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Story and photos by Brandon Wolf
Houston’s LGBT community has a very rich history, but local historians admit that our community’s awareness of it is limited. Efforts have been made to change that—archives established, exhibits displayed, articles written, speakers scheduled—all with minimal success.
The unique Banner Project, a portable exhibit of notable images from Houston’s LGBT history archives, has reached further than any previous efforts. Now, the Houston Eagle bar has opened a second-floor party space called the Phoenix Room that features a fascinating array of historic images—an innovative concept that promises to reach an even wider audience.
Figuring that it’s easier to get people to a popular club than to a history exhibit, Eagle owner Mark De Lange decided to bring history right into Houston’s LGBT club scene. His new Phoenix Room is a full-service bar space that surrounds customers with Houston’s LGBT history dating back as far as 1937. De Lange hopes that partying and learning about LGBT history will no longer be mutually exclusive activities.
The room features a timeline of our community’s history, a huge montage of LGBT publications since the 1960s, and an equally impressive montage of ads from gay bars in existence before 1985 and now closed. The focal point of the room is a full-sized recreation of the iconic 1997 Mary’s bar mural that was destroyed in 2006.
De Lange says that nearly 3,000 customers now pass through the room every weekend. Multiple wall mirrors reflect images of the murals, giving them a sense of infinity that is unlike anything ever seen before in a Houston LGBT club.
It All Started with the Mural
De Lange says he remembers the original mural that covered the exterior east wall of Mary’s bar, at Westheimer and Waugh, for nearly 10 years. The in-your-face mural featured a happy cast of colorful characters partying inside Mary’s, including two shirtless leather men with hirsute chests and bulging crotches who are peering into each other’s eyes with unbridled lust. Looking on, or playing pool, is the cast of other bar regulars. Sitting attentively on a stool in the center is Mr. Balls, a stray cat with extremely large testicles that became the bar’s feline mascot.
The mural disappeared in 2006, painted over with blue sky and fluffy clouds while humorously leaving behind only Mr. Balls. The gentrification of Montrose is assumed to be responsible for the loss.
Mary’s closed in 2009 after 39 years of operation. In 2011, the building was purchased and renovation was begun to convert it into Blacksmith, a gourmet coffee shop. The new owner allowed the Joanna Art Collective to reproduce the mural for Pride Month 2011, with the understanding that the image’s existence would be temporary.
Cody Ledvina, who supervised the 2011 recreation with the help of two dozen art-student volunteers, told the media: “This mural is a public-art masterpiece. The City of Houston doesn’t have many notable public art spaces. Where there is public art, it’s big and oppressive. This is the opposite—it’s open, democratic, and fun.”
After the 2011 reproduction disappeared, De Lange began his effort to recreate it again in 2014 when he purchased the former 611 Club and converted it into the Houston Eagle. De Lange inquired around and connected with the original mural’s artist, Scott Swoveland, who had since moved to Indianapolis.
De Lange wanted Swoveland to come to Houston and recreate his 1997 Mary’s mural on the east wall of Eagle’s outdoor patio. But Swoveland wasn’t easily convinced. In the 20 years since he had painted the mural, his artistic style had matured. Swoveland wasn’t sure he wanted to be remembered for a piece that he considered artistically inferior. If he recreated it, he wanted to update it to reflect his current artistic style.
The two men discussed different ideas—even expanding the mural on both sides to include more characters. But De Lange remained steadfast—he wanted the mural to look exactly like it did in 1997.
Meanwhile, De Lange began to consider renovating the Eagle’s second floor into commercial space. The original owners had run a grocery store on the ground floor and lived upstairs. De Lange decided to have the mural recreated in the new second-floor bar space, where Swoveland’s mural wall could become the central feature.
Construction had just begun when the Eagle suffered a fire caused by aging aluminum wiring on the second floor. The bar closed for the first six months of 2016 while the damage was repaired. Fortunately, the reconstruction process allowed De Lange to completely rethink his plans for the second-floor bar space.
By the summer of 2016, De Lange and Swoveland had reached an agreement: the Mary’s mural would be recreated in its original form, and Swoveland would also be commissioned to paint six striking pictures of masculine men to line the remaining walls. The new images would give Swoveland the opportunity to showcase his maturing artistic style.
