by Marene Gustin
The rumors about Mary’s were true. Almost. The owners of Anvil Bar & Refuge, who are leasing the old Chances bar across the street and are rehabbing it into the beer bar Hay Merchant and the hotly anticipated Underbelly restaurant helmed by chef Chris Shepherd, have also bought the lot where Mary’s, Naturally has stood for more than four decades.
And yes, they are tearing down the abandoned house on the California side (as the city has requested), but the Mary’s building will be saved.
“We will not tear it down,” says Anvil co-owner Bobby Heugel. “It’s such an important part of Houston’s history, there’s no way we’ll demolish that building.”
For decades, Mary’s was famous not just as a gay bar but also as a community shrine that housed memorabilia from the early days of the AIDS crisis. It also hosted AIDS memorial gatherings for those lost to the pandemic. While reports of ashes scattered in the patio garden (or “Outback”) are documented, Heugel says there are no bodies buried there.
“We did our due diligence,” he says. “There are no bodies. And yes, we are going to use the backside as extra parking for Hay Merchant and Underbelly, but we are going to save Mary’s. We want to pay tribute to the property, and we are reaching out to the community for ideas. It’s a win-win situation for the community and the neighborhood.”
Judy Reeves, of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History, Inc., has worked closely with the May family to salvage much of the memorabilia from inside the building after the bar closed in 2009. That family has owned Mary’s lot at the corner of Westheimer Road and Yoakum Boulevard, along with the lot that stretches to California Street, since the early 1900s.
Heugel says that before closing on the property, he was inside Mary’s and found that there had been one or more break-ins. “Almost everything that was left is gone,” he says. “And there’s a lot of damage there, but it’s okay. We’ll clean it up and make it right again. We’ll find the right tenant for the building.”
Sara Fernandez, a member of a group that has been closely watching the fate of Mary’s, is delighted.
“I’m thrilled they are going to save it,” she says. “It’s so historically important. Back in the day, it was one of the few places the community could meet and feel safe. It would be great if it could be some kind of gift shop or coffee house where people could gather again.”