The MFAH: An Architectural History

About the MFAH

Established in 1900, the MFAH is the largest cultural institution in the southwest region. The museum’s main campus is located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, and comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Glassell School of Art, and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. Nearby, two remarkable house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. Resources that can be found throughout the MFAH include a repertory cinema, two significant research libraries, public archives, and a conservation and storage facility. The encyclopedic collections of the MFAH cover world cultures dating from antiquity to the present and include in-depth holdings of American art, European paintings, pre-Columbian and African gold, decorative arts and design, photography, prints and drawings, modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, and Latin American art. The MFAH is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.


The Future of the MFAH Campus

The firm Steven Holl Architects is developing plans for a comprehensive project to create a new building for post-1900 art and a new facility for the Glassell School of Art; those structures will link to the existing gallery buildings by Mies van der Rohe and Rafael Moneo, as well as the sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi, establishing a 14-acre public campus in the heart of Houston’s Museum District.


Architectural Legacy

The MFAH campus unites the brilliant architectural and design work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Isamu Noguchi, and Rafael Moneo, part of a 75-year legacy of inspired commissions that spans from 1924—and the construction of the original museum building designed by William Ward Watkin in the Neoclassical style—to the year 2000, when the museum completed the Rafael Moneo-designed Audrey Jones Beck Building. Plans are under way for a proposed new building, to be located across Bissonnet Street from the Caroline Wiess Law Building, that would be devoted to post-1900 art.


Original Museum Building

Architect: William Ward Watkin
Director: James Chillman, Jr.
Year: 1924


The original MFAH building was the first art museum to be built in the state and only the third in the South. Houston architect William Ward Watkin designed it as a temple for art, in the Neoclassical style favored at the time. Watkin collaborated with then-director James Chillman, Jr., who, like Watkin, was a professor at nearby Rice University. Watkin envisioned a pure exhibition space, but Chillman’s perspective brought practicality to Watkin’s design conventions by ensuring that the added wings accommodated administrative offices, storage, and meeting rooms. Additional wings were completed in 1926, at which time Chillman presented American paintings from Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, a show that included work by renowned artist John Singer Sargent. With this significant exhibition, the MFAH established itself as a cultural gem in the young city of Houston.


Blaffer Memorial Wing

Architect: Kenneth Franzheim
Director: James Chillman, Jr.
Year: 1953


Because of the Great Depression and World War II, the MFAH paused for nearly 30 years until resources for a much-needed expansion of the galleries became available. In 1952, the museum received a gift from Camilla Davis and John H. Blaffer to build a wing dedicated to the memory of Robert Lee Blaffer, cofounder of Humble Oil & Refining Co. Kenneth Franzheim, the architect who had designed the Blaffers’ Chicago home, was named to the job. Franzheim had collaborated on the design of three of Houston’s tallest skyscrapers and received national recognition for his design of the downtown Foley’s department store, which, at the time, represented state-of-the-art retail design.

These new galleries were intended to house the growing MFAH permanent collection. Franzheim began with ambitious plans to renovate the existing museum building by making it more accessible, following other modernized museums that took advantage of conveniences such as incandescent lighting and air conditioning to allow less reliance on open air and natural light. He proposed a three-story building that extended to Bissonnet Street, but for undocumented reasons, the board rejected these plans and limited his work to what would become the Blaffer Memorial Wing.


Cullinan Hall

Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Director: Lee Malone
Year: 1958


In 1953, Nina J. Cullinan made an extraordinary gift to the museum for a building addition that would be a memorial to her parents. She stipulated that the building was to be designed by an architect of “outstanding reputation and wide experience.” The MFAH trustees turned to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the great figures of 20th-century modern architecture, for the commission. Arriving in Houston on a hot summer day to initiate planning, Mies is said to have remarked, “But in this climate you cannot want an open patio.” His eventual design was predicated on a curved, glass-enclosed space, fully visible from the street. Ignoring the standard of an open-air courtyard, Mies rejected conventional museum design in favor of Modernism. As Ann Holmes, fine arts editor of the Houston Chronicle, wrote, “entering Cullinan Hall was like walking from inside to the out-of-doors.”

The free-span exhibition space featured flexible walls and lighting and an addition of office spaces and expanded areas for shipping and storage. With an expanse of lawn in front of the entrance to showcase large-scale sculpture, the new pavilion, set back on a long path through the green lawn, beckoned guests to explore the treasures inside.


