it’s a magazine article from Texas Monthly 1973 but it was sent in text form to me in 2015. I found it looking for something else. I wish it still had accompanying pictures— maybe someone can fine original article?
I didn’t know where to place it……..it’s a blast to read.
There's something for everyone in Houston's Montrose, the strangest
neighborhood east of the Pecos.
by Thorne Dreyer and Al Reinert
IN THE LIVING ROOM OF THE old house on the corner, the one with the
odd turrets and built-in birdhouses, Clark Gable took acting lessons
from old Dr. Webster, who used to teach English at Rice Institute.
Around the corner is the First Pagan Church, with papier mache
statues, and signs proclaiming the virtues of Paganism, love and
nudity. It's become a tourist attraction, and people drive in from
all over the state to look at it. Above the door it says: "Our
religion doesn't teach sin, shame or hypocrisy. So don't blame us for
your dirty mind. With love all things are possible."
Over in the vacant lot next door to the old Jubilee Hall is a
strange, incongruous boat-like structure. Gail Wilson, who lived down
the street, remembered: "There was this old man who lived there, and
he was building a lifeboat. He would come out at night to work on it
and I would talk to him. He said Houston was sinking and would be
covered by tidal waves. He said maybe he'd take me along. I think
they've had him committed now�"
Pretty weird? Commonplace in Houston's Montrose, the strangest
neighborhood in Texas�
You need to know about Prufrock's if you're going to understand this
article. Prufrock's is a bar, sort of. It's not your ordinary bar, of
course, with its battered old chairs that you lounge around in, a
fireplace you have to stoke up yourself, and T. S. Eliot's "Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock" lettered along the top of three walls. You can
win a free beer if you find the three errors that are supposed to be
in it, but we don't know anyone who's ever done it.
"We don't get much street traffic in here," says Dorothy Schwartz,
who owns Prufrock's. "We've let the bushes grow up over the sign out
front, and the only people who really know we're here are our regular
customers. We held out for a year and a half to get the kind of crowd
It's not the kind of crowd most bar owners go out of their way to
attract: lots of scruffy looking college and graduate student types
(one University of Houston professor holds his finals in Prufrock's),
artists, photographers, youngish journalists, that sort of crew. Some
of them sit around playing chess and bridge a lot, which is not the
kind of activity you're used to finding in bars, and there's a semi-
permanent chess hustler named Steve who hangs out there trying to
make his rent off unwary newcomers. That's probably what Prufrock's
really is, a hangout, but since the Alcoholic Beverage Commission
doesn't license hangouts, we'll have to settle for calling it a bar.
Prufrock's, not your standard bar, is comfortably hidden away in a
part of Houston called the Montrose, which is decidedly not your
standard city neighborhood. Located just off the southwest corner of
downtown Houston, the area is composed mostly of old buildings
ranging all the way from Victorian Epic to Ramshackle Plywood, and
its history has wound a tortuous course from Silk Stocking to Low
Rent and back again. It's been known at various times as a haven for
Prohibition honky-tonks, antique stores, wealthy socialites,
motorcycle gangs, gays, harmless eccentrics and a broad array of
exiles, writers, artists and musicians. From the days when O. Henry
worked for The Houston Post and peddled short stories on the side,
Montrose has nourished Houston's creativity.
It's hard to say just exactly where the Montrose starts and stops
because residents are always arguing, with equal vehemence, whether
they should or should not be considered part of "that place." It's
that kind of neighborhood: people either want in or out of it.
Generally speaking, though, one can define the borders as West Gray
to the north, Shepherd Drive on the west, the Southwest Freeway to
the south, and Smith Street on the east (about 7.5 square miles with
some 30,000 inhabitants.) The spatial boundaries are relatively easy
to determine�Exxon makes maps that help with those�it's the spiritual
borders that are hard to fix.
Though it is certainly much more, the Montrose has become identified
with a conspicuous string of European-style restaurants and sidewalk
cafes which are earning it, not altogether deservedly, the title of
Houston's Left Bank. Scattered along five blocks of what's now called
the Westheimer Strip, and housed in renovated pre-World War One
homes, the restaurants offer up foreign cuisines, wines, music,
accents and ambience. Together with an electric assortment of
boutiques, antique stores, specialty shops and the like, the
restaurants help the Strip provide a little cosmopolitan flash to an
otherwise languid Boomtown.
As must seem both appropriate and inevitable, the sidewalk cafe craze
was sparked not by Houstonians, or even Texans, but by foreigners.
Ari Varoutsos wandered down from Montreal to run a restaurant at San
Antonio's Hemisfair in 1968, dropped by Houston, saw the Montrose and
decided to stay.
"When I come to Houston I was passing by�I was a visitor�and I see
that you have great big restaurants here, big dining rooms, very
formal, you had to be dressed to go in and you had to spend 7, 8, 10
dollars a person to have a good dinner. So I saw that there was need
for a good restaurant, with good food, and not very expensive.
"So what I did, I happened to pass by Westheimer and I see this
little building here, which I liked. And I built it myself, the whole
restaurant is handmade, the tables are made out of sewing machines. I
was by myself, I was my own cook."
