Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Menil Neighborhood

The Menil Neighborhood
March 2016
Alton DuLaney and dog AureLeo in "Do-Ville" in Houston Texas March 2016

Nearly every major city has at least one. An Eiffel Tower or a Disney Concert Hall. A Golden Gate Bride or a Guggenheim Museum. A building or structure or landmark that stands independently of it’s given city limits, that comes to represent the place where it is geographically land-locked as an iconic symbol of that place, the image of which says NYC just as loudly, by only showing the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or the Freedom Tower. (It could be argued that all of Manhattan has been art directed, considering that the island was leveled and mapped and planned. Even Central Park  is essentially an enormous installation art piece, or stage set, orchestrated by Frederick Law Olmsted, with every tree, trail, rock, hill and pond carefully placed to create an overall look and feel. Perhaps then Christo and Jean Claude’s installation of orange gates in the park was a redundancy - art on art.)

Menil yard art in Houston Texas photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

Yes, every major city has at least one signature locale that speaks of the greater city at large, and more often than not these icons of urbanism are works of art (public art), tributes to the arts (museums), of exemplary architecture that elevates construction to an artistic level of respect and appreciation. One such example of this can be seen right here in our own back yard, in the Menil Collection - the Park, Museum, and surrounding galleries and buildings, what we shall refer to here as the Menil Neighborhood.
Menil Musuem in Houston Texas photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
Nestled in the heart of Montrose, the 30 acre “campus” of the Menil Foundation, (not including their home in River Oaks designed by Philip Johnson, with interiors by Charles James), is a testament to John and Dominique de Menil’s vision of art preservation and presentation.
The Menil Foundation in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

At the heart of the compound is the Menil Collection or Museum, designed by Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, it houses one of the largest privately held collections in the world.

The Menil Museum by Renzo Piano photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

Additionally there is: The Cy Twombly Gallery, also by Piano, features a retrospective of the American artist’s work dating from 1951 through his death in 2011;

Cy Twombly Gallery at Menil in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

The Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, located in a former grocery store, was Dominique de Menil’s last commission;
Richmond Hall in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

The Byzantine Chapel, which originally housed 13th century frescos on a 15-year loan from Cyprus, and now the home of a rotating exhibition of sight-specific installations including currently “The Time Machine” installation;

Menil Byzantine Chapel in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

the Philip Johnson designed Rothko Chapel displaying an impressive commission by Mark Rothko, and,
Rothko Chapel in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
 out front, a gravity defying sculpture by Barnett Newman, the “Broken Obelisk”, which is currently, "broken"( away for restorations);
The Broken Obelisk is broken! Photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
and the newest addition, the Bistro Menil,

Bistro Menil in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

a quaint little bistro with outdoor seating and an enjoyable happy hour.
Public Art at Bistro Menil in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

But what really defines the neighborhood is the collection of surrounding bungalows that the Menil Foundation began quietly buying in the 1960s in an epic effort to protect the atmosphere and character of the neighborhood. 
"Do-Ville" at the Menil Collection in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
To unify the disparate architecture, the dozens of modest homes have all been painted the same shade of gray, now know as “Menil Gray”, thus giving a commonality and cohesiveness to the streets surrounding the park and the museum. 

"Menil" or "Howard" Gray at the Menil Collection in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney
The particular shade of gray is also referred to as “Howard Gray” as it was actually conceived by Howard Barnstone, who took over the Rothko Chapel project from Johnson. 
Live Oak tree in the Menil Neighborhood of Houston photo by Alton DuLaney

Dominique de Menil had requested a hue that would play well with the lush green lawns and majestic Live Oak trees of the park, as well as something that would not detract from the museum centerpiece she would eventually build in the park. 

Menil Live Oak in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
Of note is that the Museum came later, and was painted to match the bungalows and not the other way around.

Menil Neighborhood in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016

The neighborhood became known locally as “Doville” (Dominique’s-Village), and has for decades been both enclave and refuge to artists, writers, designers, and other creatives, that have called the bungalows home. Residents in these rent-controlled units have access to world-class art and institutions, and also contribute to the authenticity of the neighborhood, while maintaining the character and charm that first attracted Dominique to the area in the late 1950’s, when the Menil’s were instrumental in forming the University of St Thomas.
A half-century later, Dominique’s vision is alive and thriving in Houston, attracting tens-of-thousands of visitors each year, and fulfilling the philosophies of accessibility (the museum and all exhibits are free to the public), 

Menil Collection in Houston hours of operation

the combination of spirituality and art (through the two chapels and tranquil, meditative park setting), 

Menil Park in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney March 2016
and intimacy (housing artists and creatives in the neighborhood’s iconic gray bungalows).  

Texas Artist Alton DuLaney with dog AureLeo at the Menil Collection in Houston
(For information on another great Texas artist who has work in the Menil Collection, check out this great book on Robert Rauschenberg published by the Menil.)
As one strolls through the park, surrounded by the cool gray-toned homes, and the understated yet impressive museum and surrounding galleries, it is easy to feel a sense of pride for the instantly recognizable art neighborhood. And though Dominique is long gone, her presence survives, as the compound continues to draw crowds and acclaim. And the vision continues to expand, with a master plan in the works for even more green spaces and the now-under-construction Menil Drawing Institute, which boasts to be the only free-standing building dedicated to works on paper in the USA. (The height of the new MDI, by the way, will be no more than 16ft, so as not to detract from or tower over the bungalows.) 

Construction on the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston photo by Alton DuLaney
Definitely a neighborhood worth visiting on any tour of Houston. For more information on hours or exhibitions at the Menil Collection, visit their website.


  1. Nice. ("Janice" Carol's and Angela's MoM. LOL)

  2. I've been to every larger venue in the town and this is one of the best. The menu of New York Event Venues is small but at least they seem to do what they have on it well. They have a variety of salads and sandwiches, and a fresh daily soup.