Brown Pavilion

Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Directors: James Johnson Sweeney / Philippe de Montebello
Year: 1974


In 1961, James Johnson Sweeney, founding director of the Guggenheim Museum and a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, became director of the MFAH. A close friend of Mies van der Rohe's and an admirer of Cullinan Hall, Sweeney determined that the museum needed an expansion accessible from Bissonnet that would serve as a new entrance lobby, as well as an expansive gallery on the second floor. A theater, now called Brown Auditorium Theater and one of few Mies-designed theaters still in use today, comprised the lower level, along with expanded galleries and office spaces. Plans were drawn up for what would become Brown Pavilion, but neither Sweeney nor Mies would see the project through to completion. Sweeney left the museum in 1967; his successor, Philippe de Montebello, began work in 1969, the year Mies passed away. From the beginning of his tenure, de Montebello supported the design and was determined to raise money for the construction of both the Mies pavilion and a new building for the museum school.

When complete, Brown Pavilion had the same modern details and finishes as Cullinan Hall: white plaster walls, suspended ceiling panels, and exposed steel columns. With the 1974 dedication of Brown Pavilion—named for The Brown Foundation, Inc., supported by brothers Herman and George R. Brown, founders of a gas pipeline network—the museum more than doubled its space. Paul Goldberger, writing in the New York Times, declared it “one of Mies’ most stunning spaces.”


Alfred C. Glassell School of Art

Architect: S. I. Morris
Director: William C. Agee
Year: 1979

Through a capital-funds drive in 1970, independent oilman and trustee Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., pledged funds specifically to the construction of a new museum school. Under the guidance of MFAH director William C. Agee, the project moved ahead. Houston architect S. I. Morris—known for the Astrodome and the Wortham Center—donated his and his firm’s services for the design of the new Glassell School of Art. Morris's partners Eugene Aubry (designer of the Rothko Chapel and the Rice Museum at Rice University) and R. Nolen Willis were the lead designers for the Glassell School.

All of those involved with the plans agreed that the feel of the school building should be practical—it was to be used as a “working building,” with a layout to mimic that of a warehouse. In 1977, the plans were presented as a two-story, rectangular building of 42,000 square feet, filling the one-block site on Montrose Boulevard. The exterior of glass-block finish was a practical addition meant to reflect and filter sunlight to reduce heat.


The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden

Architect: Isamu Noguchi
Directors: William C. Agee / Peter C. Marzio
Year: 1986


In 1978, funds were provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., for the purchase of a one-acre tract next to the new Glassell School of Art, then under construction. The commission for the site's sculpture garden—named the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, for the independent oilman and philanthropist and his wife—was awarded to Isamu Noguchi in the same year. Initiated under director William C. Agee, the garden was completed under director Peter C. Marzio, who worked closely on the planning with Noguchi and undertook acquisitions for the garden.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904, the son of an American mother and Japanese poet father, Noguchi was interested in sculpture out of doors rather than within building galleries. “I had a revelation of the earth outdoors as a new way of conceiving sculpture,” Noguchi once wrote, and he described his gardens as "sculpture for sculpture." For his entire career, Noguchi focused on the spatial domain that sculpture could evoke. His design for Cullen Sculpture Garden is a modern approach to the traditional idea of a garden—framed by concrete walls ranging in height, the works of sculpture within it are set among broken curves and abrupt angles. Spread out on a long, horizontal plane, the sculpture garden is meant not for quick consumption, but for thoughtful and contemplative exploration.

A unique and tranquil oasis of art and nature at the corner of Bissonnet and Montrose, Cullen Sculpture Garden showcases masterworks of 20th- and 21st-century sculpture by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Dan Graham, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, and David Smith.

Read more on the creation of Cullen Sculpture Garden.


Central Administration and Junior School Building

Architect: Carlos Jiménez
Director: Peter C. Marzio
Year: 1994


After the Glassell School of Art opened in 1979, participation in art education classes grew exponentially. The growth of the school was mirrored in the growth of the museum’s central administration, and with this progress came the need for expanded space.

Museum director Peter C. Marzio enlisted the expertise of award-winning Houston architect Carlos Jiménez to create a new administration building with an attached space for the Junior School of the Glassell School of Art. The 42,270-square-foot, L-shaped plan Jiménez designed for the new Administration and Junior School Building mirrors the Glassell School directly across Montrose Boulevard. The Junior School portion comprises two stories, with ample windows to allow northern light into the classrooms and exhibition gallery. The building uses the same limestone, metal, glass block, and insulated glass materials as other buildings on the MFAH campus.