The Mural Goes High-Tech
As De Lange pondered the future of the historic Mary’s mural, he realized that time and misfortune would eventually take a toll. To ensure the permanence of the artwork, De Lange asked Swoveland to paint the mural at a much smaller size, but using the same proportions as the original. That painting was then scanned at extremely high resolution, digitally enlarged to the size of the original mural, and printed on durable vinyl strips.
After the printed strips were glued to the wall, the seams were hidden using a “blowtorch” touch-up technique. The finished product is stunningly vivid and realistic, and the mural is now safe for perpetuity since it can easily be reprinted using the scanned digital image.
As the resident artist at Mary’s bar for 10 years, Swoveland was employed to repaint the bar’s front window on a regular basis—usually to advertise an upcoming function or pay tribute to recent national events. One of his window scenes in 1997 was inspired by a gay greeting card showing a wide-eyed Dorothy and Toto from The Wizard of Oz in the middle of a leather bar—the prototype for his now-famous wall mural.
The image made its way to Mary’s prominent exterior east wall after James “Fannie” Farmer, the owner of Mary’s, asked Swoveland to replace a smaller mural that had been on that wall for years. Swoveland took his window design, removed Dorothy and Toto, and filled in the remaining space with people he knew and loved from Mary’s. The mural was meant to show a typical afternoon at Mary’s, as if the building’s front wall had magically disappeared to reveal the bar’s colorful interior.
Swoveland emphasizes that there was much more to his mural than just a brash public statement to an often-oppressive world that had little respect for the LGBT community. It also expressed three themes the artist felt deeply about: the importance of being true to who you are; the value of friendships; and living life to its fullest, even in the face of tribulations such as discrimination and AIDS.
Swoveland is still amazed at the popularity of his piece. “I thought it would be replaced in a year,” he says, looking back. But he’s pleased that it has endured, mostly because it pays tribute to the characters he loved—and who are mostly gone now.
The Concept Expands
De Lange was so pleased with the finished mural and its unique story that he began to take a similar interest in other community history that he felt was largely unknown. He launched an Internet search that landed him on the houstonlgbthistory.org website created and maintained by Houston LGBT history titan J.D. Doyle. This online resource was launched in 2001 as an adjunct to Doyle’s popular Queer Music Heritage radio show. In 2013, after being inspired by a comprehensive database of AIDS-related deaths in San Francisco, Doyle decided to expand the reach of his music archive by creating a Texas LGBT obituary database. He began by scanning and indexing the obituaries published in This Week in Texas (TWT), the statewide bar magazine that had served LGBT Texans for more than 25 years.
As Doyle made his way through the TWT obituaries, he became so fascinated by the iconic LGBT publication that he decided to build an online TWT library. He has now scanned and posted the contents of all but about 60 of TWT’s 1,518 issues.
By 2014, Doyle had moved all non-music materials to his new website, houstonlgbthistory.org. Currently totaling more than 10,000 pages, it ranks as the largest and most comprehensive online source of Houston LGBT history in existence.
De Lange soon became mesmerized by Doyle’s history website, and spent every free minute for weeks navigating through it. When De Lange came across a montage of past gay-bar ads created for the 2015 Heritage Society’s LGBT history exhibit, he contacted Doyle and asked him to create a much larger bar montage for the Phoenix Room. The two decided to limit the montage to Houston-area gay bars opened before 1985 that had since closed. Doyle’s original montage of 28 ads grew to include 86 bars. His friend and fellow historian Sara Fernandez digitally optimized the ads, and Doyle was careful to create visual contrast by alternating dark and light ad designs. He also separated bars that had occupied the same building under different names. His prize piece is a 1937 flyer found on eBay from The Wagon Wheel Nite Club, located at Airline and Little York, advertising a female-impersonator show.
