After our weekend of excessive eating in Austin we packed up, thanked our hosts for letting us park our crappy looking RV in their nice suburban driveway, and headed out towards Houston. Now I’ve never really heard anyone say nice things about Houston, Paul isn’t quite as rude about Houston as he is towards Dallas, but it’s pretty close. We had a few things we were keen to see however, mostly Johnson Space Center, the Rothko chapel, a recreation of the Terra Cotta Warriors at Forbidden Gardens, and a funeral museum. We also had a friend who was in town, and of course, Paul had heard Houston had one really good bar.
On the way in we hit our first bit of disappointment, the Forbidden Gardens had closed. Auctioned off even, which is about as closed as you can get. It was a 40 acre park with re-creations of the Forbidden City, and a ⅓ scale replica of the 6000 Terra Cotta warriors and a few other well known Chinese sites. The owner was a rich businessman from Seattle who was originally from Hong Kong and annoyed that Asian-American kids don’t know enough about Chinese history, so he bought some cheap land in Texas and dropped $20 million to build it. However freeway expansion for suburban Houston meant the site had to move, and it was also in need of weather related repairs, (turns out the weather in Texas is bad.) so instead they decided to close it down. I read the soldiers went for as little as $50 each at the auction, which we just missed, but we don’t have room for a 4 foot statue in the coach anyway.
Later that evening we went to Anvil (The good bar. And it was.) with our Houston based friends which was a nice salve to our disappointment over Forbidden Gardens. The next day we headed out again for some sight seeing, and other touristy activities. This time we avoided the toll roads which cost us $9 to go one mile the day before, and so we bounced through the rutted roads of Houston to our first stop, the National Museum of Funeral History. It’s in an unlikely neighborhood, in a pretty nondescript building, but inside it’s pretty cool. It’s $10 to get in, and at the entrance has a gift shop that is a Goth teenagers dream. The museum has a large array of fancy hearses, from super ornate Victorian horse drawn ones as well as motorized 20th century Cadillac based ones. They have a lot of information on Presidential funerals, with an emphasis on JFK and Lincoln, (Sorry McKinley.) as well as a big exhibit on Papal funerals, which like all ceremonies related to the Pope, is long and complicated. They are currently running an exhibit on cowboy funerals, and when we visited they had exhibits on Day of the Dead and fantasy coffins of Ghana. The fantasy coffins are wooden coffins shaped like jets, Mercedes Benz cars, fish or something that was meaningful to the deceased. They are super cool. The Land Rover Pope-mobile was pretty random, and not even in the Papal funeral exhibit, less random was the section on the history of embalming, which I knew a lot about already. (I blame reading “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”) The highpoint of their coffin collection, besides the one shaped like a KLM Jet, was definitely the one with at least a couple hundred dollars of silver coins and bills set into lucite. It looked like they were adding a new permanent exhibit on celebrity funerals when we visited, which should be pretty interesting. It’s not the biggest museum in Houston, but it’s definitely one I’d recommend seeing, you can see art anywhere, but there’s only one funeral museum!
Our next stop was the Rothko Chapel, which we’d heard a lot about, it’s always high on the list of must see places in Houston. It’s a non-denominational church with 14 black paintings by Rothko that were commissioned especially for the building, apparently he spent the last 5 years of his life working on them, and then committed suicide right before the building was finished. Personally I think a series of black paintings is probably not the most cheerful thing to work on when depressed.
I take Gretchen (our Chihuahua) everywhere, and when we go in buildings she goes into a carrying bag. So as I walk up to the door, she hopped in, and as we were looking at postcards in the lobby, which was as far in as I was planning on going, the person who was running the desk came in from outside and rather rudely told us to leave, even before I could buy a postcard. They also don’t allow pictures inside, (nobody was there, so we wouldn’t have disturbed anyone if we had taken a picture.) so our visit was kind of a bust. It’s also not that interesting of a building, It kind looks like a bland example of an electrical company substation, PG&E could have come up with something better. Apparently the process of designing it was not very smooth as it had 3 architects plus Rothko. It’s just kind of there, and if you didn’t know what it looked like you’d probably overlook it, until you saw the sculpture garden. If you are in Houston and the roads are driving you to distraction and you need a place to meditate, then this is the place for you, otherwise... meh.
I was warned about the sprawl of Houston, and it definitely lived up to it’s reputation. Houston is enormous, and really flat, if it didn’t have a downtown with tall buildings you’d have no point of reference. It’s a lot like a huge Sacramento, in that there’s no way you are walking between destinations. Like Sacramento, it would be vastly improved by a few million trees, they would cut the smog for one, and obscure all the freeways! Somebody should get on that.
The National Museum of Funeral History 415 Barren Springs Drive, Houston
The Rothko Chapel 3900 Yupon Street, Houston