Restoring The Londale Hotel, Step By Difficult Step

Getting rid of the roaches was the (relatively) easy part.

The Londale Hotel, on the corner of San Jacinto and Prairie, is "the longest continually operating hostelry building on its original site in Houston," according to its protected landmark designation. But it's been better known as a dilapidated, pest-infested flophouse smack in the middle of downtown.

"Drugs and prostitutes--let's get it all out there," says Tina Hanges, who runs the hotel with her sister Koula.

Hanges, who could pass for a socialite, was working up a sweat in her white turtleneck Wednesday afternoon as she vacuumed the hallway just outside reception. The floor, like the freshly painted walls decked with generic framed paintings, was almost spotless. So were the rooms and bathrooms. The Hanges sisters took over in October 2007 after the city shut the Londale's doors. Since then they've used nearly all of their time and savings on a piece-by-piece overhaul that started with filling five king-sized Dumpsters with crawling couches and mattresses.

Now they need to shed the reputation, and the clientele that flocks to it.

The Hanges family has owned the building since the early 1970s, leasing the Londale to people who allowed it to degenerate. Current managers Gerald and Debbie Bess lived and worked at the hotel before the shut-down as well.

"Ooo-wee. Yeah, it used to be rough," Gerald says. "The tenants that we had, they was mostly homeless and couldn't afford it. So we lowered the rent to adjust to them, and we got what we, or they, paid for."

The old rules were simple: as long as you could pay, you could stay. Along with higher rates ($45 a night; from $580 to $740 a month), the Hanges sisters have implemented a lengthy list of rules that has expanded to 36 since the hotel reopened on March 1.

Enforcement is another matter.

"They try to beat the system, and this is a constant battle," Hanges says.

People kicked out or denied a stay might send up a friend to infiltrate. In response to the nightly lockout, guests have used tape and hangers to prop open the back door. The husband and wife living in 111, by the fire escape, had to be offered a room change and the "sun, moon and sky," according to Hanges, to stay after a guest climbed up in the middle of the night and began pounding on their window. An attempt at a community candy bowl was quickly abandoned.

The Hanges sisters, who also own a snow-cone stand, had no previous hotel experience. With lots of help from the city code-enforcement department, they personally oversaw almost every aspect of the re-construction after the first contractor essentially ran off with their money. To the chagrin of her husband, Hanges has even been Dumpster diving for some of the furniture -- the microwave, the kitchen table.

"I think the distress marks make it look antiquey," she says of a salvaged end table in the hall.

Now she's been learning to screen potential guests -- to tell whether someone's on drugs, for example, or might get drunk and destructive. On a recent cold and rainy night, she decided to let a shady couple stay. They got into a physical fight that destroyed the room and spilled into the hallway, where a lone spot of blood remains.

The police took a while to respond, possibly because of the place's reputation. When they showed up, the officers couldn't believe their eyes. Hanges vows to hang on until this last phase of the overhaul is complete.

"My philosophy is we're broke now, but we could still be a little bit broker until we get the right clientele in here," she says.

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