Opened in 1969, Ari's Grenouille sported antique clocks, paintings, a
handbuilt Spanish hurdy-gurdy, a pseudo-French accordionist and all
the French onion soup you could eat for $1.25. An immediate hit with
students and Montrose hangers-on, Ari's did not at first really catch
on in Houston at large but, rather, just simmered for a bit like a
good spaghetti sauce, while another European got ready to slip the
Westheimer Strip into high gear.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, Willie Rometsch had been
apprenticed out as a cook in his native Bavaria at the age of 13. He
became a journeyman cook in Munich, then was chef de banquet for
Sweden's King Gustaf until the Sheraton Corporation lured him to
Houston in 1962. He later struck out on his own and found the backing
to open the Bismarck in downtown Houston, one of those "big dining
room, very formal" places Varoutsos saw in 1968, and recently named
by Southern Living as one of the ten best restaurants in the south.
But Rometsch had his eye on the Montrose.
"I saw a potential for a unique atmosphere, I could visualize a very
picturesque background. It's something Europeans are very accustomed
to, where you can sit down and read the newspaper with a glass of
wine, no rush.
"I talked to my backers and they said 'But there's nothing but
homosexuals and strip joints there.' But I thought that was what was
needed, that it was all good, gives the area some character, like
Together with a new partner, Mirko Predesoin, Rometsch opened
Michelangelo's sidewalk cafe in October of 1970, delivering Southern
Italian cookery into a good vibes environment of awnings, ferns,
flowers, guitars and fine wines. River Oaks ladies had never seen the
like, Houston's social superstars breezed in to soak up a little
Continental �l�gance, the place did a land office business and the
Great Restaurant Hustle was on. Rometsch had had the good sense to
move about ten blocks closer to downtown than Ari had.
There was no stopping after that. Restaurants sprouted like
wildflowers, all in rebuilt Victorian homes seeing their second
incarnation as Left Bank bistros with an international barrage of
foods and wines. Ari opened a Greek place, the Bacchanal, which does
its best to live up to its name (and offers belly-dancing lessons
during the day); and Rometsch had a hand in four more, including
Boccaccio 2000, a disco-restaurant furnished in Modern Kubrick that's
become a Jet Set pit-stop for movie stars lost in Houston. Everybody
wanted a restaurant, and they're still going up, apparently with room
for all of them so long as they don't run out of countries with
distinctive foods, wines, or at least tablecloths.
The early arrivals are getting just a little bit wary of all the new
competition. Ari says, "It doesn't matter how many restaurants there
are, they just need to be good. Houston was ready for something like
this," but adds, "I'm afraid we get some unprofessional people in
Rometsch is a little more blunt, saying that "a lot of people are
getting greedy" and admitting that some of the restaurants, including
those he has an interest in, wouldn't rate too many stars if the
Michelin Guide bothered with Houston. "Michelangelo's was very poor
for a while until we brought some new people in. A restaurant can
never stand still, it needs constant promotion and it can't be phony."
One of the unfortunate consequences of the Westheimer Strip scene is
that a lot of genuinely good Montrose restaurants are lost in the
glare. Cardet's Cafe, for instance, hidden behind a drug store over
on Fairview, functions as headquarters for Houston's tightly-knit
Cuban exile community and offers a menu of bona fide Cuban dishes.
Las Brisas, a working-class Mexican restaurant and hangout, a couple
of creole cafes, places like Phil's plying downhome plate lunches at
downhome prices, were part of the Montrose scene before the suburbs
discovered the Strip.
The Montrose has also been the focus for organic/health
food/vegetarian restaurants and stores ever since the Natural Child
proved you could sell food even without the chemicals. The area now
supports close to a dozen such places, including one where you can
pay whatever you figure a meal happens to be worth. Wonder how that
would go over on Westheimer Strip�
Another Montrose restaurant that is way, way off the Strip, in more
ways than one, is Zorba's, long held dear by Houston's restaurant
aficionados. Frequented by Greek sailors whenever a ship's in port,
Zorba's proffers a raucous Mediterranean camaraderie that is,
perhaps, less �l�gant than that offered on the Strip, but more fun.
Ever since 20 immigrants built Houston's first Greek Orthodox Church
in 1917, the Montrose has served as the center of Greek community
activities. Two of Houston's three Eastern Orthodox churches are
there. The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Yoakum is, in
addition, the seat of the Eighth Archdiocesan District of the Greek
Orthodox faith, encompassing 11 states from Mississippi to Wyoming,
as well as Panama, Venezuela and Columbia.
Which brings us back to Prufrock's. We mean, if you were writing an
article about a place that was the favorite hangout of River Oaks
bridge clubs, Cuban exiles, Greeks, junkies, runaways, drug store
cowboys and God knows who else, wouldn't you run for cover? It's not
like all we had to do was knock out a piece about Highland Park or
That's why we said you needed to know about Prufrock's to understand
this article. We sure needed Prufrock's to survive writing it, and to
help writing it: sooner or later, someone is gonna turn up there who
knows the history of the trolley car lines or where Tab Hunter used
to live, or has a good rap about the lady who lives with 500 cats.
Montrose is full of weirdness like that, and Prufrock's is one of the
places where it all kind of comes together and you can sit back with
a beer and soak it all in.
