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A Setting Sun for Icehouses

The South Texas hangouts offering a cool place to have a cold beer are slipping away in a culture of mini-marts and singles bars.

November 26, 2002|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — It's a poor man's community center, a latter-day trading post or a Tejano juke joint. It's a scruffy backdrop for birthday parties, stump speeches and domino showdowns. Not quite a bar, but more than a convenience store, the icehouse is the sleepy, shadowy soul of the working-class neighborhoods of South Texas.

Since icehouses sprouted from the steamy streets of Texas' burgeoning cities in the first half of the last century, they have been all of these things, and something else. Comfortable turf for lawyers or factory workers, bikers and children. Places to cool down, show off or swap salacious tales.

But in a modern landscape of television, shopping malls and singles bars, icehouses are melting away, one by one.

"It's a dying breed," says manager Cathy Doria, running fingers over the counter at Stanley's Ice Station #2, a fading stack of cinder blocks on San Antonio's south side. Catching sight of a regular, she interrupts herself.

"How ya doin', Tony?" her voice booms over the hiss and drone of college football. "Bob beatcha in and beatcha out. He quit smokin', so it doesn't take him so long to drink." She gives him a hard stare. "You gonna be a good boy today, Tony?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 562 words Type of Material: Correction
Ice houses -- In a Nov. 26 Section A article about Texas ice houses, former Texas A&M professor Tom Denyer, who has studied the history and sociology of ice houses, was incorrectly identified in a second reference as Denley.

Outside, the sun is setting into the sunken bowl of the city. A chill stands in the concrete shadows by the take-away window -- another autumn is stretching into winter. In the scrubby wash of cypress and mesquite that is Stanley's backyard, barefoot girls spin and scramble at a tetherball stalk. An old-timer grips his Budweiser, claps a fedora onto his head and shuffles over the yellowing grass to a bench in the sun. College kids slouch at the rims of the pool tables. They are here in common, the young and the old and the in-between.

An icehouse can be as simple as an overgrown hot dog stand, or can be crammed into a converted shed, an abandoned garage or a nondescript storehouse. They are dim buildings where hot weather is battled with creaking ceiling fans and rollaway garage doors -- a little dirty and a little sweaty, the sort of place where neighborhood mutts, blue jeans and horseshoes are right at home.

"They're sloppy, slapdash, added onto," San Antonio architect Henry Munoz says. "It's this informal architecture where the canopy records the time of day, where the garage door lets the inside out. Some people think they're tacky. I think they're beautiful."

Icehouses sell beer and soda pop, along with jumbles of fishing supplies, canned chili and lottery tickets. They stop shy of selling hard liquor, but might offer glasses of coke or tonic for those who carry flasks. Most rigid of all criteria -- and any discerning icehouse enthusiast will underline this point emphatically -- it isn't an icehouse if it doesn't sell sacks of ice.

"It's an ungraspable thing," says Tom Denyer, a former Texas A&M professor who has studied the history and sociology of icehouses. "They're folk art -- performance art done by folk without being concerned about audience or reaction. You go into an icehouse and it's human drama."

There used to be an icehouse for just about every neighborhood in South Texas. In theory, they were places to pick up ice. In practice, they were one of the region's defining social institutions. There was an icehouse near St. Mary's University where young Chicano intellectuals argued late into the night over poetry and Central American intervention. There were icehouses where Democrats knew they'd better put in a campaign appearance; icehouses known for their conjunto music; icehouses renowned for their menudo and barbecue.

The neighborhood lore of Flores Street is preserved in the chatter of Stanley's cashiers: The day they refused to sell another beer to a tipsy preacher and he condemned them to hell. The time Ernie got a little drunk, crawled atop a creaking table and commenced an unsteady striptease. Remember the night Mando had to be carried home?

Stanley's has the jumbled look of a tag sale gone to seed. "Pride Not Prejudice," reads a sign behind the bar. There is a lewd Spanish proposition for Osama bin Laden and plastic beads that the owner's grandchildren strung into necklaces, flats of motor oil and a procession of slot machines. Painted vignettes of penguins and palm trees cling to the facade.

B.B. Taylor's father haunted the pool table here when she was a kid. She grew up to work behind the bar. "I remember," she says from her perch at the counter, "he'd be here drinking and shooting pool."

It wasn't as if somebody one day invented the icehouse. They evolved in the alley of time between the advent of ice plants and the innovation of air conditioning. Back then, everything moved slower in the long, thick summers, and scouting for shade qualified as a serious endeavor.

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