The Audrey Jones Beck Building

Architect: Rafael Moneo
Director: Peter C. Marzio
Year: 2000


Spanish architect Rafael Moneo was enlisted in 1992 to design the next MFAH expansion, to be named for museum patron Audrey Jones Beck. The Beck Building was created to hold the museum’s collections of masterworks of European art; Renaissance and Baroque art from the Blaffer Foundation; the John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art; prints, drawings, and photographs; and American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts before 1945. The building is situated directly across Main Street from the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed Caroline Wiess Law Building. Moneo determined that instead of emulating an architectural style similar to the other museum buildings, the collection of structures on the MFAH campus should be seen as an eclectic compilation of fine architectural design.

Moneo’s design created an urban, three-story structure with a 192,447-square-foot footprint, housing more than 85,000 square feet dedicated to gallery space. The outside of the building is clad in Indiana limestone, similar to the other MFAH buildings, and the roof is covered with a series of skylight lanterns—a signature feature of the project—which use natural light to illuminate second-floor galleries. The street-level entrance to the building is meant to extend the feel of the city, with an active area for the museum shop, information desk, and ticket counter that leads into gallery spaces. From the lower level, visitors can easily walk between the Law and Beck buildings through the Wilson Tunnel, a site-specific passageway of light commissioned from artist James Turrell and titled The Light Inside.


Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens | Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center

House
Architect: John F. Staub
Director: James Johnson Sweeney
Year Opened to the Public: 1966
Original House Owners: Will, Mike, and Ima Hogg

Visitor Center

Architect: Leslie K. Elkins
Director: Peter C. Marzio
Year: 2010


Bayou Bend, since 1966 the MFAH house museum for American decorative arts, was designed and built by popular Houston architect John Staub in 1927. The house was commissioned as a family home by Ima Hogg and her two brothers, Will and Mike, among Houston’s most influential residents at the time. Miss Hogg and her brothers wanted its design to be representative of the history, culture, and climate of the Gulf Coast. They worked closely with Staub, whose design reflected 18th-century Georgian architecture combined with the Spanish Creole style of New Orleans. Miss Hogg later coined the term “Latin Colonial” to describe the blend of styles. Eventually the sole occupant of Bayou Bend, Miss Hogg donated her house to the MFAH in 1957, but she continued to live there until 1965 while overseeing its transformation into a museum.

Miss Hogg devoted her life to the pursuit of collecting American decorative arts as a means to convey American history to the citizens of Texas. Bayou Bend is now among the world’s greatest collections of American paintings, furniture, and decorative arts. Programs and educational outreach—both passions of Miss Hogg—expanded over the decades. In 2010, a long-planned visitor center was completed and opened to the public, situated on a four-acre site adjacent to a bird sanctuary and the home’s grounds. The modern, metal-clad structure houses visitor orientation spaces, meeting rooms, and a library. Designed by Houston architect Leslie K. Elkins, and granted a LEED-Silver rating for its environmental efficiencies, the Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center is a contemporary gateway to the historic house museum.

Learn more about Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens.


Rienzi

Architect: John F. Staub
Director: Peter C. Marzio

Year Opened to the Public: 1999
Original Owners: Carroll Sterling Masterson & Harris Masterson III


Rienzi, like Bayou Bend, is situated in the Homewood portion of the River Oaks subdivision. The Mastersons purchased the land from their neighbor Ima Hogg in 1952 and began working with John Staub, the architect of Bayou Bend, in the same year. The Mastersons' home, Rienzi, was completed in 1954, and its architecture blends the contemporary with classical references to Palladian and 18th-century English architecture.

In 1972 architect Hugo V. Neuhaus added a ballroom, gallery, expanded foyer, and other spaces to the residence. This addition provided Harris Masterson more room for his growing collection of paintings, furniture, and English ceramics, which today form the core of Rienzi’s collection.

The couple formally gave Rienzi to the MFAH in 1991, and they continued living in the house until their respective deaths—Carol Sterling Masterson in 1994 and Harris Masterson in 1997. The home and its collections opened to the public in 1999.

Learn more about Rienzi.


Text excerpted from the manuscript by Stephen Fox for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: An Architectural History 1924–1986. Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 1992.