Urban Jungle Jim
The Robert Altman movie Brewster McCloud, about a kid who tries to fly inside the Astrodome, surely has made lots of youngsters wish they had the power of flight. But it was an adult, Jim Pirtle, who actually bundled himself in pillows and leaped from the second floor of Zocalo back in 1993, delighting the cinema crowd that had just seen the movie. He had more time to reflect on the film while his fractured back mended.
Crowned the Polyester King for his choices of apparel, Pirtle pulled a Christo in the early '90s, wrapping his entire house in the fabric -- accented by two mountain goats roaming the roof.
He's been to the edge more often than the goats during more than a decade of performing as his alter ego, Stu Mulligan, lounge singer supreme. Consider his most classic act: Straight-faced, he delivers a Dylanesque "Lay Lady Lay" to a chicken nesting on -- what else? -- a brass bed. Then he switches to "Like a Rolling Stone" as he downs a dozen eggs. Moving into the appropriate "Blowin' in the Wind," he vomits them back into a bowl.
Finally, a virginal Vanna White assistant takes the bowl to cohort Richie Hubscher, who fries up the regurgitated contents into omelettes -- which he politely offers to the audience.
Over the years, Pirtle has produced some memorable performance art. But his best-known piece is a long-running work in progress, the 1893 Kiam Building at 314 Main. The underground scene gravitated to his ground-floor, eclectic No tsu oH coffeehouse until it closed in 2002. It now gathers privately in the cavernous upper reaches of the venerable old structure.
In almost a decade, this quirky pioneer of the rebirth of downtown has created a counterculture counterbalance to the commercial gold rush of redevelopment in central Houston.
"He thinks of it as a social sculpture, and he's still very much into creating it," collaborator Hubscher says of the Kiam. "I've been watching the downtown scene morph and evolve for years. This is going to be very interesting to see how this goes for him."
Pirtle's Dennis Miller smile hints of impish delights and spontaneous antics.
"If it's something fun, he'll do it, because his universe is in orbit around himself, and he's entertained," explains his friend Nestor Topchy. "Jim's a great guy."
Behind the hair-trigger enthusiasm is the analytical mind of a calculating chess master. It makes you wonder if Pirtle's deal for the Kiam was merely -- as he tries to put it -- dumb luck.
As a kid in suburbia, Pirtle thought of downtown as the place where his dad disappeared during workdays, or where Grandma caught the bus for the trip back to Bryan. "It was an invisible place; it isn't real," he recalls thinking.
At Baylor University, he majored in rebellion against authority. He was an aide at the Austin State Hospital then spent years as a prekindergarten teacher back in Houston. He found himself drifting more and more into the alternative arenas of performance art, skating as an Urban Animal and holding court as the Polyester King or the upchucking Stu Mulligan.
"Oh, it's a disconnect with reality," Topchy says with a laugh about his fellow artist. "That certainly helps. He's clinically narcissistic."
Around a decade ago, miffed that the coffeehouse he frequented didn't allow him to linger over chess games, Pirtle went shopping for his own chess parlor. In 1996, he stumbled onto the rarest of deals, one that reflected just how cadaver-dead downtown was at the time: the long-dormant Kiam Building.
The price: $20,000, plus $100,000 more in back taxes. And it held full inventories from closed pawnshops and clothing stores -- mint-condition relics dating back to the early 1900s. "My street was virtually vacant," Pirtle recalls. "It was so quiet we could go out and throw the Frisbee around, even play golf. No one cared because no one was there."
As for unique downtown destinations, about all that had survived the lean years were the classic Warren's Inn and La Carafe on Market Square. Blocks of buildings remained shuttered and vacant.
The madcap, late-night No tsu oH soon drew underground art crowds, the homeless and hard-core eccentrics of all persuasions. On any given evening, there might be open-mike, modern dance, music or comedy, or just chess, conversation, meditation or deep sleep.
Crowds sometimes mingled throughout the upper floors, cluttered with artwork or artifacts from the stores. Friends recall when the city told him to remove the "Money to Loan" sign from the pawnshop days because it was "willfully" misleading the public.
"But isn't that what art's all about?" Pirtle replied.
"We envisioned No tsu oH as being on the edge of the Theater District -- that there would be a lot more performance houses," Pirtle says. "But there ain't gonna be many more coming in. I thought of my place being the off-Broadway of the Theater District. That's still what I want it to be someday."
But a fire above No tsu oH caused it to close in 2002. To cover expenses, Pirtle had rented his other storefront out to Dean's bar; Clark's music club eventually filled the cavity left by the coffeehouse.
Even before then, Pirtle's whisper-quiet front yard had started to whirl with action. Scores of cafes, clubs and bars arrived in the area. The Rice Hotel reopened as lofts, as did a half-dozen former office buildings. Boutique hotels materialized. The convention center expanded and added a massive hotel. Two pro sports stadiums popped up, and the light-rail line was gliding by his front door.
In the almost ten years since Pirtle's avant-garde haven took hold, the central city has undertaken some $4 billion in new projects. Extensive road construction contributed to one shakeout, but redevelopment has roared back with a frenzy.
For Pirtle, nostalgia tinges the here-and-now realities. He regrets even disturbing the "time-machine trip" of a perfectly preserved pawnshop and clothing store dating back 50 years. "Don't touch it -- it's perfect," he told himself. "And I touched it. And I fucked it up." But he knows he had to move on, that change was inevitable.
Others note that he's insisted that tenants keep the authentic themes of the Kiam. The Downtown Management District's Jodie Sinclair commended his preservation efforts and noted that a district goal is to maintain the area's vibrant diversity.
Pirtle has kept the block from becoming another nameless facade hiding prettified apartment units. "He's more interested in creating a culture than being a consumer of it," Hubscher says. "He's not selling out for the big bucks."
If homogenized development overruns downtown, if the creative elements relocate elsewhere, so be it, Pirtle says.
"It wasn't as if this was a vibrant area to begin with, and they came in and chased all the artists off," he says. "Only the funky places like Warren's and La Carafe were here, and they're still here. And they'll be here long after all the rest has moved on."
Houston, he reasons, is concrete, with the green weeds of genuine art continually poking through. "When the artists are driven to the edge, what becomes the edge again? Who knows? Maybe Sharpstown will become the new arts center."
Most important, he says, Houston has kept its wide-open-frontier mentality. And that means performance art can serve up omelettes of regurgitated eggs, or goats can crown a polyester-encased house.
This city lets you savor the freedom, he says.
"Creativity flies. As long as you don't hurt others -- then go for it. This city has been so, so nice with freaks. It's incredibly tolerant. You're free to go and be yourself."
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