The La Carafe building is listed on the National Register for Historic Places and is believed to be the oldest bar in Houston, and is the oldest commercial building still in use, in Houston. Built by developer Nathaniel Kellum in 1847, the La Carafe building has remained a two-story public venue since it’s construction. They are known for serving Wine & Beer Downtown Houston. Cash only.
Located in whats left of Old Market Square in downtown Houston, the building itself is small and worn, showing over a century and a half of use. The structure is set on a slanting street, but remains surprisingly level inside. The disparity between the concrete sidewalkn and the building’s interior floor is small, showing how elevation of the street and sidewalk have accomodated the building throughout it’s history. The building is made of old brick and wood around the window frames. The wood has been replaced, but the brick is original. When facing the building, one will notice a fairly new development to it’s left and an empty parking lot found at the building’s right. Because the building’s right side is exposed, the patchwork design of the building’s history through wars and remodeling is seen in the brick, concrete and wood found along this wall.
While the exact structure of the building itself is unknown to the public, anyone visiting La Carafe can see the steel beam which hides conspicuously behind the stairwell, but seems to be holding the roof up, and the walls with it. The documented history of the building, however is accurate and has been passed down to Owner/President Carolyn Wenglar.
Our interview with Wenglar shed light on the past uses of the dark building, beginning with its heyday in the late 1800s. When it was first built, the building was home to The Kennedy Bakery, and it mixed up fresh baked biscuits for hungry, weary Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, the first of many wars that the bar would see.
The building itself, or rather a small downstairs and a questionable upstairs, may seem unimpressive, but is actually a structural miracle. Fire codes attempted to shut La Carafe down multiple times throughout the 80s and 90s, but simple structural changes or additions have kept it open for business and admiration. Plans for renovation on the upper floor are in the works, but currently it is in question how to allow it to be open to a number of people while meeting city codes. Currently, the only entrance to the upper level is the narrow wooden staircase located at the back of the first floor, blocked by a formidable looking broom which keeps curious patrons comfortably in their seats downstairs. Owner Carolyn Wenglar discussed regulations with the City of Houston fire chief who told her that if the building caught on fire, intoxicated patrons would not know how to escape from the potentially disastrous situation. Retorted Wenglar in her interview with the La Carafe Documentary Team, “I don’t care how drunk I was, if the building were on fire, I would find a way to GET OUT! And no lack of stairs could keep me in.” When Wenglar suggested implementing a rope ladder out the window, the fire chief snorted at the idea. Wenglar told us, “We keep trying to find a way for folks to enjoy the upstairs, but until we meet the city codes, people will just have to enjoy the downstairs. And they do. I think they really do.”
The inside of the building exhude a cozy, comforting feeling thanks to it’s intimate size and the dimness of the room. Even during the day, La Carafe remains lit primarily by natural light coming from the doorway and a small window. There is a dim chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling over the bar. Each table is accompanied with a candle that is lit after sundown for the evening bar crowd. The wax, which certainly builds up, has likely not been removed for the past 25 years.
While many would assume La Carafe is just a bar, its really much more than that. They serve wine & beer downtown Houston. La Carafe is actually a reasonably priced wine bar where anyone (age 21 or over) can enjoy a mellow atmosphere, a nice wine selection, and depending on the night- good company and interesting people. The dim lights are coupled with arguably the best jukebox in town, ringing tunes from jazz and oldies to the cool sounds of Bob Marley. The bar takes as much space as the area for customers, but that doesn’t stop those wanting to come in and relax a bit, even if it means cozying up to a stranger on a crowded Saturday night. The enduring popularity of La Carafe cannot be understood by those who have not been there, nor explained by those who have. It simply a place to experience and embrace wine & beer downtown Houston. If you let it, La Carafe will embrace you too. -BW and MT