There are a number of cool neighborhoods in Houston, and this local paper enjoys its fair share of readers in many of them. Our communities are coveted for good reasons, but it’s the restoration of the Houston Heights that catapulted the northside into the full-blown coolness category. One of the foremost business pioneers in that effort was Carter & Cooley Company Delicatessen on 19th Street, now approaching its 30th year of calling the Heights, home.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Heights had decayed.
“The first time I saw 19th Street, I was in shock. It was all boarded up,” stated Neil Sackheim, owner of Carter & Cooley Company Delicatessen. This early trailblazer in the resurgence bought the old Simon Lewis Building at 375 W. 19th St. and Ashland in 1988. It was a big risk at the time, but he dove in.
When Sackheim made his commitment to the structure, it was shuttered and dilapidated. He then set out on a 6-month restoration. The building originally housed Ward’s Drugstore and its charming soda fountain from 1921, when it was constructed, until 1965. It was locked that year and remained empty for 23 years until Sackheim stepped up.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that our business would survive in the Heights,” Sackheim stated. ”It was kind of a ‘Build it, and they will come,’ thing. I didn’t know if it would work, but I knew there were many people who wanted to live close to downtown and, like me, had a passion for old architecture. The Heights was the first planned community in Texas and I was hoping that others with the same love of older properties would see its potential.”
By the time Ward’s closed, drugstores had became antiseptic; they ceased to be the social gathering places of prior decades. Sackheim restored his building by reviving many of the original elements that made the drugstore the center of social activity in the Heights, elements that contributed to the feeling of a gathering place.
“We restored the big windows and the transoms. We uncovered the original pressed tin ceiling. Then we decorated in a manner that reflected the original drugstore, with old photos on the walls. It all contributes to our ambiance today,” he stated.
Sackheim chose the name “Carter & Cooley’” in honor of the founders of the Heights, Oscar Martin Carter (1842-1928) and Daniel Denton Cooley (1850-1933). It was a smart choice, but there are others he made that proved the same. He was committed to high quality food. The deli launched on April 4, 1989, and the very first day, Sackheim served lunch to 700 people.
Today, Carter & Cooley has built a reputation for its fresh, made-to-order fare. Some say it offers the best Reuben sandwich in Houston. Others swear by the muffaletta. The daily made-from-scratch soups have a fan base too. The little restaurant has accumulated many return customers, some are third generation.
“We have been approached to open a Carter & Cooley in all sorts of places – The Woodlands, Memorial, West University – but we will not leave the Heights,” Sackheim explained to The Leader two years ago. “I just think there is something about being a one-of-a-kind place that brings people back.”