Montrose’s prolific gay club South Beach was long a Houston institution, striving to encapsulate the inclusivity of Miami before it shuttered in 2018 for renovations. Four years later, it’s finally back.
More than 400 partygoers, including local drag queens like Blackberri; iconic philanthropist and socialite Lynn Wyatt; Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters, and Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, flocked to the club on Wednesday, July 13, for a preview event that unveiled a fresh look after the club’s four-year hiatus.
With multiple bars that have been redesigned, LED-lit private booths, rich mahogany walls, and Carrara marble, black granite, and white limestone accents, the club’s dance floor prevailed as a major fixture for attendees, with an overhanging 450-pound, 8-foot tall crystal chandelier spotlighted by the strobe lights and ice jets that fired throughout the night.
This Friday, July 15, the club officially opens to the public.
“It’s kind of a rocket launch or something,” says owner Charles Armstrong, who also operates JR’s Bar & Grill — billed as one of the oldest, continuously open gay bars in the city.
Known as the “mayor of Montrose,” Armstrong closed the club in early 2018 for renovations, which were prolonged thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. He calls the anticipation and buildup to South Beach’s revival “exciting, and pretty overwhelming,” though it's unlikely that this year’s event will be able to top the club’s initial grand opening in 2001.
Following a $2 million renovation of the property, which previously belonged to the shuttered LGBTQ club Heaven, Armstrong recalls similarly hosting two nights of grand openings to premiere the club. During the official Friday opening in June of that year, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the city. The club, however, was still packed, says Armstrong, who recalls consolidating people into different clubs on Pacific Street before finally closing at around 7 a.m. when conditions seemed safe.
“It’s hard to top Tropical Storm Allison,” says Armstrong, noting that this year’s grand opening also differs in format. For one, it’s more open.
Armstrong says that for more than 30 years and South Beach’s entire 17-year run, he refused to have media and camera crews in any gay club for fear of people being outed, losing their jobs, or their lives generally being compromised. This time, though, Armstrong’s team has welcomed in at least one new broadcaster to film a TV news spot and invited multiple media companies to take part in South Beach's revival.
“It’s a different time,” Armstrong says. “It’s part of the rebirth.”
Inspired by Miami Beach’s cultural diversity, Armstrong says he traveled to Miami in the early ’90s to learn what all the hype was about. He found that the port of Miami served as a crossroads of cultures — with visitors and locals alike coming from all walks of life. It was a break from some of the conservative and homogeneous cultures he found in Texas, he says.
“It’s about the richness of acceptance from all walks of life. I wanted to get away from the segregated bullshit of the past and bring a slice of it back to Houston,” Armstrong says, and so in 1997, after Heaven was shuttered by a fire, Armstrong says he sat in the rubble dreaming up his new club. Three-and-a-half years later, after ripping the remaining infrastructure apart and extending the ceilings, Armstrong and architect Kurt Brown embarked on South Beach. What resulted was a safe place and nightlife gem that fostered unique connections within the LGBTQ community and beyond, he says.
“The relevance of the club scene is still a wonderful platform” for connecting and establishing relationships, says Armstrong, noting that he met the love of his life 42 years ago in a gay bar in Florida.
Decades later, with the help of award-winning interior designer John Robinson of Robinson & Associates, Armstrong has once again reimagined the property, incorporating a “restoration hardware meets Montrose” theme he says conveys the contemporary design and “proliferation across the nation of mid-rises, high-rises, and apartments.”
As for plans for South Beach, Armstrong says he has several exciting plans that he can’t yet discuss, but notes that he’ll continue South Beach’s previous reputation of booking the “creme de la creme” performers and drag queens.
“We’ll be bringing the best of the best back. Other places have tried to copy the format, but I’m sure we’ll be taking all of that back,” he says with a laugh.
South Beach will be open from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday.