McGowen used to hold a streetcar, Ian Rosenberg told me on a crisp, clear afternoon as we stood on the curb near its intersection with Main Street. In front of us was an ivy-covered building barely noticeable from the street, despite its two-story size and sturdy brick walls.
In the early 1920s, church-going Houstonians rode past here on the streetcar on their way to the "new" Saint Paul's United Methodist Church at the corner of McGowan and Milam. At that time, the nondescript building played an equally vital role in the community.
"It was a grocery store," said Rosenberg. Auditorium Grocery, to be specific, built in 1915 with state-of-the-art casement windows and a south-facing front facade that pulled the soft Gulf air in and through the building to cool it off during Houston's hot, pre-air-conditioned summers. "I'm thinking the name came from the roller rink," Rosenberg said, pointing to a site which now houses an office building. "The Auditorium Roller Rink, right over there."
In later years, the building was converted to a post office, and much of its historic charm was lost, in the same way that the neighborhood around it continued to lose much of its own charm and luster: Saint Paul's was sold in 1927 and reconstructed at Main and Binz, its original Grecian church with a Byzantine-style dome eventually torn down.
Rosenberg doesn't want to see the same thing happen to this little parcel of history. That's why he and partner Mike Sammons are converting it into Mongoose versus Cobra: a craft beer bar opening later this year that Rosenberg and Sammons hope will transform this old building in the same way that their wildly successful Midtown wine bar, 13 Celsius, transformed the old Jenning's Cleaning and Dyeing Shop at 3000 Caroline.
In fact, Rosenberg did such a tremendous job restoring and repurposing the 1926 property on Caroline, he was awarded a Good Brick Award from the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance for his efforts. There were battles from the beginning, but Rosenberg and his partners discovered creative ways to overcome them. For example, the inviting open-air patio at 13 Celsius was not original to the property, but rather a room whose ceiling had collapsed. Cleaned up but unrepaired, the patio has now become a vital part of the wine bar.
Rosenberg has harnessed that same creativity to overcome some of the challenges here in the old Auditorium Grocery building. Old wood that had to be torn out to refinish the two-story ceilings has been repurposed in other areas. A custom maintenance room was built to house all of the ductwork, HVAC system and more unsightly mechanical errata, which Rosenberg has managed to also extend into a second-floor aerie to be used as a private meeting area for guests or as a comfortable lounge when not reserved.
On the main floor, he and Sammons plan to have a beer hall-style arrangement of communal tables under the tall ceilings and a bar that serves craft beers and serious spirits. A small food program is also in the works, although Rosenberg noted that it will be "more masculine" than that at 13 Celsius, with heartier dishes than the paninis and light bites served at the wine bar.
The food is meant to complement the similarly rustic libations: Sammons is not interested in making cocktails as much as he is serving spirits that complement each other -- think of a vermouth martini or an Old Fashioned -- instead of liquor watered down with sugar or syrup. And the craft beer program doesn't mean that excellent beers from larger scale breweries won't be featured also.
"I hate using the word 'craft,'" said Sammons. "It's really about a focus on quality."
"If there's a big, major producer that makes something really, really special and really, really high quality, of course we'll serve it," added Rosenberg. "We're not stupid."
Equally important is the continued emphasis that Rosenberg wants to place on redeveloping the grocery store into something that will once again play a vital role in this older, less commercialized Midtown neighborhood.
"This was once the business street for this small part of town," explained Rosenberg. It's important to him and Sammons that McGowan be a main thoroughfare once again. It's not wholly implausible, with Reef, Barcardia and the light rail only a block away and the long-lived Leon's Lounge and Kim Tai holding down the fort across the street. Rosenberg acknowledges that it's these very neighbors are part of the reason he wants Mongoose versus Cobra to succeed.
"We're not trying to open just another junk bar. We're trying to open a place that's part of the community."