A month or so ago I found myself, much to my surprise, in Houston, Texas, where I was a last minute addition to a client meeting one morning. The meeting took place, coincidentally, at the same time as one of the city's largest annual conventions, and every hotel, rental car, and flight in and out of the city was either booked or jammed. Although my meeting was over before noon, the first flight I could get back to New York that day was at six thirty in the evening.
So I had the afternoon to kill in Houston.
And I was thrilled that I did.
I have been meaning to visit Houston for some time now, as a tourist. Houston, you may ask? What does Houston have to offer a person such as Reggie?
Rather a lot, as it turns out. And I just scratched the surface of it. I would very much like to go back there again and spend several more days checking out the city's sights and pleasures.
|Mr first stop in Houston: the MFAH's new Audrey Jones Beck Building|
My favorite hotel to stay in when I visit Houston is the Four Seasons, but it was fully booked during my visit, and the only hotel option available to me when my assistant booked my travel plans was the Marriott at the airport, so that's where I stayed. Although Reggie doesn't usually care to find himself in such places as a Marriott, particularly when traveling on business, he was perfectly fine with it on this trip, and he didn't kick up a fuss that he wasn't staying in the best hotel in town (unlike some of his colleagues he was traveling with). The room I stayed in at the Houston Airport Marriott was perfectly clean and quiet, the bed was more than comfortable, and the water pressure in the shower was excellent. So who needs Frette sheets?
|The original, neoclassical MFAH building|
The next morning, after my meeting was finished, I happily waved goodbye to my BlackBerry-mad colleagues as they stampeded back to the airport to spend the afternoon waiting and working in the Presidents Club lounge, hoping to catch an earlier flight to New York. Recognizing that I had the rare opportunity (and excuse) to spend a free afternoon in Houston, I had asked my assistant to book me a car and driver to ferry me about during the afternoon I was there, in order to maximize my efficiency in seeing as much as possible of the city in the few short hours I had available to me.
I was more than pleased when up drove a brand new Lincoln Town Car to meet me, with an excellent and good-humored driver behind the wheel improbably—and delightfully—named Satchmo. And yes, he was named after the great (if not the greatest) jazz horn player. Satchmo and I got on very well, and enjoyed each other's company during our time together.
|The facade of the MFAH's Audrey Jones Beck Building|
With but little time to plan for my visit to Houston and only a short time there to see its sights, I decided to take a surgical strike approach when planning my afternoon's itinerary, and I confined my activities to only a few places within a relatively close proximity.
|Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1786|
Collection Toledo Museum of Art
Featured in the MFAH's Antiquity Revived exhibition
As readers of this blog well know, Reggie's first port of call in most of the cities he visits is the primary fine arts museum. And that's where I headed—to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, also known as the MFAH. The museum has recently undergone a mammoth, and mostly successful, expansion, and is now comprised of a campus of buildings covering several acres, built in styles ranging from the neoclassical to the modern. Walking around the MFAH one appreciates the city's extraordinary wealth and philanthropy, which has not only funded such a lovely museum, but endowed it with a superb collection of art.
|Venus, Ernst Mattäz (after Bertel Thorvaldsen), 1816-1820|
Collection of the MFAH
I usually prefer to spend the bulk of my time when visiting a museum touring its permanent collections, instead of the traveling blockbuster exhibitions from other museums often on display. In this case I enjoyed touring the MFAH's excellent collections, but I was also more than happy to spend time touring a splendid show there co-organized by the MFAH and the Musée du Louvre. Titled Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century, it was a thrilling (for Reggie, at least) jaw-dropper of gorgeous objects, statues, paintings, drawings, and furniture all in the neoclassical taste and styles of the latter eighteenth century. In other words, right up Reggie's alley. And on top of that, it was full of depictions of the most beautiful nudes imaginable! I had a lovely time.
|Academic Nude, Pompeo Battoni, 1765|
Collection of the MFAH
Afterwards I ate lunch at the museum's very pleasant Cafe Express restaurant of a very satisfying, generously scaled turkey club sandwich and an icy-cold bottle of Heineken, where I sat at a table on a sunny outdoor terrace beside a fountain in which birds fetchingly and amusingly bathed.
