By Aaron Reiss
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After nearly 100 years in a three-story white house on West Alabama, Maggie's being evicted. One of three ghosts that has haunted The Ale House since it was a turn-of-the-century farm was to be told to move on at a closed-door séance Tuesday night because the old English pub is being torn down.
"We're gonna help them move to the light. They need to cross over to the other side," explains Sandy Webb, a partner in High Spirits Tours. "They've been there for such a long time, they don't have anyplace else to go."
Maggie, a serving girl killed in the farmhouse, has been reported to giggle, light candles, call out names and sometimes drink customers' beers. Another occupant is the sea captain, who psychics believe was one of the original owners of the house (and might have killed Maggie). He has been known to pat women's butts and run his fingers down their spines. And there's the old lady who ran the brothel at the turn of the century, the one who likes to sit in the rocking chair on the balcony.
"They're all caught," Sandy says. "Once the place is demolished, they'll have no place to go."
Two weeks after its 20th anniversary bash, the bar will close Sunday, June 3.
While the end of The Ale House came as a surprise to many, the threat has been looming over the pub for the past few years as a high-stakes monopoly game played out.
It began with 1998 plans by The Ainbinder Company for the adjacent development of the 100,000-square-foot Centre at River Oaks, a posh shopping mall anchored by Borders Superstore at the corner of West Alabama and Kirby Drive.
An agent of the developers tried to buy the Ale House property from owner Cheryl Despain Wilson, although the bar exercised its right of first refusal and purchased the property. That triggered a lawsuit over the legality of the sale, but the pub prevailed.
However, the developers controlled the surrounding land, cutting off The Ale House from Houston's most precious commercial commodity: parking for customers.
Asked about rumors of doom for his drinkery (see "Ale House Brawl," by Margaret L. Briggs, September 30, 1999), owner Michael Holliday said, "Is The Ale House closing? No, there's no truth to that story whatsoever. Sure, they've been trying to get us out of here, but we're not leaving."
(The owner refused a Houston Press interview last week, saying the last time he talked to the media, the developer sued him.) Those at the pub say the site will become nothing more than a parking lot for shoppers at the chic center.
"We succumbed to the pressure," says Angela Jenkins, the general manager. "We didn't want to."
On an afternoon late last week, there's a sad, somber air as customers stare bleakly into their beers and talk about how much it sucks that the place is going to be leveled.
"It's still kind of like a wake around here," says Jeff Flosi, a biology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. "This is home."
People have been drinking in this spot for years and years and years. Rumors are The Ale House was a speakeasy during prohibition and in the 1960s a topless bar called The Galloping Jugs. Later the building housed a French bistro, then Steve's Dockside Seafood Restaurant. The Ale House, a British-style bar that featured pub grub, darts and live music, poured its first pint on May 22, 1981.
Customers will have a replacement by this fall, when the owner opens The Stag's Head around the corner at 2128 Portsmouth. "It's not going to be The Ale House, but it's gonna be a nice pub," Jenkins says. "We're gonna try and make it as Ale House-y as we can." Most of the waitstaff will move with them, as well as some of the old furnishings and decor.
But for regulars, this will be a long, dry summer.
"My liver won't know what to do," says Jay Lyall, Shell project manager and a patron for 11 years. He's going to be very thirsty.
Jenkins tells him, "Find a temporary watering hole until we can all regroup."
The owner is looking for the right location to resurrect The Ale House, but that's far into the future, Jenkins says.
Jim McCray walks in and hugs the kitchen manager, Dave Fisher, who is sipping a Guinness and flipping through a cookbook at the end of the bar. "It's been a good place for a lot of us for a long, long time," McCray says. "I'm gonna miss it."
He orders a wheat beer and then hugs Jenkins.
"What can we do?" she asks him.
"Remember," he says.