Bayou Bend at 50: A Longtime Docent Tells Her Story March 3, 2016

March 5, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of Bayou Bend’s opening to the public. We’re celebrating throughout the year with monthly blog posts offering behind-the-scenes perspectives on this cultural and historical Houston treasure.

The historic 1966 opening featured a dedication ceremony with dignitaries including Texas Governor John Connally, Houston Mayor Louie Welch, and University of Texas Chancellor Harry Ransom, along with collectors and scholars from across the country. All were there to celebrate the moment and the woman who had made it possible: Ima Hogg, the collector and philanthropist who, nine years earlier, had announced the gift of Bayou Bend to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and who had been working ever since to transition it from a private home to a public museum. She said in her remarks that day that the opening was “the culmination of a long-cherished dream.”

Bayou Bend docent Betsy Ache was there on March 5, 1966. I asked her about her memories of the day, how she became a docent, and more.

You were a brand-new “class of 1966” Bayou Bend docent. How exciting that you attended the opening celebrations! What do you remember about the day?
The guests were seated in folding chairs on the north terrace of the house, facing the Diana Fountain. It was a cold and windy day. I can still hear the sound of the canvas canopy loudly flapping about. I remember being completely in awe of the moment and of the many important people there.

I also remember being in the house that day. There were fresh flower and fruit arrangements to match the ceramics in each room. In the Maple Bedroom, a bowl of strawberries was placed next to a strawberry-patterned tea service. I especially love that tea set and have never forgotten the fresh strawberries!

Were all of the activities focused on that day?
The public activities were that day, yes. The day before (I think), I walked Miss Hogg’s good friend and fellow collector, Katharine Prentis Murphy, from the cottage up to the house. It was a beautiful day and she was very nice. It was such an honor; as you know, Bayou Bend’s Murphy Room is named for her.

Albert Sack, the famous New York antiques dealer, was literally under a table in Philadelphia Hall, pointing out to someone the thickness of the wood. I could not believe it—he was someone whose books I had read and heard great stories about, and he was on the floor and I was standing right there!

Fifty years later, you’re still an active Bayou Bend docent. You took a leave of absence for a few years of or we would be celebrating your 50th anniversary as well! How did you become a docent? What are some of your favorite early memories?
I was already a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through a placement with the Junior League. In 1965, Sandy Thompson, one of the first Bayou Bend docents, spoke to us at the Junior League and explained the mansion would soon open to the public and needed more docents. I saw her at the Museum one day and casually said, “Bayou Bend sounds interesting, it might be something fun to do.” Soon after, she called and asked me to interview. It was Christmas, so I asked for time to decide, and she replied, “You have five seconds!” My mother was there, so I asked her what I should do. She said, “Do it!”

Do you remember the interview, or the class itself? I know it is a rigorous, multi-month course.
The interview was one-on-one with the new curator, David Warren, who was just out of graduate school. I was scared to death as I climbed the house stairs to his office. I do not remember anything about the interview except the first thing I said was, “Oh, you are so young!” and then I thought to myself, “Well, that was not the right thing to say!”

The class met in Bayou Bend’s cottage every week.  Also, the Bayou Bend Docent Organization met there each month; to become a docent you had to give a talk at one of these monthly meetings. Miss Hogg attended the meetings and sat in the front row. I was very nervous with her listening to me!

Miss Hogg moved out of the house in 1965 but did not pass away until 1975. Did she come back from time to time?
Oh yes, she sometimes came by when we were giving tours. It was very intimidating to have her nearby as you were telling a guest about a particular painting or piece of furniture. Docents who remember those early days all agree that our voices would get very quiet—we would almost whisper!—so that she could not hear what we were saying. She was not trying to listen or correct us—we were just very self-conscious since she, of course, knew everything about all of it.

In addition to being a docent, you also served on the docent board as group-tour chair and general chair. What has kept you so dedicated and involved for so many years?
We docents have a strong, shared interest in the subject matter; and, like Ima Hogg, we have a passion for learning. Also, many of us become close friends, and our spouses become friends with one another. It is like a family. I feel a great pride to be a Bayou Bend docent. It is still thrilling to be there, just as it was that special day on March 5, 1966, at the very beginning of the adventure.

This post kicks off this year’s blog series celebrating Bayou Bend: 50 Years of Sharing Our Houston Heritage.