Maybe you’ve noticed we Houstonians have a slight history problem. Yes, we have plenty of history here — plenty of significant events, countless innovations, and more than a few colorful characters have risen from the Bayou City. Our history problem comes from general amnesia when it comes to knowledge of anything older than the spoiled milk in your fridge. But lately, attitudes in the preservation community have been improving. In 2005, Houston City Council created a Protected Landmark designation, applied for by the owner, and transferable if the property is sold. Now, finally, a building can be saved permanently from the wrecking ball. This, however, does not mean that we’re all suddenly preservationists.
Sure, we’ve always been a forward-looking community, excited about the newest skyscraper, mall, hotel, park, or even freeway. And, as a reader of this magazine, you are well aware of our enthusiasm for any and all new restaurants. In Houston, we celebrate our local chefs and treat them like rock stars. Lately, his mad scientist cousin, the bartender, is playing catch-up in a big way. Thanks to innovators such as Bobby Heugel and his cocktail co-conspirators, who have patiently educated the drinking populace on the more finer aspects of cocktails, craft beers, and locally-sourced ingredients, this new respect for the drink has carried over to the buildings themselves, as many new bars are taking old structures and tapping into the history within their walls and under their roofs. This is definitely a welcomed trend, one that bodes well for the preservation of future landmark bars, and all landmarks, for that matter. In a city where there are scant few incentives for those who chose to preserve, the ambitious few who dare to convert or restore an old property into a new venture can be shocking to forward-looking Houstonians. Thankfully, there is now a growing generation of bar entrepreneurs who are keen on putting new wine in old bottles.
And it’s easy to see where they get their inspiration – from those half-dozen Houston bars that are older than 50 years. Although respected now, each one of these beer joints and ice houses fell though the cracks, sometimes suffering from decades of anonymity or surviving on the fringes of transitional neighborhoods, but all emerged as bona-fide landmarks.
Also, some things to consider unique to Houston: During the decades following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it was tricky at best to get anything stronger than beer in a bar. In spite of our more outwardly conservative tendencies, Houstonians could only go out for a drink by joining a membership club, not unlike the Heights’ loophole employed today by Shade and Down House. By 1971, the State of Texas began issuing mixed beverage permits allowing bars to serve liquor by the drink, in counties that wanted it. And boy, did Harris County want it, thus ushering in the current era of bars as we know them today. So, what we consider as a typical bar is a relatively new idea to Houston. As you’ll see in descriptions of the following landmarks, the term “bar” might not even fit during some part of their long lives.
D&T Drive Inn
Chris Cusack knows a thing or two about opening a business in an older property. After the success of his Down House in a former 1950s bank building on Yale, Cusack sought another preservation project. Opened as an Ice House in 1959 in the Brooke Smith neighborhood east of the Heights, D&T Drive Inn was named after the original owner’s sons, Dan and Ted McKean. Neighbors could pick up groceries, beer, and, yes, ice. Before he bought it in 2012, Cusack admits, “We all instantly fell in love with the history and the soul of the bar. We saw a great opportunity to breathe some life into a great neighborhood bar.”
5118 Telephone Road
Today, only a handful of ice houses exist in Houston, even though Houston had dozens from the 1930s to the late 1960s. South of Downtown, blue collar Telephone Road had the highest concentration of this predecessor to the modern convenient store. Sheffield’s has been serving cold beer since 1942, easily placing it among Houston’s oldest. Unlike the other landmark bars, Sheffield’s has yet to witness any nearby gentrification, perhaps giving it greater authenticity as a dive.
West Alabama Ice House
1919 West Alabama
Arguably, Houston’s oldest ice house. The not-so divey, Neartown landmark has benefited from being the go-to ice house for Inner Loopers since it was bought and made family-friendly by Jerry Markantonis in 1987. The sign out front boasts 1928, but we couldn’t confirm anything there until the appearance in the 1941-42 city directory of a McDuffie Ice House, then later Morgan’s Ice House in 1945. West Alabama Drive Inn shows up in the city directory in 1952, and the ice house appears to have operated there continuously since then. The building, such as it is, was built in 1950.
2803 White Oak
Informally known as Jimmie’s Ice House, Jimmie’s Place has hunkered down on the southern edge of the Heights since Jimmie Murray opened the doors in 1950. The Heights remains officially Dry, but that doesn’t keep old school gashounds and the posh neo-Victorians from drinking together as a family of regulars in this crusty landmark. White Oak is hopping now, but Jimmie’s has barely changed despite all the new traffic. While Houston is famous (or infamous) for its lack of zoning, it produces strange adjacencies. White Oak is the perfect example of Houston’s schizophrenia. Just walk aound the corner and behold the gentrification.
Like most other landmark Houston bars, Kay’s has had a few lives. City records show a “Kay’s Barbecue” and “Kay’s Club Grill” dating back as far as 1939. The first listing for “Kay’s Lounge” appears in 1962. No word on when the giant Texas-shaped table arrived. Kay’s was once the bar of choice for Rice students; lately, it has a strong Aggie vibe. The building is so old and worn-down, it’s easy to imagine what Bissonnet was like before it was paved.
By virtue of it NOT having first been a restaurant or ice house, Leon’s is the truest of all of Houston’s oldest bars. In 1947, bookie Leon Yarborough bought the existing La Bomba bar and eventually changed the name to Leon’s Lounge. For decades, Midtown was a sketchy, if not dangerous place, even in the daytime. While Houston continued its sprawl away from Downtown, closer neighborhoods were forgotten. Since the mid-1990s, Midtown started to clean itself up, and Leon’s gained a new clientele. In 2010, Under the Volcano owner Pete Mitchell saw this forgotten bar, and bought it from Leon’s daughter, Scarlett Yarborough. Mitchell explains, ”Leon’s had been poorly run for years and we were looking for an old place to renovate.” After getting it up to code, they changed the signage, added a deck, and opened up the windows “to make it look less scary from outside.” Today, Leon’s, the former dive bar, has been transformed just like Midtown, showing how Houston can take something old and forgotten and make it an asset to the community.