Re-thinking the Room
With the bar montage completed, De Lange further refined his interior design plans by hanging Swoveland’s more recent works in the anteroom to the restrooms, leaving the remaining walls free. After becoming fascinated with the archive of Houston LGBT publications on Doyle’s website, De Lange spent weeks building a montage of 84 publication covers, including one TWT cover from each year of its publication. The oldest cover is a 1968 Albatross, and the first OutSmart cover from 1994 is also included. Numerous short-lived publications were launched in Houston over the years, including The Courier, Eclipse, Gala, MaleMan, UpFront, Mr., Houston Forum, Contact, LXIX, Out, and Montrose Area Pride.
Timeline Traces the Community’s Triumphs and Tragedies
Over the bar area hangs a historical timeline of Houston LGBT history interwoven with national LGBT history. The events depicted start in 1950 with the founding of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and run through the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court marriage-equality ruling.
De Lange consulted with numerous local LGBT historians including Doyle, Fernandez, Craig Farrell, the Botts Archive of LGBT History, and the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of LGBT History—all of whom helped refine the timeline until a consensus was reached that it was both comprehensive and inclusive. Eighteen events are featured, including the 1953 founding of the Dianas, the 1978 Town Meeting I, the 1980 repeal of the cross-dressing ordinance, the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, and the 2009 election of Annise Parker as Houston’s mayor.
As one’s eyes sweep across the timeline, an awareness is created that change doesn’t happen overnight—or in a straight line. There are victories and there are defeats, but it’s all worth the effort.
On another wall, De Lange opted for a photo that Doyle took during the 1982 Pride Parade, of people filling the sidewalk in front of Mary’s and sitting on the rooftop. The photo went viral when it first appeared on Facebook a few years back, and it perfectly captures the spirit of the times.
Like the Mary’s mural, the process of digitization and hanging printed vinyl strips was used for the Phoenix Room’s other montages. The result is so realistic that one must actually touch a montage to realize it has been printed on vinyl. De Lange framed all of the historical pieces with wood that matched the room’s trim. Informational plaques were laser-cut into the wood and then hand-detailed with paint.
In addition to Swoveland’s five new works on the second floor, there is “Bo,” who resides on a wall next to the first-floor DJ booth. The ultimate leather-man’s dream, Bo has become the bar’s mascot. “Customers love to stand beside him for cell-phone photos,” says De Lange. It’s impossible to describe Bo—he just has to be experienced by visiting the club.
The Houston Eagle is the home bar of the Houston Bears, a charitable and social organization, so a large backlit sign honoring them also hangs in the Phoenix Room. The sign incurred minor damage during the fire, and the imperfections remain as an historical reminder. The Phoenix Room is dedicated to the memory of Gene Landry, a popular member of the leather community and mentor to many, who passed away in 2016, at the age of 47.
De Lange hopes to negotiate with Swoveland to offer limited-edition prints for sale in the Eagle’s leather shop. De Lange is also planning to sell greeting cards featuring a photo of the recreated Mary’s mural, with profits going toward maintaining Doyle’s website.
A Commitment to History
When De Lange bought the 611 bar, he retained several built-in trophy cases on the first floor that display leather/denim-club trophies. The trophy cases cause De Lange to smile as he points out that they originally housed live chickens when the building was a grocery store.
Several 611 scrapbooks that were inherited from the previous owner will be donated to the University of Houston’s new LGBT History Collections archive, along with De Lange’s planning sketches, blueprints, and other materials documenting the creation of the Phoenix Room. During a leather weekend this coming fall, De Lange hopes to bring Swoveland to Houston to see his recreated mural and to greet fans of his artwork.
The Phoenix Room is open weekends starting at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 4 p.m. on Sundays. The room is available for meetings, private parties, receptions, and fundraisers. Rental rates vary, based on the day of the week and how much staff is required to service the event.
The Diana Foundation was the first to book a function in the room, at which they honored
De Lange. The next booked event is the LGBT Alumni Association of the University of Houston.
De Lange says customers often get teary-eyed as they see reminders of their younger days, or gaze at the recreated Mary’s mural. Younger patrons show a profound interest in a past they know nothing about.
Buildings rise and fall. Bars open and close. People and organizations come and go. Leaders and traditions change with regularity. Triumphs are celebrated, and tragedies are mourned. To know where we are headed, we must consider where we have been. To understand who we are, we must reflect on who we were. And amidst this constant evolution, the only anchor is our history.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.