By Shirley Knight
Editor’s Note: Vintage photos provided by Montrose, TX: The Transformation of a Neighborhood, a PBS documentary produced by Sunset Productions in cooperation with the Montrose Center.
Houstonians know that this city is a cosmopolitan, eclectic, and international blend of interesting people, thriving arts, and great restaurants. The Montrose area can take a lot of credit for producing and sustaining this identity as it continues to attract people on the leading edge.
In 1910, Houston developer J.W. Link envisioned a distinguished residential area centered around an enormous boulevard stretching north from Hermann Park. He called his new subdivision “The Montrose.” Families who left their names on city streets and notable buildings moved into the area—Cullen, Rice, Kirby, and Jones (of Jones Hall), to name a few. On the northern edge of Montrose, a farm road running east and west got its name from a German Jewish flour salesman who built a school on his 640-acre farm surrounding the area where Lamar High School now stands. His last name was Westheimer.
As Houston’s elite eventually moved west to River Oaks, Memorial, and Tanglewood, Montrose was increasingly populated by professors, artists, and immigrants. The Greek Orthodox church on Yoakum was dedicated in 1952, and for 50 years running, the annual Greek Festival has been held on the church’s campus.
People from all over the world found homes and opened restaurants in Montrose. In 1970, an immigrant from Bavaria opened Michelangelo’s, featuring southern Italian cooking. Greek food was served at Bacchanal and Zorba’s, and Cardet’s Cafe was a haven for Cuban exiles.
A 1973 article in Texas Monthly lauds Montrose for its “European-style restaurants and sidewalk cafés” and for Victorian homes turned into “bistros with an international barrage of foods and wines.” Gay people were attracted to the charm and flair of the area, as well as its vast selection of affordable vintage homes. A word often used to describe the atmosphere in the ’60s and ’70s is “bohemian.”
Montrose native Thorne Dreyer wrote in CITE magazine, “In many ways, Montrose was the heart of Houston back then. It had a social vitality and a sense of community and a tolerance for diversity that you didn’t find elsewhere in this sprawling adolescent metropolis.”
In 1971, the Westheimer Colony Art Festival held its first event. The street fair grew throughout the ’70s and ’80s and featured a wide variety of arts, crafts, musical groups, and people—skaters known as the Urban Animals, activists, belly dancers, snake owners, punk rockers, and families.
Montrose had indeed become an enclave with a distinct identity. In 1973, Houston radio personality Dan Earhart was quoted as saying, “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.”
The history of the area also includes some turbulent times. Vietnam War protests were held at the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, and in 1970, the KPFT radio studio was bombed. That same year, three gay establishments burned: Bullseye on Westheimer, Plantation Club on West Gray, and Palace Club on Berry Street.
Gay and lesbian clubs continued to be raided by the police back then, and people were arrested for things like cross-dressing. One notorious raid occurred at Mary’s bar in June 1980, just before the second annual Pride parade. Later that year, the city’s ordinance prohibiting cross-dressing was repealed.
But such moments of crisis only served to strengthen the gay community, and the attraction of Montrose endured. LGBT political clout was evident in 1979 when the Gay Political Caucus helped elect Eleanor Tinsley as the first woman to occupy an at-large City Council seat. Soon after that, Kathy Whitmire was elected as Houston’s first female mayor in 1981. Houston’s LGBT community continues to provide fresh alternatives to the entrenched “good ol’ boy” network that had always run the city.
Unfortunately, Montrose was also becoming a magnet for drug addicts, prostitutes, runaways, gay-bashers, and thrill-seekers during the 1980s. The gay community’s strained relationship with the police department and first responders finally gained widespread attention in 1991 when Paul Broussard, a handsome young banker, was murdered by 10 young men from The Woodlands.
The vibrancy of the Montrose area has always been evident in its changing demographics. Even in 1973, people were concerned that “the hippie image of the Montrose is changing because the land values are going up, and the low-rent areas are disappearing.” According to the article “Montrose Lives!” in Texas Monthly, at that time a ramshackle duplex apartment at the corner of Welch and Hopkins rented for $55 a month (including utilities), an average apartment in Montrose cost $100 a month, buying and refurbishing a basic home in the area required $60,000, and townhomes were quickly appearing.
