history and the development of the American elite suburban community of the twentieth-century. The community was the site of the 1972 murder of Dr. John Hill (later described in Thomas Thompson's novel, Blood and Money) and the 1997 murder of Doris Angleton. River Oaks was the home of Jeff Skilling before he began serving his 25 year sentence in a prison in Minnesota for his involvement in the Enron scandal.
The River Oaks Garden Club Forum of Civics is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the "Forum of Civics" on October 13, 1988. Formerly a county schoolhouse, the building is currently the administrative center for the River Oaks Garden Club.
River Oaks Boulevard, a road that runs through the center of the community, is lined on both sides by mansions and estates located away from the street. The two mile area of the subdivision comprises approximately 1,400 homes, mostly detached single family homes.
River Oaks is within the Houston Super Neighborhood #23 Afton Oaks/River Oaks, a division of the City of Houston that includes River Oaks and some surrounding subdivisions. In 2000 the Super Neighborhood had 14,313 residents; 12,273 of them (85.74%) were non-Hispanic Whites. 1,160 (8.1%) were Hispanic, 390 (2.72%) were Asian, 247 (1.72%) were Black, 18 were Native American, 13 were Native Hawaiian, and 23 were non-Hispanic others. 189 people were of two or more races.
According to the United States census in 2000, of the 12,088 residents over 18 years of age, 10,390 (85.95%) were non-Hispanic White. 945 (7.81%) were Hispanic, 353 (2.92%) were Asian, 205 (1.7%) were Black, 17 were Native American, 8 were Native Hawaiian, and 22 were non-Hispanic other. 148 were of two or more races.
The super neighborhood had 8,169 housing units. Of the 7,401 occupied units, 3,573 were rental units and 3,828 were owner units. The Super Neighborhood had 3,518 families with a total of 9,521 individuals. Afton Oaks/River Oaks Super Neighborhood had a lower average family size than the average City of Houston family size. The Afton Oaks/River Oaks average was 2.71, while the city average was 3.39.
River Oaks is considered to be one of the wealthiest communities in Texas, and has one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States. Residents are predominantly successful professionals, and real estate values range from $1 million to $20 million U.S. dollars.
Adjacent to the community is the River Oaks Shopping Center, Houston's first shopping center. Constructed in 1927 and designed by architect Hugh Prather, the center, originally known as River Oaks Community Center, was one of the nation's first automobile-oriented retail centers. Its design, with arcs of retail space on either side of West Gray Avenue, was considered a model for future development. Portions of the historic shopping center were demolished in September 2007 to redevelop the site for bookstore and a parking garage. As of 2008, Landmark Theatres operates the River Oaks Theatre, an "arthouse" theater, located in the center. The theater is the last historic movie theater in Houston that is still being used as it was originally designed.
River Oaks is home to the forty-member River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra is composed of musicians from around the United States and guest conductors from around the world. The training facilities for the Houston Ballet and its pre-professional school, the Ben Stevenson Academy, are located on West Gray, east of the River Oaks Shopping Center. Memorial Park is close to River Oaks. River Oaks Park and the River Oaks Community Center, operated by the City of Houston, is located at 3600 Locke Lane. River Oaks Park includes a quarter mile off-road trail located within the park's boundaries.
River Oaks Country Club, located within the community on the northern end of River Oaks Boulevard, is a country club that includes a golf facility that was designed by architect Donald Ross. Ross is considered to be one of the most significant golf course designers in the history of golfing. Opening in 1923, the country club has hosted the River Oaks International Tennis Tournament since 1931.
Public schooling is available under the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and consists of River Oaks Elementary School, Lanier Middle School, and Lamar High School. Lanier opened in 1926, River Oaks Elementary opened in 1929, and Lamar opened in 1937. Between 1986 and 1996, River Oaks Elementary School only admitted magnet school students from other areas of the city. The community was divided between the attendance zones of Wilson Elementary School (opened in 1925) and the now closed Will Rogers Elementary School (opened in 1950, closed in summer 2006). In 1995, several River Oaks parents petitioned HISD to re-establish the neighborhood program at River Oaks Elementary School which allows non-magnet students residing in the school's boundaries to attend. Some magnet parents opposed, believing that the River Oaks program would reduce racial diversity at the school. In fall 1996, HISD added a neighborhood program to the school for grades Kindergarten through 2, with grades 3 through 5 phased in over a subsequent three-year period.
Crockett Early Childhood Center is the closest public early childhood center to River Oaks, while Wilson Elementary School's preschool program is the closest tuition-based program. Only economically-disadvantaged students, homeless students, students who are not proficient in English, or children of active-duty members of the U.S. military or whose parent has been killed, injured, or missing in action while on active duty may be enrolled in tuition-free HISD preschools. Students who are eligible for HISD's preschools may attend any Early Childhood Center in Houston ISD for free. Students not eligible may enroll in tuition-based HISD preschool programs.
Several independent (private) schools serve the community. Catholic schools, operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, include St. Thomas High School (9-12, males only, north of River Oaks along the north edge of the Buffalo Bayou) and St. Anne Catholic School (K-8, between River Oaks and Montrose). Other private schools in the area and private schools marketed to River Oaks families include St. John's School (K-12, in Upper Kirby), Annunciation Orthodox School (K-8, in the Montrose district), River Oaks Baptist School (K-8, in River Oaks), Episcopal High School (9-12, Bellaire) and The Kinkaid School (Piney Point Village).
Houston Fire Department operates Station 3 River Oaks at 3735 West Alabama at Cummins, near River Oaks. The community is within the Houston Police Department's Central Patrol Division, headquartered at 1200 Travis. River Oaks has one of the lowest crime rates in Houston. The community operates its own private security force, River Oaks Patrol. The Texas Department of Public Safety classifies the force as a guard, alarm, and investigation company. The United States Post Office operates the River Oaks Post Office at 1900 West Gray Street, Houston, Texas, supporting the area code 77019.
River Oaks is a part of the Houston City Council District G. As of 2008 the representative is Pam Holm.
River Oaks is located in District 134 of the Texas House of Representatives. As of 2008 Ellen Cohen represents the district. River Oaks is within District 13 of the Texas Senate. As of 2008 its representative is Rodney Ellis.
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (METRO) operates bus services in River Oaks. Lines serving River Oaks include 3 Langley/West Gray, 18 Kirby Limited, 35 Fairview, 73 Bellfort Crosstown, and 82 Westheimer.