What should we come across on our way to work this morning but two HPD patrol cars and a U-Haul truck parked in front of Leon's Lounge, and the staff removing furniture from the wizened Midtown bar as fast as they could carry it?
Owner Pete Mitchell, who was standing outside with his wife, Vera, and a couple of Leon's employees, said his lease was up at the end of the month anyway, but it appears his landlord forced his hand. She was also there, but did not seem like she was in the mood to be interviewed. The last thing we heard was one of the officers asking Mitchell, "Do you have an attorney"?
Mitchell said he and his landlord were constantly arguing, particularly about the condition of the old building. The sewer line, which Mitchell said he thought it would take "massive" repairs to fix, was a principal sticking point. Even the deck out front, which Mitchell installed a few years ago, was being dismantled piece by piece. Although the situation looked like it arose out of nowhere, Mitchell said it was nothing new -- that he had been considering moving on for the better part of a year.
Leon's is thought to be Houston's oldest continually operating bar. According to the Houstorian blog, which broke the news of the sudden closure Monday night on Twitter, a man named Leon Yarborough bought the place, which was already a bar called La Bomba, in 1947. Mitchell, also owner of West U. watering hole Under the Volcano, bought it almost five years ago from Yarborough's daughter and spent the better part of a year on renovations.
He reopened in late 2010, about the time the area around Main and McGowen was starting to perk up after the construction of several nearby apartment blocks. Leon's was among the first bars in the area to pick up on this trade, and was soon joined by the restaurant Reef and other bars such as Mongoose vs. Cobra across the street, plus Nouveau Art Bar and Capitol Bar Midtown a few blocks away. A few years later, the dance club Barbarella moved in around the corner, across from the longtime dance club Rich's, which is now Limelight.
As Midtown began growing into one of Houston's main entertainment districts, the history-conscious Leon's seemed increasingly out of step with the neighborhood, but often drew brisk weekend trade all the same. Even before Mitchell bought it, when the only foot traffic in the urban wasteland it was at the time was hobos forlornly wandering the streets, Little Joe Washington was a regular who could often be found pecking at the grand piano in Leon's back room. Afterwards, Mitchell hosted rootsy singer-songwriters on the tiny stage in the bar's third room, and invited people from the Houston music community (including yours truly) to either bring in their vinyl records or use the bar's considerable archives and act as Friday-night "celebrity DJ."
From what we were able to tell, the issues between Mitchell and his landlord may take a while to resolve, but it certainly looks like Leon's has served its last cocktail. And so passes another piece of Houston nightlife history, a bar whose age finally caught up to it instead of saved it.
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