Montrose Lives!

There's something for everyone in Houston's Montrose, the strangest neighborhood east of the Pecos.

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 we wanted.”

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.

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