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Watching through the blur of 65 miles per hour, from your car, from the freeway -- I45 North, between Tidwell and Parker, specifically -- you'd hardly notice the slow roamings of the dull yellow claw-bucketed earthmover on the eastern side of the feeder. It would be swamped by its backdrop: a soaring red, white and blue behemoth of a building complex, freshly erected and cleanly painted, topped with a windowed crown reminiscent of a ship's crow's nest, from which lofty heights Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale steers (metaphorically speaking, of course) his 19-year-old roadside furniture emporium into the berth labeled "Furniture Store of the New Millennium." You'd hardly notice, but that earthmover, without fanfare, is scooping a genuine Houston landmark into huge steel trash bins. When its work is finished, any day now, nothing but pavement will remain of the site of a quintessentially Houstonian success story: the birthplace of Gallery Furniture.
"It was emotional for me," McIngvale says. "I spent 20 years of my life in those buildings, so it was hard to see them go."
Those buildings were five in number, three of brick and two of wood frame, constructed at some forgotten date in the early 1960s, and they were sitting on the property, abandoned, when McIngvale moved in in 1981. They had been built to serve as model homes, prefab temptations for travelers headed up the North Freeway en route to Lake Conroe, the waterfronts of which were blooming with weekend houses.
McIngvale gutted them, stuffed them with furniture and called them showrooms.
"We used those model homes as a showroom, heck, all the way up to last year," McIngvale says. "We used them for storage up until the last day. In fact I had a safe in one of them, and we had about $3,000 in dollar bills and change during the holidays, and I forgot about the darn money that was still in the safe when the building got demolished. I went out there and dug it out. The top of the safe was all messed up, but the bolt part was okay, so I got that money out."
Mattress Mac saved his money!
The cleared space will be transformed into extra parking areas to handle Gallery's massive weekend business, an influx in part drawn to the new showroom's soaring ceilings, theme-park-style attractions, in-store coffee shop, free-range parrots, four-lane bowling alley and Elvis/Princess Di/Houston Rockets memorabilia collections.
"And we'll probably put a retention pond out there, too," he says, "for the water that runs off the freeway."
Not everyone is sad to see the old structures go. Last week Marilyn Murphy, a Gallery manager who has worked for McIngvale for 13 years, was asked if the original homestead had been in decent shape before the demolition. She rolled her eyes.
"We were always putting them back together."
McIngvale remembers putting the buildings back together, too.
"I'll never forget, the second year I was there, we used to open on Sundays, you know, and that was kind of in violation of the blue laws, but we did it anyway because we had to survive. And the second year I was there, that was before they had all those guardrails on the freeway, and it was a Sunday morning, I'll never forget it, about 11 o'clock, we were out there trying to sell, and this guy ran off the side of the road, went off the freeway, went through the ditch, came up and hit the side of one of those homes going about 70 miles per hour. Knocked those bricks everywhere."
So when the bulldozers finally began knocking the houses down for good, McIngvale went out into the parking-lot-to-be and picked up a single brick from the house that the runaway car had hit back in 1983, when he was still breaking blue laws just to stay afloat, long before he was able to decorate the entrance to his furniture store, as he recently did, with Elvis Presley's 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II.
He says he's going to add the brick to the memorabilia collection, somewhere between a necklace worn by Princess Di and a shoe worn by Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Kind of a memorial," he says, "to those 20 years of my life."
E-mail Brad Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.