This week's tide of obituaries for Leon's Lounge may have been a little premature. The historic Midtown watering hole may be changing hands with no love lost between its landlord and outgoing tenant, but the owner of the building at 1006 McGowen says she absolutely plans to find a new occupant for the space generally acknowledged as Houston's oldest bar.
"I need to put the word out that Leon's is never going to close; not as long as I'm alive," says Scarlett Yarborough. "I'll put it in my will. I'm never going to let that bar shut down."
Yarborough, daughter of the bar's founder and namesake Leon Yarborough, began managing Leon's after her father died in 1990 and ran it off and on until 2007, when she began leasing it out in order to care for her ailing mother. Rights to use the name Leon's were included in the lease, she says, but revert to her as soon as the term expires.
Earlier this week, Yarborough's tenant Pete Mitchell began removing the bar's contents in a U-Haul truck, which brought heavy media and public attention. Mitchell, who owns West U. lounge Under the Volcano, leased Leon's from Yarborough in January 2010, but it expires at the end of this month.
Between the two of them, the grievances Yarborough and Mitchell have against each other would fill an episode or two of Bar Rescue. Leon's air-conditioning, plumbing, roof and even ownership rights to the alley on the property's eastern edge all come up as points of contention. Mitchell says Yarborough allowed the building to deteriorate by not arranging for the necessary repairs; she counters that he and wife Vera broke various lease violations and made unauthorized improvements to the property. Yarborough has a special bone to pick with what Mitchell told us Tuesday morning, namely that the building's sewer system needs "massive" attention.
"Six people live upstairs," she says. "They're flushing their toilets."
Even after all that, Yarborough says Mitchell paid his rent on time and she needed the money for her mother's care, so she never tried to evict him. Both parties sound more than happy to go their separate ways and stay that way; Mitchell says he is in no rush to lease any more property anytime soon.
"At this point I have to wonder about ever leasing again," he says.
Yarborough's friend Bill Edge is the Managing Broker of Man-Edge Properties, which specializes in real estate inside the Loop. He drafted Yarborough's lease of Leon's to Mitchell, and confirms that all rights to the name Leon's (as well as the bar's phone number) will remain with her. His voice takes on a note of admiration when describing the period that Yarborough ran Leon's herself.
"It was kind of remarkable," he says. "She learned how to sheet-rock, lay tile, [and] to do some remarkable work that really isn't in her DNA. She couldn't afford to pay people to do it, so she had to learn how. She really put a lot of sweat equity into there to keep it open."
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Edge adds that he thinks Yarborough is "heartbroken" to see this week's events happen to the bar, especially in such a public fashion, but he doesn't think the building will stay vacant for very long. If anything, Edge says he thinks the spotlight on Leon's this week has made the property that much hotter.
"We have been getting calls about it by qualified people because of all of the articles," he says. "It's gotten out there so much, I couldn't have have advertised it in LoopNet, Commercial Gateway [or] some of the other ways you normally go about doing this and not get it out there as much as it's gotten it out there over this."
As far as the condition of the building, Edge says he hasn't been out to Leon's recently, but imagines at least some work may be necessary before it can reopen.
"There's always been a conflict in that Scarlett wanted to maintain it as it was, and to have that ambience that her parents had set forth, and Pete had other visions for it," he offers. "So they've kind of been locked in battle since the thing opened under his management."
Nevertheless, especially considering how hot the neighborhood around Leon's has become, Edge expects the old bar to have a new tenant sooner rather than later. Its abundance of local history, he adds, may be the biggest selling point of all.
"She's been getting emails from people who had a tradition, that their parents got engaged there; and they got engaged there," Edge says. "There's so few places in Houston where that's left, where they're old and you can keep that going. She wants people to know that they will be able to celebrate those special occasions at Leon's just as they always have."
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