Houston Texas is America’s fourth largest populous city. Whether you like museums, shopping, entertainment or history, the city has a lot to see and do. But it wasn’t always that way.
Houston was originally founded in 1836 at a conjunction of bayous. It quickly developed into a shipping center for the region’s cotton, timber, and cattle. Cotton and shipping laid the foundation for its evolution into a textile center in the early 20th century.
Then came the discovery of oil which virtually overnight transformed Houston into a global energy center. It grew a mid-sized city into its present size. In the 1960s, it enjoyed another economic burst when Congress chose Houston as the site for America’s entry into the space race that culminated in Apollo 11’s successful moon landing.
We easily filled up two full days exploring.
The Houston Galleria is a shopper’s paradise. It is the largest shopping center in Texas and the fourth largest nationally. The multi-building retail complex has over 400 stores and restaurants, and its own touch of winter in its ice skating rink. It is perched between two exclusive neighborhoods: River Oaks and Memorial. You could spend days in this complex if you like shopping.
If shopping is not your thing, entertainment might be. Nine professional performing arts organizations operate within 17 downtown blocks. The multi-theater entertainment neighborhood has more seats than any place in the U.S. other than Broadway.
Tranquility Park commemorates the Apollo 11 mission and is named after the landing spot of the mission’s rover. The grounds have been graded into a series of mounds and crater-like depressions that are intended to represent the lunar surface. The highlight, at least when operating, is a large, 32-level fountain with five cylindrical towers that represent rockets. The park also has a red-rose garden to honor the city’s Covid fatalities.
Sam Houston Park
Sam Houston Park celebrates the city’s founding and culture with ten of the city’s oldest surviving buildings. These include a pre-Texas Revolution log cabin from 1823 and several more substantial homes and a church from the mid-19th century to 1905. The park also included several monuments and public art pieces.
The downtown business district doesn’t have a lot of sites other than modern glass skyscrapers. But it does have a lovely, 12-acre, city-center park. Discovery Park includes a large playground, a lake for boating, putting green, dog run, bocce and shuffleboard courts, 12 gardens, two restaurants, public art and a full, year-round schedule of family, fitness/wellness and entertainment events.
The 450-acre Hermann Park is in the southern end of the Museum District. It includes a zoo, Natural Science Museum, lake, outdoor theater, and even a railroad to get you around it.
Broadacres Historic District
If you are interested in beautiful historic residential areas, check out North Boulevard and South Boulevard. The streets with grass and tree medium strips are lined with stately Live Oak trees and lovely homes. They include the Broadacres Historic District, an upscale housing subdivision developed in the 1920s by Captain James A. Baker and James A. Baker Jr. (grandfather and father of James A. III, Reagan’s Chief of Staff and G.H.W. Bush’s Chief of Staff and Secretary of State). The development is known for its large lots and beautiful homes designed by some of the city’s leading architects.
Houston’s museum district is one of the largest museum districts in the country. In addition to Hermann Park, the district includes Rice University, the Mecom Fountain, dozens of galleries, and 18 museums that range from a Children’s Museum through Holocaust, Health and several art museums. We visited a few of the museums.
Museum of Fine Arts—Kinder Building
The Kinder Building is one of roughly a dozen Museum of Fine Arts facilities that are spread across the city. We’ve been to many museums throughout the world but found this to have some very unusual works of art. It is definitely worth a stop.
The show begins just behind the building at the Cullen Sculpture Garden. More than a dozen sculptures are located in this pretty setting from artists including Rodin, Matisse, Miro, Calder, Maillol, David Smith and several others.
As you enter the Kinder, the Phillip Johnson designed interior has a sculptural staircase topped with a Calder mobile and a lobby wall devoted to an LED screen that displays altered, almost liquid images of people walking by.
The museum includes a modest but very representative mid-20th century modern art. Its collection includes a Who’s Who of artists including:
- Matisse and Picasso;
- Major New York abstract expressionists such as Kooning, Pollock, Krasner, Rothko;
- Figurative and representational artists such as Hopper, O’Keefe and Marsden Hartley; and
- Europeans such as Arp, Lear, Brancusi, Giacometti, Magritte, and Dali.
A separate gallery contains the more experimental and innovative mid-century California School. It also has a small but impressive History of Photography exhibit that traces the medium from 1843 salted paper prints from paper negatives through silver prints from glass negatives, though platinum, gelatin silver, and chromogenic prints through digital photography and inkjet prints.
The Kinder, however, is primarily a contemporary art museum and is one of the most engaging ones we have visited in years. It is generally organized by styles media and themes. Galleries focus on:
- Wire sculptures;
- Non-traditional media such as wood, bricks, fabric, yarn and vinyl
- Mid-century furniture, studio jewelry and decorative arts;
- Constructivism, kinetic sculptures, color and light, mass and space, lines and negative space;
- Social issues such as migration, discrimination and social injustice;
- Representations of family especially via collages and interesting arrangements of photos;
- Types of mapping from the mapping of geography, of eclipses and of population changes;
- And many more.
We found many very interesting works of art:
- Jean Tinguely’s kinetic clock;
- Nathan Lerner’s Light Tapestry photo;
- Dario Escobii’s hinged amalgam of skateboard pieces;
- A video of a man trying to convince a dog to take a drag of a cigarette;
- Jesse Latt’s fun sculpture of a basketball game between the 1980’s Houston Rockets (with the twin towers of Samson and Olajawan) and the Boston Celtics with its frontcourt trio of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and the phenomenal Larry Bird shown with six arms.
- Red Paper Table with rectangular cutouts formed into an amazing range of shapes;
- A fascinating series of inkjet-printed blown glass vase-like forms that map the population growth and decline of 24 U.S. cities from their founding to the present;
- Sam Gillium’s draped, multi-colored canvas;
- Olafur Eliasson’s display of light and refraction though dozens of multi-sized glass balls;
- Pulla Cass’s innovative photographic study of pole vaulting by combining images of different athletes at each stage of the same vault;
- Curtis Mann’s chemically-altered coloration of a sunset; and
- Kara Walker’s poignant silhouette representation of inequality of presumptions of blacks.
The octagonal Philip Johnson-designed chapel has a skylight and 14 large, Mark Rothko “field painting” murals that are intended to promote contemplation and reflection. Although most Rothko field paintings represent transitions among two or more different color fields, these murals are all some shade of black ranging from almost pure black to charcoal to lack with slight tinges of dark red or blue. Outside of the chapel is a Barnet Newman Broken Obelisk sculpture in a reflecting pool that was dedicated to Martin Luther King.
The Menil Collection
The Menil Collection is also in the Museum District. The 17,000 piece collection is displayed in several separate galleries. We visited four of those galleries that were open during our visit.
The Main Building
Several rooms are dedicated primarily to three types of art: Ancient Byzantine, African and Surrealism. Although we are not generally fans of Byzantine art, we were awed by the beauty and sophistication of many pieces from up to 1,500 years ago. We were also intrigued by several of the African pieces, especially some of the more recent (from 30 to 100 years ago) works from the Cameroon grasslands, especially the masks of wood, lass beads, shells, cloth and hair, a number of animal figures and so-called celestial thrones.
The multi-gallery display of surrealist art had multiple rooms dedicated to paintings and sculptures of both Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Other artists included Joseph Cornell, Victor Brauner, Jean Dubuffet, and Yves Tanguy and one or two each by Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Klee.
It has smaller exhibits of Alaskan, South Pacific, Mexican and Central American work and a few enticing wire-based kinetic sculptures by Takis (Panayiotis Vassilakis). We found a larger retrospective of works by Walter De Maria to be less compelling. It had boxes to be used for meaningless tasks; a mattress and headphones with hours of recorded ocean waves; and huge red, blue and green field paintings, each with a small stainless steel strips with trite please for peace.
Cy Twombly Gallery
The Cy Twombly Gallery was developed and organized in close cooperation with the artist. It displays a few of his sculptures and a number of his signature sparsely-painted, large-scale pieces (one of which is roughly 80×20 feet) that combine scribbled calligraphic references to mythology and classical literature and poetry with abstract gestural splotches of pastel colored paint, some of which was allowed to drip down the canvas.
One displayed series is very different—densely packed quasi-representational canvases that may (or may not) represent a stream with flowing water, rocky shoreline and densely vegetated shoreline in dark, emerald-green colors.
Menil Drawing Gallery
The drawing gallery was created as a forum for scholarly projects and to organize exhibitions. The exhibit during our visit was titled ”Robert Motherwell Drawing: As Fast as the Mind Itself”. The retrospective-like exhibition portrays his evolution that began with deliberate, experimental linear drawings.
An Abstract Expressionist with deep ties to Surrealism, he believed in the importance of spontaneous, preconscious gestures as means of expressing one’s true inner thought. His work, therefore, transitioned to gestural abstractions that begin with rapid, spontaneous line drawings that he deliberately fills in with black ink or in some cases, crayons or watercolors. The remainder of his career was devoted to continual experimentation and refinement of his style.
Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall
This is another artist-specific venue divided into two rooms, each with a different minimalist light installation. The largest relies on vertical patterns of blue, green, yellow and red fluorescent lights in repetitive patterns in two layers, that stretch across both sides of the entire space, each layer separated by a fluorescent band of blue. The second smaller room, two vertical groupings of hard white florescent bulbs of different sizes.
Byzantine Fresco Chapel
Although now closed, the Chapel used to house two 13th-century frescos that have since been returned to the archbishop of Crete.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center
The NASA Johnson Space Center is the home of mission control and astronaut training. From its early days as the home of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, it has evolved to be one of NASA’s largest research and development facilities.
The History of Space Exploration
The Center explains and provides hundreds of artifacts from America’s first human space missions. Exhibits range from Mercury and Gemini to Apollo. They culminate in the 1969 moon landing, Skylab, the Space Shuttle (each of which can be explored in walk-throughs) and the current International Space Station.
Several galleries describe the history of the space program. In 1926, Robert Goddard first experimented with liquid fuel rockets . In 1958, Explorer 1 delivered the first American satellite into orbit.
Exhibits discussed the missions of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. It explained how each mission made a specific contribution to the ultimate goal of landing men on the moon, exploring and understanding the lunar surface, and safely returning the crews to Earth. For example:
- Gemini I, America’s first manned mission, brought Alan Sheppard to the edge of space for 15 minutes in his historic 1961 flight;
- Gemini II marked the country’s first orbital mission in 1962.
- Gemini III (1965) in which Gus Grissom made the first manual alteration of a flight;
- Gemini V (1965) which lasted eight days, the number of days required for a roundtrip voyage to the moon;
- Gemini VI (1965), the first rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft;
- Gemini X (1966) featured the first space walk;
- Apollo VII (1968) was the first flight using the powerful Saturn rocket and performed complex maneuvers in space;
- Apollo VIII (1969) was the first to orbit the moon;
- Apollo XI (1969) was the first manned moon landing and walk;
- Apollo XIII (1970), commemorated in the Ron Howard movie, portrayed the heroic efforts of NASA and the astronauts to return safely to earth after the almost disastrous explosion of an oxygen tank; and
- Apollo 15 (1971) which delivered the Rover the moon and facilitated the collection of 850 pound of moon rock and dirt which was instrumental in research.
The Space Center also provides self-guided tours of the 85-ton SkyLab. Launched in 1973, it was the first space station and platform for viewing earth and the solar system from space. It also allowed for performing experiments in microgravity. Although SkyLab orbited the planet for six years before losing power and plummeting into the atmosphere, it hosted three missions that totaled 24 weeks. Experiments included how space travel affects the human body and plants as well as industrial processes.
International Space Station
Most importantly, SkyLab combined with early efforts at international cooperation in space, such as the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz collaboration formed the foundation for the International Space Station.
The first component of the modular, 200-ton, 358-foot space station was launched in 1988 and is powered by an acre of solar panels. It has been continually staffed since 2000 with a rotating seven-person crew consists of scientists and engineers from the U.S., Russia, Japan, the European Union, and Canada.
Russian participation has been under review since its invasion of Crimea. Its scientists conduct their own experiments in its own section of the craft. The other nations cooperate in experiments in fields including astrobiology, meteorology, physics, industrial processes, and astronomy. (Its astronomical work has been increasingly surpassed by the 1990 launch of the Hubble, and especially by the 2021 launch of the Webb Telescope.
Many of its experiments involve work in assessing the feasibility of and laying the foundation for long-term manned missions into deep space—initially nearby asteroids and especially this planet of Mars.
The Space Shuttle
Transporting the materials to construct, continually resupply and staff the space station also required a vehicle to make regular trips between earth and space. That’s where the space shuttle came in.
The shuttle and the structurally enhanced version of the Boeing 747 used to transport the shuttle piggyback style are both on display and accessible for self-guided tours. Although the shuttle did not provide the level of reusability nor the speedy turnarounds that were hoped for—and despite the tragedy of the Columbia disaster—the fleet of six shuttles completed 135 missions over the 30 years (1981-2011). It carried numerous satellites into orbit, repaired some, brought others back to earth. It also carried the Hubble into orbit and famously repaired its faulty mirror. It also transported International Space Station modules, supplies, and crews and performed some in-space repairs.
The center also provides an overview of NASA’s next phase of space exploration, Artemis. Artemis will entail longer-term return visits to the moon. An orbital platform will provide a foundation for future deep space missions including three-year voyages to and explorations of Mars and bus tours through the Mission Control complex.
Artemis has has many facets. These include:
- Space Launch System, a powerful, super heavy-lift launch vehicle (i.e., rocket) that provides more launch thrust and supports larger, heavier payloads than current systems.