|Rienzi, the former residence of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson, III|
John F. Staub, architect
Satchmo was waiting for me in front of the museum and drove me into Houston's River Oaks neighborhood—which to this New Yorker's eyes looks to be as rich and manicured as Beverly Hills—and dropped me off at Rienzi, a house museum owned and operated by the MFAH. Given to the museum a dozen or so years ago by the family of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson, III, who built and lived in it for many years, Rienzi contains an impressive collection of European paintings and decorative arts assembled by the Mastersons (and added to by the Museum). Today it operates as the MFAH's center for European decorative arts.
|The ball room at Rienzi|
Rienzi is, I must admit, a bit of a mess. Large and eclectically decorated in the very personal, and at times, dubious taste of the Mastersons, it is a hodge-podge of decorative styles and objects. Although I enjoyed visiting Rienzi (and was pleased to be the only visitor there when I toured it), I think the MFAH would be better served if it sold the house and moved the collection to the main campus of the museum (and deaccessioned some of the less noteworthy objects in the process) where it could be better displayed. Don't get me wrong, Reggie loves a good house museum, but the dual purpose of Rienzi as both a house museum and the MFAH's center for European arts isn't very successful. I was—nonetheless—more than happy to visit it.
My next and final stop was the one museum in Houston that I have wanted to visit for over thirty five years, and which the opportunity of seeing was the primary reason for why I chose to spend the afternoon in Houston, rather than scurrying back to New York at the first opportunity.
|Bayou Bend, the former residence of Miss Ima Hogg|
John F. Staub, architect
For those of us who are students of the American decorative arts, as Reggie is, Bayou Bend is one of the most iconic collections of eighteenth and nineteenth century American decorative arts in this country. Assembled by the unfortunately named Ima Hogg (what a cross that must have been to bear) in the middle twentieth century, it is displayed in a large Regency style mansion (in Houston they appropriately call their big houses mansions) built and lived in by the immensely rich, antique-collecting-mad, Miss Hogg. Donated to the MFAH in 1965, the house has been reconfigured as a museum of period style rooms containing American furniture and decorative arts dating from the earliest Pilgrim settlers up though the latter nineteenth century. The collection is most noteworthy for its late eighteenth and early nineteenth century furniture and objects, and it also has a substantial collection of decorative arts with a Texas connection.
|The Boston Parlor at Bayou Bend|
I was escorted through Bayou Bend by a charming and highly knowledgable Houston lady docent, whose passion for the museum and its founder was admirable, and infectious. In Reggie's view, these Texas gals can teach their northern cousins a thing or two. Not only was my docent smart as a whip and had an amusing, sharp sense of humor, but she was dressed to the nines, fully made up, and was wearing an impressive array of jewelry (this was Texas after all) and her hair was done up in a marvelous, upswept blonde bouffant hairdo. I loved her!
|Pair of Baltimore side chairs in the Bayou Bend collection, 1808|
Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and made by George Bridport
At one point during the tour, my docent showed me into a Federal period style dining room and asked me to look at a large display of Chinese Export porcelain on the table. As I was doing so, she explained that the service had only recently been given to the museum by the Bayou Bend Ladies Auxilliary Committee, on which she sat, in honor of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the museum's opening to the public. Imagine my astonishment when I realized that the service on display was of the very same Thomas Willing service of Chinese Export porcelain that I had bought three plates of at the New York Ceramics Fair back in January, and which I posted about here on Reggie Darling! Needless to say the docent was as surprised as I was at this news, since not only did I know exactly what I was looking at, but I also owned examples from the same service. We practically fell into each others arms with joy!
|The Thomas Willing Chinese Export porcelain plates|
in our collection at Darlington House
After that excitement the rest of my visit to Bayou Bend was a bit of a blur, and we had to race through the remainder of the collection so I could meet Satchmo out front in time to make my flight back to New York. With that I bid my docent and Bayou Bend a fond farewell, and hurried on my way.
What a day I had!
All images, except for the Houston postcard and theThomas Willing plates, courtesy of the MFAH. Image of Houston postcard courtesy of Cafe Press; photograph of the Willing plates by Boy Fenwick