Artist at Large Industries is open for business in what was once a storied drugstore + soda fountain.
The safe belonged to the gallerist's maternal great-grandfather, who had a thriving produce business in St. Louis. It now functions as a night stand in his bedroom, adding a touch of familial history.
The soda fountain from the halcyon 1950s was sent to Chicago to be restored at American Soda Fountain Inc.
A suite of prints by fellow TCU grad, Frieda Verlage.
Another TCU classmate, Kyle Jordan created this constructivist-inspired sculpture.
In Bramel's loft-style apartment, formerly the doctor's office adjoining the pharmacy, signage from the original Huston's has been carefully preserved.
One sultry day in the summer of 2013, I popped by Catalina Coffee, fresh from jury duty, and strolled next door to press my nose to the shuttered time capsule that was Huston’s Drugs. To my surprise, I glimpsed a more pristine interior than I had remembered and an attractive couple of 20-somethings sweeping the floor. One of them was Evan Rottet, daughter of architect Lauren Rottet, whose work has recently been shown at the Museum of Printing History. Evan graciously opened the door and introduced me to TCU classmate Chris Bramel, the new owner of the former old timey soda fountain/drugstore, who was busily intent on transforming the interior from a place to dispense chocolate malts, sundries and meds to a studio and gallery.
Flash forward 18 months, and Bramel’s dream is now a reality. The project is backed by parents Cindy and Steve Bramel, who gave their son the option of grad school or gallery; as the academic-award-garnering photographer had already established his own biz and secured representation in Dallas (at the mother-and-son-owned progressive space Ro2 Art), the choice was easy. In December 2012, the Bramel family closed on the Huston’s Drugs building, a stolid, one-story brick structure dating from 1953 — the third home of a thriving apothecary biz that began in the 1920s. It was purchased by druggist T.K. Gantt from Mr. Huston when the roaring ’20s ended. Gantt began working as a drugstore delivery boy in 1925, then labored behind the counter for five years as a pharmacist apprentice, receiving his druggist license in 1929 and taking over Huston’s right after the stockmarket crash of that year. The name was kept, and Huston stayed on for a year (without pay) to ease the transition.
The structure was still in the Gantt family, which was protective of the store where the founder’s son, Ken Gantt, met his wife back in the day behind the soda fountain. They held onto the structure long after the last customer was served in 2001. For more than a decade, it stood lonely and proud along Washington Avenue, filled with its original fixtures and wares, before the perfect buyer appeared. (The Gantt family saved the contents sans the soda fountain —more on that in a minute — and has since dispersed them to various family members.)
Cue Bramel. The artist/gallerist devised the plans for the 2,500-square-foot space with the Good Brick Award-winning firm Colby Design; he lives in the half that once served as the doctor’s office. Another part of the building houses his state-of-the-art Epson printer, which produces finished prints based on Bramel’s obsessive nature-based images that are often layered to produce intriguing kaleidoscopic effects.
Up now for this inaugural show is a grab bag of emerging talents. Besides Bramel’s own oversized images, which headline the exhibition, I was most impressed by a grid of screen prints channeling ancient Mexican deities by Bramel’s classmate, TCU printmaking grad Frieda Verlage, and a constructivist metal-and-string sculpture by Kyle Jordan, yet another pal from college. But the best is yet to come, for Bramel gave us a preview of the strange assemblages by Houston architectural talent Jeff Simmons, which resemble underwater dioramas and are set to be unveiled at the art space’s grand opening Thursday, January 15. Also watch for more of Bramel’s own photography, joined by Evan Rottet’s printmaking. Mark your calendars.
And stay tuned for guest curators in the future. Indeed, Bramel has big plans for his coolly monikered Artist at Large Industries gallery, enlisting “writers, dancers, musicians, chefs and anyone creative to help transform a space that has cultural significance and is especially significant to the Sixth Ward, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Houston.”
Now about that soda fountain: Lovingly restored at American Soda Fountain Inc. in Chicago, it once again occupies pride of place where it stood for 60-some years. Bramel hopes to soon dispense — collaborating with neighboring watering hole Julep — the perfect cherry-lime gin rickeys for the art crowd.
Artist at Large Industries/ Chris Bramel Photography, 2119 Washington Ave., 832-594-2726