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Can Mary’s, Naturally Be Saved as a Historic Landmark?

By Marene Gustin

For four decades, Mary’s, Naturally, the historic gay bar on Westheimer Road in Montrose, was known far and wide—not just for its drinks, but for its collection of LGBT history. When Mary’s closed in 2009, Houston’s gay community lost a landmark full of photos, memories, and memorabilia.

It also lost a unique memorial to the AIDS crisis.

Mary’s patio and garden—known as The Out Back—was the site of many a memorial service for those lost to AIDS during the ’80s and ’90s. According to the Houston ARCH Project, as many as 300 services may have been held there, with ashes scattered or buried in the garden. According to one rumor, a body or two may also be buried there.

“I don’t think there are any bodies back there,” said Judy Reeves of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History, Inc. “I’m 60 years old and I’ve been to a lot of memorial services there, so I know there are ashes scattered there, and even some urns and ash-filled coffee cans buried. But no bodies.”

Reeves has worked closely with the May family, who has owned the bar property (as well as the lot behind it that stretches to California Street) since the early 1900s, to salvage much of the memorabilia from inside the building. But sadly, the structure is in disrepair and has been broken into repeatedly since the bar closed. Several items have been stolen.

“I kept thinking surely the community will come forth—surely they couldn’t let Mary’s close,” said Sara Fernandez. “And surely they can’t pave it over. Surely we have to have a marker or something there.”

But it looks like that’s what could happen. The owners have put both parcels up for sale through Wulfe & Co. Listed at $860,795, there is already a potential buyer.

“The owners have been very supportive,” said Reeves. “But they can’t afford to donate the land to us for a memorial park, and I don’t think the community can raise the money.”

The Anvil Bar & Refuge crew has purchased the old Chances bar across the street for a new beer bar. Rumors that they are looking at Mary’s for an extended parking lot are unfounded. Co-owner Bobby Heugel said that would never happen.

“If we were to buy it, we would never turn it into a parking lot,” he said. “I am really passionate about saving Montrose’s history. We’re not tearing down Chances. It would have been cheaper to do that, but I would never do it. And if we bought Mary’s, you could put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t tear it down.”

An ad hoc group has sprung up with, of course, a Facebook page (facebook.com/pages/Marys-Naturally-Closed). The group is tossing around several ideas, including having the new owners excavate any remains in a dignified manner and re-interring them elsewhere. The George Lewis Funeral Home is willing to handle any matters involved, at cost, but the question of where to re-inter the remains is up in the air. Some even believe that the new owner has a legal obligation to excavate the remains.

An idea is also being bandied about
that the small city triangle park on California Street—actually an esplanade behind Mary’s lot—could serve as a memorial for the community. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has an Adopt-An-Esplanade program that would allow a group to take over maintenance of the median and place a small plaque there.

“I think we have always been supportive of Houstonians who want to adopt esplanades,” said Houston city council member Sue Lovell.

That may be the best way to remember those whose ashes were scattered or buried at Mary’s. —Marene Gustin

Check back to the OutSmart website for updates to this story.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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