My daily drive home from the museum zig zags through the quiet, leafy neighborhood wedged between Montrose and Main south of I-59, taking me past a long-abandoned brick dwelling on an overgrown lot at the northeast corner of Portland and Milam. For years, I’d noticed the building’s subtle architectural flourishes and its sense of faded grandeur. Only later did I learn of its historical significance.
A few years ago, my research into the history of Houston’s alternative art community brought me to lunch with veteran arts administrator Michael Peranteau at Chapultepec Lupita. I’d come to lunch that day to learn more about his early efforts to launch DiverseWorks with Charlie Gallagher and Caroline Huber in the mid 1980s, but we talked also about the Center for Art and Performance, the space he’d directed previously in a converted pool hall at 5613 Almeda, and even before that, his true beginnings as a Houston art person as the manager of an upscale museum district restaurant named after its street address: 120 Portland.
He told me that on weekends, after the late Saturday night dinner crowd had gone home, he and his partner Maximiliano Pruneda — an artist who also happened to be 120’s chef — would push aside the tables, stack the chairs, and hang art for Sunday afternoon exhibitions when the restaurant would otherwise be closed. A capsule description published in Texas Monthly in November 1979 describes the restaurant this way: “An intimate, balmy setting for some interesting people-watching. The atmosphere reminds one of the halcyon days before the term Sun Belt was invented, when Houston’s pace was slightly sleepier than it is now. Elegant, in a tropical sort of way.”
“We had heard that 120 Portland was a favorite haunt of Houston’s art community but we didn’t know anyone [yet],” says Lelia Rodgers, today the owner of Rudyard’s British Pub, but in the fall of 1979 still a new arrival from Tennessee. “They had a nice selection of cognacs and scotches. The food was a hybrid of bistro offerings and new American cuisine creations. Natural light infused the space for lunch so that everything seemed fresh. The art was intriguing and by unknown artists, recognized and displayed by talented people with discriminating taste. When I was there, I felt uplifted by possibility.”
120 Portland was established on April Fool’s Day, 1977 by Nanette Taylor and Pauline Steinberger (now Solnik). Taylor, the daughter of prominent Houston architect Harwood Taylor, had worked in the graphics department of an architectural firm. Solnik had managed Marjorie Kauffman Graphics, chaired the University of Texas Student Union Fine Arts Committee, and worked for Art Resources, an art consulting firm for large corporations. According to a 1979 article in the Houston Chronicle, the two acquaintances ran into each other in the parking lot of Tootsie’s in the fall of 1976. When they found they had both been dreaming of opening a casual-yet-elegant late-night spot for post-gallery gatherings, they decided to team up for a joint venture. (Both are still around, Taylor in San Miguel de Allende and Solnik here in Houston, but neither were willing to be interviewed for this piece.)
They were charmed by the historic building on a quiet, out-of-the-way corner, and with a $20,000 investment, hired contractors to make what had previously been a private dwelling restaurant-ready. “People admired our enthusiasm,” Solnik told the Chronicle. “It wasn’t our looks or our money or our knowledge or anything else. Everybody we talked to, the plumbers, electricians, the people with the city, the chefs, were turned on to our incredible desire to do something above and beyond all difficulties.”
In the earliest days, 120 was catered by an array of area restaurants who brought trays of signature dishes — for example, Mrs. Me’s eggrolls, and Jean Pierre’s cheesecake. Before long, Taylor and Solnik developed a limited but exclusive menu. Max Pruneda, Ken French, Malcolm McDonald, Janice Schindeler, and Belita Leal all contributed their expertise in the kitchen over the years. Specialties included Chicken Dijon and a dessert called Paris-Brest, a circular puff pastry filled with praline-flavored cream.
Houston artist Susan Hanft was hired to wait tables shortly after the restaurant’s opening; soon she was tending bar. With just a couple of interruptions, she remained at 120 Portland for the duration. “The clientele was a broad mix,” she recalls. “Since food was served until the wee hours, many patrons came after theater, opera, ballet or symphony performances, and after art openings or movies. There were River Oaks types, artists, musicians, actors, foodies, students and staff from other restaurants just knocking off work. Over the years, my bar regulars included a pack of criminal defense attorneys, some Houston Chronicle writers, a couple of Rice professors, the Japanese sculptor Masaru Takiguchi, film director Eagle Pennell, and a bit less regular, the soon-to-be restaurateur Bill Sadler.”
Hanft describes the interior: “The restaurant was up a wide flight of wooden stairs. There was a row of tall arched windows at the top. Underneath them was a low equipale loveseat. The restaurant’s barrel chairs and tables were the same style of rustic Mexican furniture, tanned pigskin stretched over a framework of cedar branches and strips lashed together with rope. There were three ‘dining rooms’ — a large one inside the front entry and two smaller ones down a narrow hall. One was on the right-hand side, the smallest at the hallway’s end. After all, the place had been a house. Nanette and Pauline had turned the tub in one of the two bathrooms into a sort of couch with the addition of an upholstered floral cushion. The floors were all wood. The ceiling fans were a big part of 120’s ambience. Rustic and handcrafted like the furniture, they spun gently in every dining room. Each room featured a number of large windows. The interior had the most incredible light. The small bar (fewer than ten stools, though usually packed with people standing) was accessible from the front room. The almost equally-tiny kitchen was through a set of saloon-style swinging doors at the rear of the bar. When I think back, there wasn’t too much room to showcase art. I know it was displayed in the hall, the bar and sometimes hung over the windows.”
