Cold Comfort

As far as icehouses go, scholarship suggests the Chinese got there first. As early as the eighth century B.C.E., they stored ice in caves or pits, using the evaporation from the surface to keep the rest of the mass frozen.

In Britain, the first recorded icehouse was built in 1619 at Greenwich, a royal hunting preserve upriver along the Thames. The 18th century saw a great expansion in the building of icehouses. Both George Washington, at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello, stored blocks of ice from the winter in special structures. There was even an extensive trade established for New England ice, which was cut in blocks from ponds and rivers and brought down to the South in sailing ships.

The first practical mechanical refrigeration system was invented in 1844 by American physician John Gorrie to cool sickrooms in a Florida hospital. American businessman Alexander C. Twinning generally is credited with initiating commercial refrigeration in 1856. Shortly afterward, Australian James Harrison introduced vapor-compression refrigeration to the brewing and meatpacking industries. A somewhat more complex system using ammonia was developed by Ferdinand Carré in France in 1859.

Most American households in the first decades of the 20th century used iceboxes that were supplied almost daily with blocks of ice from a local refrigeration plant. Only in the 1930s did home refrigeration become attainable for middle-class Americans.

Houston, our beloved, sweltering Houston, developed an entire cultural institution around the mechanical ice-producing plants that sprung up to supply households with their daily needs. The icehouses sold blocks of ice, usually in five-pound chunks. It was a man's chore to walk down to the icehouse and buy the day's block. Given the preternatural heat, icehouse operators put bottles of sodas and beer in their storerooms so that customers could have a refresher before they set off for home, dripping block in hand. When refrigerators became common in Texas cities and towns, the icehouse remained a neighborhood social center, selling cold beers and sodas.

Today a few old icehouses, minus the ice-making equipment, carry on. The Bowie Icehouse [7215 Bowie, (713)928-9344] claims to be the oldest continuously operating one in Houston, having opened some 58 years ago. The West Alabama Icehouse [1919 West Alabama, (713)528-6874] is also a local institution.

But mirabile dictu! There is a new birth of icehouse culture. One of the first was Little Woodrow's Neighborhood Icehouse [2301 West Alabama, (713)529-0449]. This was an icehouse for the George W. Bush generation, which had not done the Greatest Generation thing by slogging through a Depression and then going off to fight a world war against really scary enemies -- countries larger and more industrialized than Grenada or Panama. It was for aging Young Republicans who had drunk a truly massive quantity of keg beer on fraternity and sorority row in Austin and College Station and had lived to inherit their fathers' commercial air-conditioning businesses.

In the last month, two new establishments calling themselves icehouses have sprung up. There is the Village Icehouse [5611 Morningside, (713)521-2337], a dark and meditative place offering, according to its sign, "over 100 beers" and "Twenty Five on Tap." The place, in the Rice Village, has a rooftop area with seven four-seat tables and seven picnic tables and a kiosk. Melanie Brown, the general manager, promises several television screens on the roof in time for March Madness, plus boiled crawfish and $4 pitchers -- real icehouse prices. In inclement weather, the downstairs area has, in addition to the bar, a pair of golf video games and a jukebox. Closely neighboring tap houses include The Ginger Man [5607 1/2 Morningside, (713)526-2770], the new 221-B Baker Street Pub [5510 Morningside, (713)942-9900] and Griff's [5555 Morningside, (713)522-9133]. Not surprisingly, Village Icehouse owner Lane Clark has hired Danny Evans, the Little Woodrow's guru, to provide management expertise.

Over in the relatively wilder and woollier Montrose, there is the new Chulo's Icehouse [502 Elgin Street, (713)520-5218]. Chulo himself, also known as Juan Guzman, and his partners, David Medina, Tammy Yoder and Tim Tallent, have installed in a former Exxon gas station a truly nouvelle icehouse concept. A whiteboard on the wall lists television programs that will be shown on the sets around the bar. There is Queer as Folk on Sundays and Will and Grace on Thursdays, with Sex and the City promised if HBO revives it. On Sundays, there are very un-icehouse mimosas available all day. Chulo's, in classic icehouse fashion, serves no food except for free hot dogs on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. However, you can bring your own food and your own liquor, and Chulo's will provide setups.

Up Brazos Street from Chulo's is the relatively newish (bartender Heather Robbins guesses it's "about seven months" old) Midtown Station [2306 Brazos, (713)522-1041], an icehouse with, ahem, a full bar where you can get a Hennessy XO cognac for $7.50 or a glass of Penfolds chardonnay for $5. There are games, of course -- two Golden Tee video golf games, two electronic dartboards, two small pool tables and several television screens. It is the most manicured, inside and out, of the new icehouses.

The only heavy object you may carry home from these icehouses is your own inebriated carcass.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
George Alexander