Friday, June 10, 2011

A Reggie Road Trip: Houston

Well, not exactly a Road Trip, more of a stolen afternoon, really.

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


  1. Hello Reggie:
    What an extraordinary, and in some ways unexpected, day which began with the permanent collection of the MFAH, moved into the temporary exhibition, so obviously a highlight, proceeded to not one, but two, mansion type houses with their fine collections, and then concluded with such excitement on discovering the Thomas Willing dinner service of which you have your own examples. This really does seem to us to have been the most perfect of days.

    Poor Miss Hogg to have gone through life with that name. But, when it came to the collection of antiques, she was obviously to be taken seriously [and doubtless a force to be reckoned with].

    Sadly, it is unlikely that we shall ever travel to Houston, but this post has been the next best thing, and for that we thank you.

  2. Why I love your blog-- instead of acting like your colleagues and rushing to the airport, you take your free afternoon as an opportunity to explore. This is an attitude I wish more of us had, and a good reminder to me to stop rushing and start looking. And now I want to go to Houston.

  3. Reggie - I LOVE Houston. Food is also fantastic. City is way more liberal and artistic than the rest of the country might think. And there's a vibrant gay community, part and parcel of the arts scene. How do I know this, you might ask? My college roommate, and I might add one of the Highest High WASPs I know, grew up there and only recently retired as a curator for photography collections at one of the leading museums. So, all of which to say, next time you head to Houston give me a shout and I will introduce you to her.

    You two will LOVE each other. And I will derive such pleasure imagining your luncheon. Her house is also TDF, one of the old ones, now fixed up, also she is writing a book on gardens. I will stop now.

  4. Reggie, your blog is always a delight - today especially so because I am a native Texan and I love it when a Yankee (and I say that with love!)extols the virtues of my home state. As you discovered and so graciously shared with your readers, even the oft-maligned city of Houston is worthy of a visit.

    The story that Miss Hogg had a sister named Ura is still shared by newcomers who did not have the opportunity to study Texas history in school, but thankfully, it's not true. :)

    So glad you enjoyed the afternoon. When you come back you should probably avoid the summer months. While the humidity helps us avoid wrinkles, visitors from more temperate climes are often uncomfortable from June - September.

  5. If the Four Seasons had had your regular room available, this would never have happened and we would have missed a great story. In general, in most things, I'm a materialist, but sometimes--times like this, say--I wonder if what we perceive to be insensate things don't have a strange pull that literally draws certain people to them. Go with the flow, I guess.

  6. Reggie, I chortled at the attribution of Jacques-Louis David's masterpiece, The Oath of the Horatii, to Toledo, Ohio. "I admired it in the Louvre!" I laughed. "Where else could such a work be on display but in Paris?!" However, I see from the TMA's website that some iteration of The Oath does indeed belong to its collection. Zut alors! Revolutionary!

  7. Looks like an absolutely wonderful afternoon in Houston. The Boston Parlor is so impressive. Houston and New Orleans are on my list of places to go - you've reminded me not to wait too much longer.

  8. I agree, Reggie, Houston is a fabulous place to visit--especially if one does not have to drive oneself! Lucky you! I am impressed that you were able to fit all this in one afternoon. I look forward to my next Houston visit. April is a wonderful time of year to visit that part of the country.

  9. Hello Reggie,
    Thank you for sharing your passion for the decorative arts and having such a keen eye too.
    Do you recall if you saw any works by Pierre Paul Prud'hon on tour at MFAH? The exhibition looks marvelous. The Antiques Roadshow did a short blurb on Bayou Bend a while back. I'm so grateful Ima Hogg did what she did. She had to compete with that fiesty DuPont.

  10. Houston? Who would have thunk it???
    Actually I love to eat in is a new discovery and my friends and I all enjoy the good food, beautiful surroundings and great people watching. We just had a lovely lunch upstairs at the British Museum.

  11. Anon@5:02, the Toledo Art Museum has a small but very fine collection of European paintings as well as an outstanding glass collection. The Libbey family (Libbey Glass) was instrumental in building both collections, I believe.

  12. When I first became aware of Bayou Bend, and Miss Hogg's cruel name (what WERE her parents thinking?), there was an urban legend doing the rounds that she had a sister named Ura. I felt equal parts of relief and disappointment when this turned out not to be true.

    The Battoni drawing--so magnificent---and oh, those Latrobe chairs.

    As for Rienzi, so what if it's a sometimes tasteless mish mash---it's also a capsule of a time and place and sensibility (although it should be just billed as that. Trying to elevate it as European Decorative Arts Center gives it too much to live up to). I for one am glad to see a few of these preserved, warts and all---it tells us much about a world.

  13. Thank you for taking us along for a bit of your tour, Reggie! I've had many lovely visits to Houston through the years as my sister lived there for almost 20 yrs. We often visited Bayou Bend when the azaleas were in full bloom. A really lovely way to spend an afternoon.

  14. Your posts are always a delight! I felt as though you had taken us right along with you on your adventures. It sounds like Bayou Bend was far and away the highlight of the day. (Although I do feel bad for poor Ima! What a name!)

  15. The longer I read this blog the more convinced I am that Reggie is just the most kind, genteel, and INTERESTING gentleman around. Lovely

  16. Just to let your readers know, Rienzi was designed by John F. Staub as well. Although I am a big Staub and decorative arts fan, I have visited neither house. I can totally relate to your excitement over fitting visits to these houses and the museum into your trip!

  17. Dear RD,
    I enjoyed this post. Especially your description of the BB docent...River Oaks is so amazingly beautiful, I worked on a house there back in the late eighties, for the Breen family.
    What a coup to find your plates there!

  18. RD,
    What a delightful post. As a native Houstonian, I am so glad your enjoyed your time there. My late mother was a docent at Bayou Bend for more than 20 years, and the time that Miss Ima was a guest at our house (a couple blocks from BB) is a vivid memory from my childhood. I'm very fortunate to have the portrait of Catherine Walton Thompson by John Wollaston that Miss Ima bought from Vose in the 1950s. Bayou Bend deaccessioned it in the 1990s (to their subsequent regret, I believe). It now hangs in my office in downtown Dallas because my wife considers Catherine much to ugly to live at home!


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