The Mediterranean-style, two-story building at 120 Portland was constructed in 1928 on a virgin lot for the family of the Austrian-born architect Joseph Finger. It was based, of course, on his own design, featuring sandy brown brick, terra cotta mission roof tiles, and ornamental iron columns and railings alongside the south-facing front elevation. It harmonized with the neighborhood. William Ward Watkin’s original neoclassical Museum of Fine Arts, Houston building had opened just to the south only four years earlier. Slightly beyond, the Rice Institute was 16 years old. The surrounding blocks were largely empty. 120 Portland then was out on the southern edge of town.
Finger arrived in Houston in 1912 after several years in New Orleans and became junior partner in the firm Lewis, Sterling, and Green. Two years later, he struck out on his own, designing hotels, homes, and public buildings for the developing city. How important of an architect was Finger in the early part of the century in Houston? Here’s a short list of some of his most significant works: Citizens State Bank (now Rockefeller’s, 1925); Temple Beth Israel (1925); Auditorium Hotel (now the Lancaster Hotel, 1926); Texas State Hotel (now Club Quarters, 1929); The Plaza Hotel (1929); 4912 Main (now Lawndale Art Center, 1931); The Houston Municipal Airport Terminal (1939); Houston City Hall (1939); and the Harris County Courthouse (1953), one of his final commissions. You might have heard of a few of these places.
After a long illness, Finger died at 120 Portland at the age of 65 on the morning of February 6, 1953. The building remained a private duplex residence for various tenants for another 25 years, including Houston artist and preservationist Kirk Farris, who in the mid-1970s built out the detached garage into livable space.
Jerry Simon’s father Jerome grew up at 120 Portland during the 1930s, living with his family in the upstairs unit, with the Finger family downstairs. One night in the early ‘80s, a friend invited the younger Simon to join a group for dinner at an unfamiliar restaurant near the museum. She even coaxed him into playing the little spinet piano in the corner. “I play by ear and am not a professional player,” Simon relates, “however Audrey put a tip jar on the piano, which filled up, and everyone took turns buying me drinks and dinner. For a young guy in my twenties, a fun time and a pretty good gig.”
He talked about it at a family dinner and told everyone the place was called 120 Portland. “[My father] literally dropped his fork and asked me if it that was also the address,” says Simon, who returned to the restaurant with his father and his uncle Lewis soon after. “The first thing my dad and uncle commented on were the two grown trees on either side of the sidewalk at the front of the house; apparently, they planted them by hand when they lived there. We walked upstairs and as we entered the restaurant on the second floor, my dad put his hand on the wall just inside the door and asked me to put my hand where his was. He asked me, ‘Do you feel the indention in the wall?’ There absolutely was a two-to-three-inch place that had been painted over and was not even [visually] noticeable. My dad said that is where the ashtray hit the wall that had bounced off his brother’s head! Clearly they had many memories and knew the house very well.”
Susan Hanft suspects Taylor’s brief, ill-fated marriage to filmmaker Eagle Pennell had something to do with the restaurant’s closure in the summer of 1983. A 1999 article in the Houston Press, “Fade to Black,” describes Pennell’s drunkenly assaultive behavior at his own wedding reception. A few nights later he threw several of Max Pruneda’s paintings out of one of 120’s second-floor windows. “Nanette’s sister, an attorney, offered her services as a divorce lawyer as a wedding gift,” says Hanft. For a while, Pennell lived with Taylor in the garage apartment out back, where he completed the final edits for Last Night at the Alamo, a film about the patrons of a beloved watering hole about to meet the wrecking ball.
In the years immediately following, Taylor managed Bell Park (now the site of Grand Prize Bar) and then Café Annie on Westheimer. Solnik opened a new restaurant, Pistachio’s, in Rice Village (an advert announcing its debut referred to Solnik as “Houston’s Petite Dame of Eclectic Dining”), then a Mexican restaurant, also in the Village, called Senor Platos. As mentioned earlier, Michael Peranteau established the Center for Art and Performance in May 1982 and a couple years later joined the nascent DiverseWorks organization where he’d remain until 1994. Later, he’d serve as director of Project Row Houses and the Art League Houston, as well as Non-Profit Projects, Inc., where he’s mentored smaller art organizations including Nameless Sound, Aurora Picture Show, and Voices Breaking Boundaries.
At the end of 1983, 120 Portland saw new life as a subdivided commercial space with a jeweler’s workshop, a boutique offering crafts and fine Mexican furniture, and in between, Vivian Leitner’s Walter Gallery, which handled prints by Mexican artists. None of these enterprises lasted for more than a year or two.
Throughout the ‘90s, the Texas Key Program rented the space as a shelter and counseling center for delinquent youth, and by the new century, following an arson fire, 120 lay vacant. “Our neighborhood association tried for a long time to get this vintage house repaired,” laments Ginny Camfield, “squatters evicted, secured, even purchased, and the owner wouldn’t do anything except board up the windows again.”
The city condemned the property in 2010. It’s kind of a miracle that the building remained standing for another ten years, but in that time, it has continued to fall more deeply into ruin, its brick cracking, who knows what going on inside, the bent metal frame of its former awning collapsing, crushed under the weight of the now nearly 90-year-old tree planted by Jerry Simon’s father and uncle in the 1930s. New townhome construction looms all around. Driving past once more last week, I noticed the addition of a chain link fence and a bulldozer sitting silently on its back lot. Half of the building’s rear was already torn away. The sidewalk was littered with broken pieces of original Monk and Nun terra cotta roof tile. One can only presume the next time we pass, the lot will be scraped completely clean for townhomes yet to be built.