McElroy's Furniture Article

By Steven Long
Houston Chronicle
Dec. 28, 1994

Houston attorney Bob C. Hunt walked into McElroy's Pub and stared. It was as if he had returned to another place and time.

He was seeing, not the typical tables and chairs found in Houston watering holes, but the elegant, long-forgotten furniture of the Rice Hotel's Old Capitol Club.

At one time, the hotel's private club was known as Houston's power center, the place where politicians were anointed by power brokers. Hunt, along with scores of other lawyers, judges, oilmen, law-enforcement bigwigs, newspaper honchos and politicians, was a regular.

After the Rice Hotel closed in 1977, its furniture and fixtures were auctioned. But the Old Capitol Club was not part of the liquidation. Its furniture was spared, then forgotten.

Enter Dublin native John "Max" McElroy, 34, and his wife Valerie, 35, who wanted to open an Irish pub in Houston. The two were searching for lush furnishings typical of nicer pubs in his hometown.

"Most Irish pubs in Ireland have nice leather furnishings," McElroy said. "I couldn't go out and buy it new." The couple scoured old hotels, hoping for a find. On a hunch, more than a year ago, McElroy dressed up in his best suit and called on the Rice Hotel's longtime broker, Buddy Clemons. (The Realtor died in September.) McElroy had no idea if anything was left in the old hotel but wanted to look around.

It took the Irishman five months to get into the long-abandoned hotel because it was being sold. When McElroy did get in, the Old Capitol Club was locked. A watchman found the key after a 30-minute search. When the door was opened, what McElroy saw took his breath away. "My heart leapt, but you don't dare show it", he said. "The whole room was like it was when they left. There were drink glasses still on the tables. Behind the bar, everything was there except the liquor. " The furniture was moldy, but otherwise in perfect condition. Tags still attached to the rich red, tufted leather couches reveal that they are stuffed with cotton felt, mane hair from horses, hog hair and rubberized curled hair.

After months of negotiations, the McElroys bought the furniture, 62 pieces of it. They also got the speaker's lecturn from the hotel's grand ballroom. McElroy like to think that it is the one from which John F. Kennedy spoke the night before he was assassinated. The McElroys declined to disclose the purchase price of the furniture and artifacts.

Hunt recalled when the Old Capitol Club, which opened in the 1950s, was the center of Houston politics. That somehow seems appropriate: The Rice Hotel was built on the site of the first capitol of the Republic of Texas, hence the name of the club. "You had everybody who was anybody in there- politicians, judges, newspaper people, the governor and even the president of the United States," he said. Guest cards that McElroy retrieved from the club bear the names of Ben Taub; Dr. George Beto, former head of the Department of Corrections; famed attorney Will Gray; former Houston mayor Fred Hoffheinz; and former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe.

The Old Capitol Club was a locker club, meaning that each member's liquor was stored in his personal locker. "They would pull out my scotch, my bourbon, my gin," Hunt recalled. "The hotel sold you the liquor, and you got billed monthly. " When state or national political figures came to Houston, they made a pilgrimage to the club, Hunt remembered. "You would see John Connally in there, Ben Barnes and even Lyndon Johnson," Hunt said. The place was a political hotbed. Bumper stickers from long-ago political campaigns are still stuck to the bottom of some tables.

"There was many a judge made in that place, many a political deal made in there," Hunt said. One of them was Judge Joe Kegans, the club's first female member. "I don't think that there were ever very many female members," she said. "My partner was a member, and I had been in there with him and other lawyers on occasion; but frankly, I think that they saw the handwriting on the wall that somebody was going to give them a fit."

Kegans was invited to join by the hotel management. She believes her judicial career was launched at the watering hole. "I wouldn't be on the bench today if it weren't for the Old Capitol Club," she said. "Literally dozens of judges were put on the bench from the Old Capitol Club, no question about it. I know it for a fact because I am one of them." Rules of decorum were strictly enforced at the club, Hunt said. "I saw them kick out judges in there because they were acting bad," Hunt said. "They were told not to come back for a day or so."

Only a third of the furniture McElroy bought is being used in his pub, which opened in October at 3607 Sandman, near Richmond. He plans to use the rest in future ventures. "I'm going to use it in my chain of pubs," he said.

The Houston lawyer told the story of one judge who was unable to leave under his own power. Conscious that the judge's reputation would suffer if he staggered through the hotel's lobby, the staff put him on a serving cart, covered him with a tablecloth and rolled him up to a room to sleep it off. Almost as much a fixture of the Old Capitol Club as the furniture, glassware and whiskey was famed attorney Percy Foreman. "Percy always sat in a corner near the door," Hunt remembered. "He had a phone at his table and he did business there."