It's like interviewing Dorothy (she owns the place, remember?); you
don't really interview people in the Montrose, you just sorta sit
around and talk with 'em and scribble notes like mad hoping that
something in there will be of some use. Dorothy owns another bar a
couple of blocks down from Prufrock's called the Round Table, which
has been open for seven years now and was one of Houston's first gay
bars. "I'd been looking all over Houston for a place to open a gay
bar and this just seemed the natural place for it," she says.
The Montrose, then as now, was the center of Houston's homosexual
community, which many people say is one of the largest in the
nation. "We don't live or work here (the Montrose) necessarily, but
we play here," is the way a man we'll call, say, Ralph, puts it.
Ralph is one of the four directors of a gay organization called
Integrity, which was formed by a local church as "a forum to air our
difficulties," He characterized it as "the more moderate" of the two
existing gay organizations, the other being the Montrose Gaze, a
community center founded by "younger, more militant" gays who split
away from Integrity. The Houston chapter of the Gay Liberation Front,
which would be a third group, is, Ralph says, "dead," expired from
Ralph estimates that close to two-thirds of the "30 or 40" gay bars
in Houston are located in the Montrose, including the Bayou Landing,
reputed to be the biggest gay dance hall between the East and West
Many gays feel that they have had a significant impact on the
development of the Montrose. "The intrigue helps the area, I think,"
says Ralph, "like Bourbon Street." Joe Anthony, owner of Mary's
Lounge and active with Montrose Gaze, is more outspoken, contending
that "the area is going to grow around the gay community and
businessmen have to accept us because if they didn't, they'd be out
of business," a statement with which Willie Rometsch is "very much"
Although both Ralph and Anthony agree that the gay community is "not
particularly well organized," they both see an amorphous cohesiveness
that "is beginning to come together" enough to exercise a little
leverage in their own behalf. "Most gays are pretty conservative
voters," Ralph says. "But if you give them a candidate who will speak
to their issues, and support their interests, then they'll support
He gives as an example State Representative Ron Waters, a 23-year-old
law clerk who defeated a former House member last year to win his
seat from newly-drawn District 79, the population center of which is
the Montrose. Waters ran on a typically liberal platform of
legislative and tax reforms, but included strongly libertarian
positions on the decriminalization of marijuana and the repeal of
laws regulating abortions and sexual conduct between consenting
adults, all hot issues in the Montrose.
"There are lots of gays who are conservative, who voted for me, who
worked for me," Waters says. "Because I'm committed to the gay cause,
I can be open and public about it�to say in an official capacity that
there's nothing wrong with gay love. To admit that I have gay
friends, gay people on my staff, and to introduce them as such,
should have a radicalizing influence."
Waters, who sees the Montrose as "an identifiable political
subdivision with its own particular interests," admits that he may be
less than successful in satisfying those interests in Austin. "I'm
practical enough to know that everything I introduce isn't going to
pass, but I think in many ways the forum is probably more important
then in actual legislation. After all, I'm only in Austin about six
months every two years, and I can devote the rest of my time inside
the district working on local problems."
One constituent who will likely pass up the chance of seeking his
legislator's assistance is another Montrose politician, former GOP
State Senator Henry (Hank) Grover, who last year narrowly missed
becoming Texas' first Republican Governor since the Federal troops
pulled out of Austin. (Another Waters constituent, who misses being a
full-blooded Montrosite by a scant half-dozen blocks, is Lieutenant
Governor Bill Hobby.) "Hank is probably a hang-over from the old
Montrose; he's part of the transition," is the way Waters sees his
Which, needless to say, is not the way Grover sees it: "The hippie
image of the Montrose is changing because the land values are going
up, and the low rent areas are disappearing." Grover has lived in the
Montrose for 25 years, went to college there, worked at his brother's
gas station down on Westheimer, taught at nearby Lamar High School
and was one of the first to dabble in Montrose real estate.
"I've been trying to sell people on this area for a long time. I was
the first person to start blocking up property around here. It's
financed me in politics." Grover started buying up dilapidated frame
houses in the `fifties, restoring them and renting them out. "I had
my own urban renewal project," he says. In time, he accumulated
almost an entire square block on which he intended to build high rise
apartments�"this area should have high rises built here, it's perfect
for it, convenient to downtown"�but he was forced to sell it during
his gubernatorial race.
During the days Grover was teaching in Houston high schools, he was
following in the footsteps of another one-time Montrose resident who
taught in them and went on to considerably more success in politics:
Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's cousin, Mrs. Dorothy Askew, who still lives
in the house where "Lyndon shared the corner bedroom with my uncle,"
says "I guess he thought it was pretty swell; he was a poor boy who
didn't make much then, and it was back in the Depression when any
place with a roof was a good place to be."
Montrose area schools, in the days when Lyndon Johnson was teaching
(1931-32) were widely acclaimed to be the finest in Houston. "All the
schools around here were the best in town then," remembers Mrs.
Askew, who went to Montrose Elementary and San Jacinto High. "Mayor
Holcomb's niece went there, and Lynn (Mrs. Glenn) McCarthy. Roy
Hofheinz was a classmate of mine. We had the cream of the crop�high
society. Most of my close friends and I went right into Rice
If Montrose area schools are no longer "high society," they are
still, by contemporary urban standards, among the best in town. Zoned
together with the poverty-struck black Fourth Ward in a court-ordered
integration plan, Montrose area schools seemed ripe for the kind of
private school exodus that plagued other parts of the Houston
Independent School District. Typically untypical, the upper middle-
class parents of the lower Montrose, urbane and liberally inclined,
rallied in support of their public schools to infuse them with
community spirit and educational excitement.
