By Maura McCarthy, Decorative Arts Trust Registrar
This fall’s Houston symposium, “Texas: Early Decorative Arts & Later Legendary Collections” found Trust members in the Lone Star State where the influence of Miss Ima Hogg’s collection inspired our lectures and collection visits. We also uncovered many other treasures in the South over the weekend. We began with a trip to the Gulf city of Galveston where Fred and Pat Burns guided us on tours of recent preservation work. The port city has a fascinating history of commerce, wealth and, the devastation of the 1900 hurricane.
Trust Vice President Dean Failey delivered an illustrious lecture that introduced us to the city and the figures who called it home in the 1970s. His charming memories and photos of Miss Ima and the new public museum at Bayou Bend gave insight into his first job as the Junior Curator at Bayou Bend after graduating from the Winterthur program. Miss Ima presented him with over thirty boxes dating back to the 1940s and containing the bills of sale, correspondence with dealers, and other documentation for each object in her collection. It was Dean’s task to compile these records into a registry for the museum. In his lecture, he touched on each room that he catalogued: pointing out the beautiful details of the painted paneling in the Maple Bedroom, the Rococo Revival furniture in the Belter Parlor, and the distinct design of the Murphy Room, the first period room at Bayou Bend and named for Miss Ima’s good friend and fellow collector Katharine Prentice Murphy who supervised the room’s installation. In the days to come, we would see the collection and hear from more lecturers who would show us how Bayou Bend and Miss Ima set a standard for American art and architecture in Texas.
Bayou Bend Curator Michael Brown was honored with this fall’s John A. H. Sweeney Lectureship. Brown’s lecture revealed Ima Hogg’s broad interests in collecting in Texas. From the quintessential Philadelphia high chest to the Louisiana Creole side chair, her passion for American art continues to influence scholars and collectors today.
Another protégé of Miss Ima, former curator and director of Bayou Bend, David Warren, delivered the Jonathan Fairbanks Lecture on Texas-German Furniture. Discoveries from Warren’s lecture can be found in the recently republished revised edition of his book Texas Furniture, Volume One: The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840–1880. Volume Two will be available in late 2012. Echoing Miss Ima, Warren shows how the craftsmen and their furniture bring together Texas and America.
In another preview of the collection we would shortly see, the dynamic Emily Ballew Neff delivered the morning’s last lecture “Will & Ima Hogg Collect American Paintings.” If Ima inspired Texans to collect American art, then we have Will Hogg to thank for it. Will began collecting in 1920 and encouraged Ima to do the same. She bought her first antique that same year: an Adams armchair. Will Hogg founded the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1924. The Hoggs collected artists who were not held in prestige yet. Several Frederic Remington and Picasso paintings hung in Bayou Bend and at the Hogg brothers’ downtown offices.
After lunch at the Bayou Club sponsored by Trust member Mary Hale McLean, we made our way to Bayou Bend to feast our eyes on the legendary collection. Trust members were welcomed at the brand new Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor Center by Michael Brown and Bayou Bend docents, among them, several Trust members. After crossing over the bayou and strolling through the expansive gardens we entered the house and viewed, room by room, the collection that was built not only by Miss Ima, but by contributions from her close friends and the museum’s later benefactors. All of the lectures and anecdotes started to come together to form the picture of the woman and her lifelong dedication to creating a home, collection, museum, educational center, and a distinctly American identity. From Bayou Bend, we made the short drive to the beautiful River Oaks home of Jean Kilroy where we enjoyed her hospitality and collection.
The next day, the focus turned from the classic American decorative arts to contemporary collections and modern architecture. Eric Wolf spoke on “The Menil Collection and Today’s Art Museum Architecture.” The Menil is ranked #2 on Vanity Fair’s greatest buildings of the last 50 years. #1 is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. It is telling that the top buildings on this list are both art museums. Museum architecture has undergone a transformation through the 20th Century. The iconic temple on a pedestal epitomized in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. contrast with buildings like the original Museum of Modern Art, a white cube on a human scale. That domestic scale grew to the grand, industrial space of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim. The Menil Museum, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, represents a going back to the refinement of the cube design. This design is now iconic in Piano’s work: Atlanta’s High Museum and the Whitney in Chelsea are other contemporary examples. The Menils’ own house, built in 1950 and designed by Philip Johnson also influenced Piano’s style.
The Menil is set in a beautiful, serene campus in Houston. The setting is part of the philosophy of the Menils of living with a collection. The art truly seems like a living thing set against a backdrop of large oak trees and bathed in natural light that all become part of the experience, changing how it looks depending on the time of year and time of day.
Our afternoon visit to the main building of the Museum of Fine Arts was augmented by Ashleigh Holloway’s lecture on their collection of American paintings. The life of people in the past and present was a great theme to this symposium. Be it seeing how the Menil family still lives among their collection in their private house or how Ima Hogg created a life and a home for her objects, Houston certainly proved to be a place where art became an integral part of these communities.
Sunday morning Christine Gervais introduced us to “Dining in the Mid-18th Century English Country House,” an exhibit on view at John Staub’s Rienzi, now MFAH’s house museum for European decorative arts. Dining was an elaborate affair, dictated by daylight and availability of foods that were in season. The table was set to show guests that the hosts were fashionable people. As the ladies and gentlemen sat mingled among one another in what was called “promiscuous seating,” the meal would be served in three courses: soup, roasted meat and dessert with as many as 25 dishes making up the table. The host served the soup and carved the meat (a gentlemanly skill) while servants replenished the wine and removed the plates as invisibly as possible.
Gervais’ fantastical illusions of the English Country House led us into the fashion of the developing American Country House, an architecture greatly influenced by Houston’s great architect John Staub. Stephen Fox and Russell Windham brought us a wonderful history of the houses and people in Houston, a city that has struggled to preserve its important buildings. Houston was founded in 1836; its oldest surviving building dates to 1847. In early Houston homes, the stairs were situated so that first floor rooms lined up to catch an uninterrupted gulf breeze. With the discovery of oil in 1905, a new Houston arose that discarded much of its past style. In the 1910s, Houston resisted efforts to impose a consistent identity which led to a tension in the 1950s between contemporaries and conservatives to define a Houston architectural style.
The River Oaks community, where our host hotel and Bayou Bend are located, was founded by the Hogg brothers in 1926. Architect John Staub, who apprenticed under McKim, Meade & White, came to Houston in 1921 just as the oil money was burgeoning and the area was growing. He quickly became the tastemaker of the 1920s–40s; even through the depression Staub had 29 projects. Staub was considered the best traditional architect because his designs were timeless and site-specific. Staub often worked on lots as small as 100'x190' which required him to be clever and efficient while retaining elegance.
Although Houston may just be catching up in strong preservation efforts and finding a distinct identity, we were able to enjoy such a wonderful weekend exploring its unique position and relationship with Americana.