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It's probably nothing more than old-fashioned luck, or good timing, but either way I have managed to stumble upon what has to be one of Houston's choicer living situations: an upstairs apartment in the building that houses the Continental Club, Big Top, Sig's Lagoon and Tacos a Go-Go. Sharing its block at 3700 Main are Julia's, T'afia, Breakfast Klub and Mink. As long as the money holds out, I can now eat, drink, shop, entertain and be entertained for days (or even weeks) on end without ever having to cross Main Street. If it's absolutely necessary, downtown, Montrose and the Museum District are a brief cab or MetroRail ride away.
Better still, the apartment is gorgeous. It's very spacious, with freshly laid hardwood floors, window AC, ceiling fans and a killer view of the Continental's patio. It sort of reminds me of Al Swearingen's quarters above the Gem Saloon in HBO's Deadwood, but I might be projecting because I like that show so much. Unlike most of the other residential units upstairs, it has a private toilet and shower. There's parking, so that's nice. And sure, there could be a catch or two. There's no central heat, and it's kind of loud late at night. Imagine that.
Oh, and the building might be haunted.
Or so they say. Truthfully, of my new neighbors who live or work (or both) at 3700 Main, only a couple said they had ever seen, heard or felt anything unusual. The building opened in 1929, so many phenomena associated with the supernatural — strange noises, bizarre cold spots, etc. — could just as easily be attributed to age. But everyone has heard the rumors; the building's history certainly lends itself to such speculation, and even the biggest skeptics freely admit sometimes the place just flat plain gives them the creeps.
"There were all kinds of rumors of that when we first got in," says building manager Pete Gordon, who also plays keyboards in several local bands including Disco Expressions and Peter & James. "It felt like, you know, there was something."
What that might be is a little harder to pinpoint, but David Beebe doesn't need convincing. Beebe is a Houston history buff in general and, along with Gordon, part of the partnership that owns the building. He also lived upstairs from early 2000 to a couple of months ago, when he relocated to West Texas to renovate and open a bar in Marfa. He still keeps a room upstairs, and had an experience he still doesn't quite know how to explain not long after moving in. As is so often the case, he was alone in the building late at night, renovating one of the upstairs apartments — one that happens to be next to the one I just moved into.
"I was standing in the middle of the room, listening to some music, and then the music stopped," Beebe says. "I felt something happening, and I turned around and looked at the window by the bathroom, and I felt something coming from that area. You know how when you look at a hot parking lot the air is distorted from the heat? It was like that, but it wasn't heat. I felt something cold coming into the room. The air was, like, not right. Man, I was fuckin' scared."
So Beebe did what any rational human being would do in the presence of a mysterious, possibly otherworldy presence. He started talking to it.
"I was like, 'We're friendly, we're here, we're going to be here for a long time, and we're trying to do things that are good for the building,'" he says. "I got this sense that whatever was there was sort of listening to me, so I kept talking. I was just scared, like, 'Say something.' Then maybe about five to seven minutes passed, and I felt the thing leave. I hung around for another 45 minutes or so and went back to my parents' house, just got the hell out of there."
"I have seen things in the store where it's like, 'What was that?'" admits Sig's Lagoon owner Tomas Escalante, singer for Clouseaux and the El Orbits. "Things fall over when there's no way they should. I'm not really into that kind of thing, but there's definitely some sort of weird energy. I don't know what it is."
Over its nearly 80-year existence, 3700 Main has seen all kinds of people come and go. At various times, the upstairs area has been a fencing studio and the Houston Business College (which Beebe's grandmother attended), while a longtime occupant of the Continental's space was the Wallis drugstore. The Big Top was once Playhouse Toys, and the giraffe that still sits above the door is rumored to be the inspiration for Toys "R" Us mascot Geoffrey.
A movie crew painted the stairwell walls an unnerving shade of green when they filmed some of what Gordon thinks is the 1988 Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan thriller D.O.A. there. When the current ownership took over, the block wasn't completely deserted — latter-day tenants included a health-food store and newsstand — but by that point Midtown was home to all sorts of nefarious activity. Beebe says someone hung themselves upstairs sometime in the '80s, and his first apartment in the building, the same one he felt the strange presence in that night, was once a sex dungeon. When he moved in, the windows were still blacked out and there were several fearsome-looking hooks bolted into the ceiling and walls.
"Back in the late '80s or early '90s, a couple guys rented it as basically a sex slave den," he says. "They would kidnap these kids, lock them in there and sexually abuse them. People knew about it, you know, but that was back when this neighborhood was pure shit. Everybody out there was smoking crack."
Now that 3700 Main is regularly inhabited again, Beebe thinks the strange psychic energy he felt when he moved in is mostly gone. "It seemed to me like once we actually fixed the building somewhat, like actually got the thing remotely functioning again, all that weird air in here kind of cleared out," he says. "I'm not saying it's totally gone, but there's no longer this weird vibe."
"I know what that's like, because I used to have a place in Second Ward that was like that," says Octanes, Umbrella Man and Billy Joe Shaver bassist Nick Gaitan, who has lived upstairs for about four years. "But all the crazy shit I've seen here has been from the living."