Four-year-old Lincoln Jr-Sr. High School, which services part of the
area, has been termed by school district officials "the most
successfully integrated school in the city." Parents teamed with
black school principal Elwood Piper to help win a $40,000 Emergency
Assistance Program grant that has sent students to the ballet, opera,
Alley Theatre, the Manned Spacecraft Center, and the Contemporary
Arts Museum. One-time Montrose author David Westheimer (Von Ryan's
Express, My Sweet Charley), after whose family the street is named,
spent a week with the high school English classes. "We've had
excellent community cooperation," says Piper, "far better than most
other places in the city."
The community projects have brought people together who would have
never met by chance. We've had fiestas, ethnic celebrations, parent-
teacher basketball games, invitations to the staff to visit in the
homes and churches of the neighborhood."
The educational focal point of the Montrose, however, is Hank
Grover's alma mater, the University of St. Thomas. UST was begun in
1947 when the Basilian Father of Toronto dispatched Fr. Vincent
Guinan to Houston to start a university. In the 25 years since it
began classes with 40 students and a faculty of eight, UST has
secured a comfortable niche within both Houston's educational
community and the Montrose.
No longer church supported, the University has recruited a lay board
of Houston's most powerful laity and has built a subdued but
impressive campus of soft bricks, covered walks, and live oaks that
retains and blends with the earlier residential architecture. In some
cases, old buildings have been restored and put to new uses, like the
boyhood home of Howard Hughes, which is now the Modern Language
Building. (Fine mesh of history and irony that one, eh? Told you the
Montrose was pretty weird.)
UST has probably been, as its spokesmen like to think, "a major
factor in the preservation of the Montrose." A prime example of
preservation is the building that first attracted Father Guinan to
the Montrose, the former Link-Lee mansion, now the St. Thomas
Administration Building, and one of the key reference points in the
history of the Montrose.
Way back around the turn of the century, in what future archeologists
will unavoidably call the Pre-Astrodome Period, there was, sadly, no
Montrose. While it's true that Houston must have been a dreadful dull
place without a Montrose, there were few people who had to suffer it:
just about 40,000, all working to finish off the ship channel and not
yet fully realizing what a good deal oil was. There wasn't anything
to the west of "downtown" but a few dairy farms and a jerky old
country road angling out to where some folks called the Westheimers
Houstonians, though, were just beginning to get it into their heads
that they were going to be a Big City, and they were pushing in that
direction. The Westmoreland and Courtland "additions" (what we
call "subdivisions" nowadays) were right next door and included some
of the finest homes in the city, colossal constructions with
galleries, gables and gazebos, towers and balconies fastened on
everywhere in pretentious Victorian grandeur. Fine Homes, they were
called. Burlington railroad vice-president W.W. Baldwin had organized
the South End Land Company in 1902 to build the posh little
neighborhood, and it was just about filled up. The time semed ripe
for what we know now as a "real estate killing".
In 1910, a group of investors headed by J.W. Link formed the Houston
Land Corporation and "conceived the idea of laying out and improving
a great residential addition." The plot was to be called the Montrose
Addition and built around Montrose boulevard, an enormously wide
street for those days, with its esplanade planted in palm trees. At
the corner of Montrose and Alabama, Link built his own home, an
immense Doric edifice of imported limestone and nitrified brick that
cost $60,000 even then. When the Galveston Hurricane ravished the
Gulf Coast, neighbors from blocks around took safety within its
fortified parlors. In 1916, the Links sold the mansion to oilman T.P.
Lee, whose family would later deliver it to the newly-born University
of St. Thomas. The family had other things to worry about than the
upkeep of the mansion, what with Howard Lee running off to marry,
consecutively, Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney.
The Montrose Addition, meanwhile, was busily becoming just what its
corporate progenitors had envisioned: "the most superbly developed
residential area�not only in the City of Houston, but the entire
South." The great and wealthy of the city all found homes nearby: the
Hogg family, the Joneses and the Garwoods, Edna Saunders, Lamar
Fleming, Ross Sterling, the Cullens and Cullinans, Neuhauses, Kirbys,
Espersons, Rices, all of the names that would make up Houston's
history for the next three decades.
In the `twenties the Hogg brothers and Hugh Roy Cullen had conceived
their own great residential addition, River Oaks, followed in later
years by Memorial and Tanglewood. The social elite, always on the
lookout for new plateaus, began emigrating west. The middle-class,
developing tastes for two-car garages and central air conditioning,
was moving into the carefully homogenous split-level suburbs that
kept rolling out to the southwest.
The original residents of the Montrose, meanwhile, were proving less
able to withstand the passage of decades that the sturdy-built,
carefully crafted homes they had erected. As they moved on, their
Montrose homes fell into estates, or were deeded over to suburbanite
descendants who either sold them cheaply or were content to rent them
out for just enough to pay the taxes. The obvious tenants were those
who could neither afford nor particularly desired swimming pools and
microwave ovens but preferred the leaded-glass windows, ten-foot
ceilings and cheap rent in the Montrose. These were a diverse lot:
students and professors from St. Thomas and nearby Rice University,
artists and architects desiring proximity to the museums and
galleries that cluster around the Montrose, journalists, writers,
photographers and musicians seeking an atmosphere of creative
excitement and Bohemian figures of every sort.