One result is that people began moving to the Heights, another neglected historic area that had yet to be rediscovered. Gay couples also began dispersing throughout Houston to Meyerland, Oak Forest, and Spring Branch.
Steve Louis, a Houston-area Realtor since 1985, remembers that gay people liked Montrose “because they could be a little more open and not worry about being made fun of or discriminated against. They stuck with what they knew and what was familiar.” However, “Single-family dwellings in Montrose were a reach for most clients, and nine times out of ten the homes were run down and required a lot of work.”
Louis notes that in the past, financing options could be problematic for gay couples. He says, “I remember when it wasn’t so easy for two males to buy a single-family dwelling together. Mortgage companies were not processing loans the way they do now.” He says marriage equality will help young people because “married gay couples can now build a financial future together, whereas in the past that option wasn’t so easy to construct.”
He also notes that there was a time when the Texas Real Estate Commission required property owners to disclose if anyone in the house had AIDS—another hurdle for many in the gay community.
Nevertheless, Montrose has a proud and eclectic past, and it has long been the cultural heart and soul of Houston. The larger area is also known as Neartown, which was a small civic association founded in 1963 that expanded into an area-wide coalition of civic associations in 1997.
Past landmarks include Mary’s, a gay bar that thrived from 1970 to 2009 at the northeast corner of Westheimer and Waugh. In a 2011 issue of OutSmart, Brandon Wolf wrote, “For many gay men, Mary’s was symbolic of their own survival. They had dealt with bar raids, hate crimes, city referenda, and AIDS . . . and like Mary’s, they were survivors, too.” Today, that small refurbished building houses a coffee shop serving things like jasmine tea and kale chips, and Mary’s backyard patio is now a parking lot.
For years, the northwest corner of Westheimer and Waugh next to Mary’s housed Charlie’s Coffee Shop. Then from 1994 to 2010, the building housed Chances Bar, which attracted lesbians and their friends. Today, one can visit the same site for craft beers such as “coffee bourbon barrel-aged Russian imperial stout,” which sells for $14 a glass. Where people used to dance to “Everlasting Love” and “Rock This Party,” they can now order Underbelly’s “new American Creole cuisine,” such as smoked snapper or Korean braised goat and dumplings.
Felix Mexican Restaurant, which opened in 1948 at 904 Westheimer, closed in 2008. The building is now the site of Uchi, a “contemporary Japanese dining & sushi restaurant.” Where for decades you could get Tex-Mex enchiladas in chili gravy, you can now order Wagu beef, salmon belly, or eel.
TooPee’s Coffee House, a popular hangout on West Alabama, is now an Italian restaurant and wine bar. Bookstores came and went—Lobo Houston (1986–2004), Inklings (1988–1997), and Crossroads Market (early ’90s–2002).
While some establishments folded, others thrived. The Hobbit Hole opened in 1972 on Shepherd and evolved into the Hobbit Cafe on Richmond Avenue. Baba Yega’s, which opened in 1975 in a small bungalow, today includes several buildings with beautiful patios. In 1977, Niko Niko’s opened as a small walk-up window selling Greek food. Today it occupies half of an entire block on Montrose Boulevard. La Mexicana, which began as a grocery store with two tables for dine-in customers at Fairview and Montrose, has expanded several times over the decades. The original Barnaby’s on Fairview opened in 1992, and today there are six additional locations around town.
With an interesting mix of restaurants, music clubs, gay bars, art galleries, thrift stores, antique shops, tattoo parlors, boutiques, and coffee shops, along with Rothko Chapel and the Menil museum, the Montrose area has been and continues to be a trendsetter for Texas. Montrose was also the birthplace of some of Houston’s most celebrated annual events, including a biannual art festival, the Art Car Parade, and Free Press Summer Fest. Pioneering journalist Ray Miller used to say, “Houston is a place that has a place for you.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Montrose, a neighborhood where much of the city’s diversity, culture, and renowned cuisine has been nurtured and continues to thrive.
Shirley Knight is the founder of AwakeNow.org.