To be blunt, Houston is lousy about preserving its architectural history. Charming old buildings in good shape are constantly torn down in favor of half-empty “luxury” condos and townhouses of questionable quality. As neighborhoods grow increasingly stripped of their character and identity, it becomes even more critical to celebrate the vestiges of the city’s past.
Downtown wine bar La Carafe, housed in the city’s oldest confirmed building, stands the test of time as an example of this living, breathing history to be nurtured and preserved. Houston’s Kennedy Bakery building was constructed in 1845 and is now an entry in the National Register of Historic Places. The bar we know and love today opened in the mid-1950s and continues to operate as a cozy time capsule. La Carafe only takes cash, conducting business with a century-old register. Years of eerily elegant wax drips from the large candles to light the intimate space.
This spot of aging intrigue amid the gleaming skyscrapers attracts an eclectic crowd. Skate collective Urban Animals used to hang out here in their ’80s heyday. “You see a lot of artists, a lot of stagehands, roadies, and people with a lot of different interesting stories,” said bartender Clint Franklin.
There’s also much talk about how La Carafe is haunted. Whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, many guests and bartenders are adamant that they’ve seen and heard an array of odd and unexplainable events, including bottles flying off shelves for no apparent reason, the sounds of young children playing upstairs, and even a ghost here and there. It could all be from excessive drink or the work of overactive imaginations, but like any ghost story, that’s for you to decide for yourself.
La Carafe’s convenient location attracts locals and tourists in equal measure. Some regulars have even been married there, and then brought their children when they turned 21.
Maintaining a bar in a protected landmark does come with some major challenges, however. “You have to get approval to change anything about the appearance of the building,” Franklin said.
“We didn’t used to have a balcony on the front of the building.… Carolyn [Wenglar], the owner, wanted to build another one, and the historical society was denying her request to do that. She did a lot of research and actually dug up very old photos of the building with an existing balcony. Because it was true to the historical integrity of the building, they allowed her to actually build that.”
He notes that the restrictions also apply to factors like paint colors, and historical buildings require reams of paperwork to conform to fire codes.
Yet despite the bureaucracy that occasionally rears up, La Carafe endures as a necessary reminder to slow down, sip some wine, debate what those odd sounds were, and appreciate the richness of the city around you.