"There are always groups in society who choose autonomy, who wish to
live apart from society at large. In Houston, the Montrose was the
logical place for people like that," explains urban planner Clovis
Heimsath. "Groups that want to live by themselves, like homosexuals,
divorcees, young rebels, always head for neighborhoods where they can
be left alone."
Heimsath lives and offices in a beautifully restored, immense old
home in the Montrose, and has been a close student of the development
of his neighborhood. "The Montrose flies in the face of national
urban dynamics trends. The typical pattern of areas surrounding the
central business district of a major city is that of decay. Even
where attempts have been made to rejuvenate them�the Gaslight
district in St. Louis, New Town in Chicago�it's been a failure.
Montrose has reversed this trend, and the glory of it is that it was
done without any government assistance, support or programs.
"Houston needs an urban residential neighborhood like the Montrose.
Urban residential areas are common in Europe and the older cities of
this country: Georgetown in Washington, Back Bay in Boston, the
Garden District in New Orleans. Urban areas require high density
living, and it's justified by the higher land costs. And they're
always heterogeneous, a mix of people and land uses, while the
suburbs are homogenous."
Paralleling the rise of Westheimer, the last few years have seen the
return of many prominent, wealthy Houstonians to the neighborhood. As
Houston Post columnist and Montrose resident Marge Crumbaker puts
it, "Some of the folks who moved out to Tanglewood are moving back,
and all of their kids are." Heimsath sees it from a more technical
perspective: "These old restored homes are an enormously important
visual symbol. They give a sense of history and place to an area.
That's something you'll never get in the suburbs."
Area real estate agent Bob Edmiston, president of the Near Town
Association, the Montrose area civic/booster group, says people are
moving back because of "the interesting old architectural charm. You
can redo and redecorate these old homes, come up with all sorts of
ideas. It's just not the same as living in those fishbowl houses in
the suburbs. Here we've got a hodge-podge of ages, types, groups.
We're certainly not stereotyped like some of my friends out in
Redoing and redecorating homes, though, is getting to be an expensive
proposition. In an unzoned city like Houston, residential land values
keep pace with commercial values, and the Westheimer boom, compounded
by the "Return of the Prosperous," has sent prices through even
Victorian roofs. To buy and refurbish a home in the lower Montrose
runs on the order of $60,000. Townhouses, many of them designed to
blend into the neighborhood, are multiplying rapidly, and bringing
New single family dwellings are rare, but do exist. University of
Houston architecture professor John Zemanek bought an old house, tore
it down, and replaced it with an austere, Zen-inspired home that has
won him architectural kudos. He admits that it would have been
cheaper to build it elsewhere, but says "I wouldn't live anywhere
else in Houston. I like the quality of life here, the shops,
restaurants, crafts. At this time, that's what's stimulating the
Montrose, pumping new life into it. People are moving in like myself,
who wouldn't live in the suburbs."
Zemanek calls Montrose "essential to the City of Houston. It provides
a humanistic element at its core, like the Left Bank in Paris. If the
Montrose as it is now was wiped out by high rises and
commercialization, the city would become sterile and materialistic to
the point where culturally stimulating people would move out, and
everyone would lose in the long run."
Be they "culturally stimulating" or not, a lot of people are
beginning to move out. Increased rents and property values, spurred
by what City hall called "a long overdue" tax valuation increase, are
forcing many to move elsewhere; if the wealthy are
indeed "rediscovering the Montrose," as Bob Edmiston cheerfully
phrases it, one reason is that only they can afford it. Many of those
less fortunate are looking north for places to live, toward the
Heights, a near-North Side corner of town possessed of a comparable
architectural heritage but of middle class, rather than upper class,
"The Heights is now very attractive to young people," says Ann
Lower. "They're moving up there because the rents are so much
cheaper, and there are trees up there. You can start to see the
movement in the voting patterns."
Folksinger Don Sanders agrees that "there's increasing interest in
the Heights. I know some people have already moved up there. You can
find better deals on houses there, $60 to $70 a month. Around here
it's getting hard to find an apartment for under $100.
Some people foresee the development of an East Village-West Village
relationship between the Heights and the Montrose, with one area
providing cheap housing for those who can't afford the other, and
considerable cultural interplay between the two.
Those with a Bohemian bent are not the only ones with an eye to the
north: Willie Rometsch, in a move that's either far-sighed or
precipitous, has optioned an entire block of Taft Street, north of
West Gray and into the middle of the black Fourth Ward. He has
already opened Zerk's, a delicatessen similar to the poor-boy-famous
Antone's that is just down the street, and has plans to open a
bakery, spaghetti house and high-kitsch hamburger joint (to be called
the Great American Disaster, perhaps prophetically) in the near
future. "The city is going to have to move in that direction,"
predicts Rometsch. "In four, maybe seven years, I see much
development up there."