- Orion, a more powerful, flexible, partially reusable system that consists of a Crew Module space capsule that will support a crew of six for up to 21 days undocked and for six months when connected to a dock.
- Lunar Gateway Space Station that orbits the moon will serve as a near-space supply and transfer station to support both long-term lunar surface outposts and also serve as a staging point for deep space missions.
- Humanoid robots will perform construction, maintenance work and even routine scientific studies in conjunction with humans as well as when humans are not there.
- Hard Suits are a new generation of aluminum and fiberglass space suit that will better protect astronauts from heat, cold and radiation while also providing improved mobility.
Deep Space travel, however, requires more than this. After all, at its closest alignment from earth, Mars is still 30 million miles away. It will take six months to get there and six months to return. And since the planets are only in this close alignment once every two years, each manned mission will take at least three years. This requires far more food, fuel (for the return flight) and especially water than the craft can carry. They must, therefore, be produced on Mars.
As previous unmanned research missions have shown, Mars has mineral-rich spoils, a carbon dioxide-based atmosphere, and water-based ice at the poles and frozen into the surface. The limited water carried on the flight must be preserved and continually recycled and more must be produced from Martian ice. Food (particularly vegetables and fruits) must be grown on the planet in heat-controlled gardens using Martian soil water (from which toxins must be removed) and carbon dioxide. And since the Martian surface receives only half as much light as the earth, specially developed LEDs (light-emitting diodes) must be used to efficiently produce only the wavelengths of light best suited to growing each type of plant. Additional food can be supplied by occasional cargo trips.
Photosynthesis meanwhile will produce oxygen. Water can also be broken down to create oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for powering the craft on a return journey.
Many of these capabilities are expected to be in place by the late 2030s and the rest, hopefully, by the 2040s. It is expected that all this effort will deliver many more of the type of spinoff technological benefits that the space program has already developed in fields including computer technology, ceramics (as used in heat shields), environment, agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, industrial productivity, and recreation. Examples include tissue repair, vascular surgical techniques, robotics, CMOS image sensors, firefighting equipment, cochlear implants, memory foam, freeze-dried food, emergency “space blankets”, DustBusters, LZR Racer swimsuits, and scratch-resistant lenses. Current International Space Station and future Project Aretmis work promise even more impressive benefits.
Dining in Houston Restaurants
During our 2 days in Houston, we had several meals:
We began dinner with a very nice pear and Saga Blue cheese salad with tomatoes, candied pecans, and creamy vinaigrette dressing. The acceptable roasted bone marrow with “everything seasoning”, bonito flakes, toast, and herb salad was acceptable. The sautéed red snapper with jumbo lump crab, sherry lobster sauce, and fresh green beans and carrots was delicious. Our dessert was a very good apple-almond tart with almond frangipane, caramelized apples, and Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. The wine list was an overwhelming 70+-page, 2,000-plus selection wine list. Our sommelier highly recommended a 2015 Baron De Brane Margaux Bordeaux (second label to Château Brane-Cantenac, also in Margaux). While it took a while to open, it was elegant with subtle black fruit and soft tannins.
We had reservations at Toro Toro, a Latin-American steakhouse at the Four Seasons Hotel. But as we were walking in the Theater District we spied two ultra-informal al fresco spots that we decided to eat at instead. The Pit Room is a BBQ joint that serves chicken, turkey, brisket, beef and pork ribs and multiple types of sausage and multiple sides on aluminum trays covered by a sheet of paper. Next door, The Patio At The Pit Room sold crawfish by the pound served with sausage, corn on the cob, and potato on plastic trays. These restaurants are joined by a bar and decks with outdoor counters and picnic-style table seating. We had a pound of crawfish and a rack of pork ribs with BBQ sauce along with a couple of beers (St. Arnold Amber and Corona Light) and a tray full of tortilla chips with salsa. Quite a difference from the Four Seasons, but a satisfying meal nonetheless.
We had wonderful lunch at Annie Cafe in the Galleria. Joyce’s salad with shrimp, blue crab, baby lettuce, hearts of palm, and tomato was delicious. Tom thoroughly enjoyed his quail done two ways: bacon-wrapped with molasses and jalapeno-buttermilk fried legs with spicy ranch dressing.
We had lunch in the Museum District’s Monarch Hotel. The venue included a gallery of interesting interior design, paintings, sculptures, and photos. Although we weren’t excited by the service, we did enjoy both of our dishes. The ahi tuna tostadas were piled high with barely seared tuna, pico, pickled red onion, and jalapeno salsa. The chicken and ricotta meatballs came with a tasty pomodoro sauce.