Time to bid adieu to 2 more of downtown’s oldest buildings: readers sent both sky-high and excavator-side photos of yesterday’s teardown work at 517 Louisiana St., and 509 is permitted to follow). According to the building’s owners, the next-door Lancaster Hotel’s parking crunch is the reason the 2 1906 Theater District neighbors will meet their flattened fates, along with a long-hidden pecan tree that shades a once-secret courtyard at 509. Taking their place: a surface lot for 50 cars — and, maybe, one day, an expansion to the hotel.
517’s transformation to empty space was complete by the end of the day yesterday:
Living Houstonians may remember 517 Louisiana as South African-born restaurateur-turned-Baptist-minister Clive Berkman’s Charley’s 517 restaurant, which catered to theatergoers at the Alley and Jones Hall for over 30 years. (Coat-and-tie was required as late as 1985, and a 1987 Texas Monthly print ad intoned that Charley’s was “the height of rustic elegance in the heart of Houston’s Theater District,” an experience that was “all the more dramatic when you bring along your American Express card.”) Next door, 509 was the home of the artery-clogging Texas comfort food and giant Long Island ice teas of the Longhorn Cafe and Saloon, opened in 1978 and shuttered in 2010.
But the 2 buildings were constructed in 1906, and earlier in their 100 years also witnessed the development of the surrounding area from red light district to the highbrow and lowbrow entertainment hotspot anchored by the nearby City Auditorium (one block south, where Jones Hall now stands).
509 Louisiana St. started out as a paint company; by 1912, it was an early home of the Star of Hope Mission. The mission had moved by 1920, whereupon the building was remodeled at a cost of $1,975 and reborn as the “Houston Auto Supply Company,” peddling “all sizes of Packard cable,” “Autoreelite Spotlights,” and “rear curtains” for your motoring pleasure.
Next door, the future Charley’s building first housed National Wire & Iron Works, whose pitch was “Just think: 100 feet of good fence for $2.50.” You could also buy wagons there: phaetons or a “One rubber-tired surrey runabout, trap and storm buggy.”
By 1909, the building had made the leap into the automotive age: the new Economy Plating and Manufacturing Co. offered nickel-plating for your car body. Four years later, the building was reborn Elite Garage & Repair; in 1921 it was overhauled again, this time with a maritime theme. Sail and hatch manufacturer Crescent Awning and Tarpaulin Co. advertised the “special attention . . . given to steamships. Ask us about them.”
In 1926, former lumber foreman and Magnolia Brewery delivery driver Michele DeGeorge commissioned the construction of the Auditorium Hotel at 701 Texas, next door to the 2 Louisiana buildings. Rice architectural historian Stephen Fox writes that the hotel “had never been one of the city’s more notable hostelries” until its 1983 transformation into the Lancaster — a repurposing he termed “an intelligent act of conservation that is too rare in Houston.” All three properties are still owned by DeGeorge’s decendants.
Photos: Jack Miller (street-level view) and Swamplot inbox (view from Calpine Center)