He is not, however, anxious to see the northward movement become an
exodus of "the artists and young people who made the area as charming
as it is. I sincerely hope they don't move out. If you lose them, you
lose the whole idea. Fortunately, many of them own their own homes,
and they don't give a hoot how much they're offered for them�I think
this is great."
Artist Don Snell is one of those: "I've bought my house and I'm
staying." Clovis Heimsath, who agrees that a mass emigration of the
counter culture "would probably hurt the area as a whole," isn't
worried: "High density residential areas are always going to have
room for people like that, they'll always have diversity. There
aren't enough wealthy people in all of Houston to fill up the
Heimsath is one of several people who have their own notions of how
the Montrose should develop. Working through the American Institute
of Architects, he devised a "Blueprint for the Future" which
envisions pedestrian malls, townhouses and high-rises, and massive
Fellow architect John Zemanek has a more imaginative proposal: "The
ideal thing would be if the Mayor and City Council would declare this
part of Houston an historic area for conservation of the city's and
Texas' early days and in sense subsidize it�give it a chance to
survive. It would make Houston internationally attractive culturally.
Artists, musicians, galleries, schools for art, design, crafts would
move here in droves. They're being forced out of other cities."
Speculation would have it that a majority of Houston's crop of
practicing artists already live in the area�at least the younger
ones. Hundreds of young journalists, rock musicians, architecture
students, college professors call the Montrose home. Plus consumers
of macrobiotic foods, crazy anarchists, Jesus freaks, and devotees of
mind-enhancing or destroying chemicals ranging from peyote to
quaaludes to smack.
It is a confusing time now, as many of the external trappings of the
counter culture have spread into the mainstream�from oil workers to
advertising executives. Long hair and grass�which were, for the old-
timers, merely symbols for a deeper ethic�have become, for many, ends
in themselves. Lots of young kids come into the Montrose now, strung
out on exotic drugs and with no semblance of vision�just looking for
a way to survive. On the other hand, swingers move in from the
suburbs, toying with group sex and psychedelics while tipping big at
Liberal organizer Ann Lower sums up how the Montrose counter culture
bridges the gap: "The older bohemian types provide the basic
leadership for the young kids�lots of whom don't have any skills. The
bohemians want to live simply and are artistically inclined. They
feel they can contribute something to the community at the same time
as dropping out. They are generally the street philosophers."
Don Snell is a greying hippie elder statesman. His paintings are
whimsical cartoons: bright, two-dimensional, skillful giggles. His
eyes twinkle over a glass of brandy as he sinks back into the comfy-
but-certainly-not-chic sofa. The room is saturated with sculpture
(candle in crotch/tongue in cheek), his moody photographic studies
and sprightly canvasses.
"I've got a strange feeling that the dope thing has started to take
its toll in terms of productivity. It's easier to stay stoned than to
Snell communicates a kind of wise cynicism, nourished by a half
century of coping with the contradictions. Snell is a Montrose
prototype, though there certainly isn't another like him. Right now
he's discouraged about the direction of things in the neighborhood
he's occupied some 15 years.
"It's harder to rent a house now. There are more freaks, but not
necessarily more artists. A lot of people have left town. There
doesn't seem to be any excitement about art now. I have a feeling
this place is never going to make it as a Village, art-wise. Artists
here are independent. They don't traffic much with each other, except
at parties. They don't need each other."
Don Snell may be the Pearl Mesta of the Montrose. His parties draw
hundreds of folks into his two-story frame house on Welch Street and
are truly community events. Last Halloween his house was filled with
weirdos disguised as weirdos: elaborately costumed local artists
rubbing rears and denim-jacketed radical politicos and moddish uptown
dilettantes. Pacifica radio considered it of sufficient interest to
broadcast it live.
Pacifica also covered the block party held outside Anderson-Fair
Restaurant on Grant Street last October. That event drew several
hundred people who listened to rock bands and local liberal
politicians touting the candidacy of George McGovern. This was the
latest in a series of outdoor fiestas over the last several years:
they've featured tap beer, street dancing and flea market booths
hawking crafts, cakes and underground comics.
Anderson-Fair Proprietor Marvin Anderson is a former Texas Art Supply
executive who dropped out, let his hair and beard grow and began
running the marginal operation restaurant that features spaghetti and
beer and down-home vibes. We peeked over our bottle of Shiner's as
Marvin reinforced Snell's perceptions.
"I guess I measure the Montrose by the block parties," he said. "And
this last one, I hardly saw anyone I knew. So I guess people must be
leaving, or else they're in hiding."
Marvin's former partner, Gray Fair, was perhaps the most cynical of
all. Gray, a man with massive physique and thick greying beard, was
tagged the Mayor of Montrose for a time. He has now dug up his roots,
bid his constituency adieu and packed off to Austin where he is doing
promotional art work for Representative Ron Waters.
"This area is becoming less and less comfortable to live in,"
bemoaned the Hon. Mr. Fair. "There's paranoia about the police, the
smog is so bad, housing is getting more expensive. There are too many
crazies around here�real flipped out. They have no sense of
direction. I can see no unity in the community. People are too tired
to get something going.
"I watched the Flower Child era when I was first here. In the last
year lots of serious people have moved on, moved up. Space City!
(then Houston's underground paper) was going�it was damn radical. You
felt the spirit of change, of revolution. It's gone from a mood of
heavy social change to a directionless thing at this point."
Community activist Eileen Hatcher has a philosophical attitude about
those changes. She feels that a lot of the older folks have just
gotten burnt out, especially those who worked hard in community
organizations such as Inlet Drug Crisis Center, the food cooperative
and the Montrose Community Council, of which she was chairperson.
And, according to Eileen, new people just haven't moved in to take
"I just kinda ride with it," she told us. "I figure it goes through
phases. People seem to be quietly more into their own thing: trying
to live together, to cope with existence. More families are
developing relationships, learning crafts, raising kids. People are
saving energy, wanting to get themselves strong. Maybe it's just kind
of a time to go inward."
But Eileen Hatcher is involved in an imaginative project that could
tap some of that energy; she and a handful of others are organizing a
community garden. The Houston Independent School District has leased
them�at no charge�a city block bounded by Louisiana and Smith and
Anita and Tuam. The block is being broken down into nearly 100 plots,
400 square feet each.
According to Eileen, "There are two stipulations for getting a plot:
you must live within walking distance of the garden, and you cannot
use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. So it will be ecologically
sound and community oriented." University of Houston architecture
students have helped design the garden. It will include a playground
area and a covered meeting place, perhaps a gazebo.
Perhaps the most exciting media venture is Space City Video. The
group is spearheaded by Bill Narum, whose experience has ranged from
commercial art to the underground press to radio work. Bill and crew
have pulled together $15,000 worth of half-inch video equipment which
they have used to tape Italian filmmaker Roberto Rosellini, rock
concerts and community events. Space City Video has taped cable TV
hearings in Houston and plans to make a serious bid for public access
when Houston gets wired.
Pacifica Radio and the "underground" radio stations have always
related heavily to the Montrose area and, in fact K-101 and its
sister AM station, KTRH, are currently in the process of moving their
studios into the neighborhood. They'll soon be neighbors on Lovett
Blvd. With KILT's AM and FM station. Among the four, they'll reach
well over a million listeners a week, says KILT's Cap'n Macho, still
known to many as Dan Earhart.
Earhart, former general manager of KXYZ-FM (now KAUM-FM) has a long
history in Houston radio. Now he can be seen most any time, riding
around Montrose on his bicycle, his blue jeans rolled up to his
knees, his face haloed by a massive bushy beard. And at night Cap'n
Macho's rambling, iconoclastic newscasts�sometimes didactic, often
tongue-in-cheek�pierce the hairwaves on both KILT stations. (KILT's
top-40 AM station has led the city's ratings for years, but the newer
FM outlet�which has a free-wheeling format and calls itself "Radio
Montrose"�has a weak signal and can't be picked up outside the area.
Its transmitter is on Westheimer at Whitney.)
Cap'n Macho leaned back in the old cane rocker, its battered cushion
spitting out stuffings. It was a gorgeous, spring-like afternoon on
the Willard Street front porch, just around the corner from the Pagan
Church. "Montrose is the only small town I've ever lived in," said
the Cap'n. "It has the small town attributes of everybody knowing
everybody else. But it's a big city small town, so everybody doesn't
get in your way.
"It's a lot closer to the earth. Why, it's still got squirrels," said
Dan, pointing out a nose-twitching rodent that had taken the middle
of the street and was calmly sizing up the scene. "I rarely go out of
a 10 to 12 block radius. I find everything I need. I don't relate to
living in Houston, Texas. I live in the Montrose."
Cap'n Macho traded smiles with the afternoon sun. Jamie and Peggy,
who live up the street, walked by and waved baseball mitts; they were
headed for a nearby field to play catch. Gail Wilson�she's working to
legalize marijuana�ambled around the corner from Anderson Fair,
retracing the squirrel's steps, and joined us on the porch. Former
ecology activist and aspiring politico Mike Noblet pedaled by on his
two-wheeler: "Hey, is this a party? How about a beer?"
Our interview with Cap'n Macho had indeed become a party and, perhaps
as well, the proof of the pudding�Earhart's unspoken "I told you so."
Where else in sprawling Houston would such an impromptu scene occur?
After we interviewed the Captain, we moved up to the General. "You're
looking for an old-timer?" they asked at Anderson-Fair. "Just go
upstairs. The General � he owns this place. But watch out; once you
get him started he won't stop."
The old building on the corner of Grant and Welch houses Anderson-
Fair on its ground floor; some of the restaurant's employees reside
on the two upper levels. The owner, General Victor A. Barraco, is 79,
and his stripes are legit, via the U.S. Marines. (The Houston Marine
Corps Reserve Chapter is named after him.) We found the side door and
climbed the two flights of stairs.
"Hey, there. Are you the General?" He was standing on a chair,
applying first aid to some faulty wiring. "Talk 'bout the Montrose?
Well, I'd wanted to get this finished this evening, but I guess..."
"...Yeah, I bought this place from Congressman Emmett Moss � he was
speaker of the Texas House of Representatives back in 1925. There was
a drugstore then and an A&P. I was in show biz then, owned five
theaters and The Key vaudeville house on West Dallas where Bessie
Smith used to play."
What about this building, General? What's its history?
"Well my wife and I sponsored an artist, Miss Carlson. And then my
wife gave the Playhouse Theatre $1,000, too. You know, arty-farty and
all. Anyway, Miss Carlson was a teacher over to the Feather and
Feather School of Art on Montrose. When we moved out of here, she
moved in and had her studio here. Every one of her students made more
money than she ever dreamed of.
"Then Jim Love moved in. [Jim Love is a Houston sculptor who had hair
down over his shoulders back when long hair was the exclusive
property of women and the Three Musketeers. A retrospective of his
work, featuring weird variations on teddy bears, was recently shown
at the Houston Contemporary Art Museum.] He came to me one time and
complained about the roaches. I came up here and there was empty beer
bottles all over the place, and they all had dead roaches in 'em, all
"Then another artist moved in. He put more paint on the floor than on
anything else. Then this antique guy moved in over there [pointing].
King of the homos, they called him. And a sculptor had that place �
he was going to kill himself one time. A girl tried to kill herself
downstairs. First she killed her parrot and then tried to kill
herself. Anyway, there was a barber shop and a boutique and a cycle
shop. And two architects. Then Gray Fair came along, and he started
Area resident Noelle Kanady says there are three main problems in the
Montrose: "the pack of dogs that attack you, the police who harass
you, and if you're female, the dirty old men who are all over the
For some, the police might not pose that much of a problem. But
artist Shell views it this way: "People are uptight about
overprotection. The police really do harass people. On this corner
here (Welch at Stanford) I can remember four different times they've
stopped someone and in two minutes there'd be six patrol cars."
We talked with patrolman B.J. Ferguson, a boyish-faced cop who had
been on the Montrose beat "about eight months." Ferguson told us that
the shooting at Art Wren's was considered an isolated incident and
that the Montrose is not a particularly high crime area. "It's
probably safer to live than most any place in town."
Ferguson went on: "I've never made a mugging, and I don't guess I've
ever heard of more than one or two purse snatchings...I've never
known about a rape or that kind of violence on anybody who lived
there. There used to be a problem with girls who were hitch-hiking
being raped, but that doesn't happen much any more.
Though crimes of violence may be scarce, burglary and vandalism
apparently are not. Officer Ferguson said, "You get burglary calls
all the time, can't hardly find the time to go from one to the next.
It's mostly stereos and TV sets, that kind of thing. It's not the
upper-income people that are hit, it's those kids living in the
apartments. And a lot of those older homes that have been made into
duplexes." Why so many burglaries in this area? "Well, a lot of
people say it's because of people trying to keep up on a dope habit,
but you can't tell that for sure until you catch them."
B.J. Ferguson says he likes the Montrose beat and that he faces
little hassle. "I enjoy working out there � it's always different. I
think both sides have changed some in the last couple of years. They
(freaks) have begun to realize that we're trying to do a job out
there, and we've changed our techniques a little. The kids don't
bother me and we don't bother them."
So the Montrose community has seen its ups and downs in the last few
years. But even those who've voiced a pessimistic view see light at
the tunnel's end. Like Don Snell: "It's fallow ground and there could
be a turning. Something could happen; there may just be one element
you need to pull it all together...For all its faults, I'd rather be
here than any other place I can think of."
WE'VE TRIED TO DESCRIBE THE MONTROSE�to give you a taste of its
history, its ambience, its future. But it might be that the only way
to comprehend "The Montrose," to come to any kind of terms with the
diversity, the stark contrasts between tradition and iconoclasm, is
to navigate the area�via foot, bike or motor car.
You'll travel the busy arteries like Montrose, Westheimer, Alabama,
Richmond, Shepherd, with their grocery stores, sidewalk cafes,
boutiques, strip joints, art galleries, all in bizarre juxtaposition.
There are other spots you may�or may not�notice, that reveal best the
nature of the Montrose: The ramshackle frame house at the corner of
Welch and Hopkins, the one that looks like a heavy gust might level
it. Ernie and Noelle pay $55 a month (including utilities) for the
downstairs. An equally dog-eared shack adjoins the house; Bald
Charlie lives there. An old lady across the street called the cops,
complaining about junk in the yard and the shabby condition of
Charlie's pad. Charlie responded by cleaning up and painting the
front�all that is visible from her window�a lively green with fancy
trim; he left the sides and rear untouched, like a movie set. Charlie
and the old lady who called the cops on him are now the best of
The Rothko Chapel, at 1409 Sul Ross, adjacent to the University of
St. Thomas, built by John and Dominique de Menil to house 14 massive
dark canvasses by Mark Rothko, who killed himself soon after
completing these paintings. Widely acclaimed for its beauty and
atmosphere, the octagonal chapel is a sanctuary for any and all who
wish to partake of it. Barnett Newman's sculpture, "The Broken
Obelisk," dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, stands in a reflection
Old man Tannenbaum, who owns a half million dollars worth of property
in the 100 block of Westheimer, yet works as night manager in the
Baby Giant drive-in grocery across the street. The strange tower of
a building on Mt. Vernon at West Main, on the St. Thomas campus, that
houses the Institute for Storm Research, the only one of its kind in
the world. Photos of the entire sky are shot from inside a plastic
bubble on top.
Of course, it may be easier to predict the weather than to figure out
what this place called the Montrose is all about. One thing is
certain: if you go to Prufrock's, don't play chess with a guy named