Photos: Sean McNeely.

Photos: Sean McNeely.

A Much Wilder Place: A Review of Tom McNeely’s Ghost Horse

Thomas McNeely’s new novel, Ghost Horse (2014, Gival Press, 246 pages) is set in Houston in the 1970s. Not coincidentally, it’s a difficult book to read. The characters lead difficult lives, some broken by divorce and others shadowed by fear, child abuse, domestic violence. The lines between race and class are sharply drawn and harshly spoken; the novel turns when the main character, Buddy, a young boy whose parents are separated, plays a cruel prank on a friend and spits a racial epithet at him.

Much of the action takes place in the car, as Buddy, the novel’s main character, is shuttled back and forth between a private school where he struggles to make friends and his mother’s house near Telephone Road. As good as McNeely is at bringing Buddy’s confusion and frustration to life, as the boy tries to figure out whether he ought to align himself with his father, or mother, or both, or neither, he is even better at capturing the ambiguity of Houston’s built environment, especially in the neighborhoods near Telephone: “All the way back to his mother’s house,” McNeely writes, “past El Destino Club #2, where purple lights revolve, and Tellepsen Tool, where sparks shower night and day, and Andrew Jackson Grammar School’s cement playground, enclosed in a barbed-wire fence; past the orange duplexes at the end of his mother’s street, whose porch roofs sag like heavy-lidded eyes, where Mexican children stare at his father’s car, then vanish into the houses, or around corners, or under gutted cars.”

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Exterior of Creation Evidence Museum. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: Creation Evidence Museum of Texas

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series in advance of the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The road to the Creation Evidence Museum of Texas was blocked. Just outside of Glen Rose, the two-lane 1001 is crossed by the Paluxy River, which splits off from the Brazos a few miles away. I passed small ranches until the pavement ended and the road funneled down to a rocky ford. That morning, the water was running so high I had to put my Honda into reverse and take the long way around.

Just upstream from there you can see in the riverbed hundreds of fossilized tracks of the Paluxysaurus and Acroca­nthosaurus, dating back, most paleontologists agree, to the Cretaceous Period, the last era before dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. Dr. Carl Baugh, who founded the Creation Evidence Museum in 1984, claims that you can also see fossilized “man tracks.” For Dr. Baugh, these tracks show that Man and Dinosaur co-existed, refuting theories of evolution and proving that Earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago.

His Creation Evidence Museum houses a variety of objects thus appointed: fossils, Bibles, bones. The building, a two-story rock cabin with a peaked roof and walls of sun-stained Plexiglas, is long and narrow with an open plan on the inside. Perched on a short hill and shaded by a few trees, it’s flanked by portables and a prefabricated shed and backs up to the Paluxy. Dr. Baugh, a trained Baptist minister now in his late 70s, has said that the museum receives about 15,000 visitors a year, many of them making a kind of pilgrimage to see what he alone can show them.

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Paris. Photo: Rashed Haq.

Paris. Photo: Rashed Haq.

Love Is Everyday

One of the most intimate moments I’ve ever come across between two people is a personal anecdote the poet Mary Ruefle relates in her book Madness, Rack, and Honey. She describes finding herself in a Belgian taxicab on a Sunday night in 1969, when her driver began exclaiming something in Flemish, a language she did not understand. As the driver pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car, she recalled that this was about the time the Americans were supposed to land on the moon. When he pointed to the moon, she nodded, and they observed it together in silence for a few moments. Then they drove on.

Although these two strangers did no more than stand beside each other, the intensity of their shared awe is as moving as a joyous public display of affection between an affectionate couple. Our photographer here, Rashed Haq, whose work has been exhibited nationally in over a dozen juried shows in the last two years, talks about being fascinated by these couples’ disappearance into a universe of their own. In his series “Love is Everyday,” he is drawn in by their joint aura; sometimes even finding himself able to anticipate their shift into an increasingly private shared mental space.

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Menil Park. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Menil Park. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Best Places for Public Displays of Affection in Houston

In his seminal essay about Los Angeles, “You Have to Pay for Public Life” (1965), Charles Moore writes that Disneyland “is engaging in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California, whose only edge is the ocean and whose center is otherwise undiscoverable.” Phillip Lopate made a similar argument about Houston in his 1984 essay for Cite in which he describes our “almost sensational lack of convivial public space.”

Whenever Valentine’s Day comes around, I think about how public displays of affection (PDA) are a barometer for a healthy public realm. PDA shows that people feel safe and open to sharing beauty and joy. Houston has a sensational lack of PDA. You have to pay for public displays here.

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Draft Vision Statement. Source: http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/general-plan

Draft Vision Statement. Source: http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/general-plan

Opening Conversations on Houston’s General Plan

On January 28, Jennifer Ostlind, Manager of Development Services in the City of Houston’s Planning and Development Department, gave a short presentation of the draft vision (short) and goals (lengthy) for Houston’s General Plan at a packed meeting hosted by Houston Tomorrow. Should it be approved this summer by City Council, Houston will be one step closer to having its first General Plan.

While admirable in many ways, the extremely broad draft vision and goals do not reference land use policy and/or zoning – the usual tools of a General Plan. In fact, when the news broke last August that the city was going to create a General Plan, the mayor said, “planning does not mean zoning.” If a General Plan for Houston does not mean land use regulation, what will it do, exactly? The draft goals provide some clues but no clear answers. No maps were shown.

“Where is the meat?” asked one of the attendees.

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Front view through gallery window. Photo: Joshua Fischer.

Front view through gallery window. Photo: Joshua Fischer.

The SHOTGUN Show at Rice Gallery

SHOTGUN is on view at the Rice Gallery from January 30 to March 15, 2015.

Rice Gallery’s newest installation, SHOTGUN, offers a view into how density and civic space have been addressed in the past with shotgun-style houses, and how architects are breaking down and reassembling these ideas with an eye to the future.

The installation is the culmination of a course taught at Rice’s architecture program by faculty member Jesús Vassallo and visiting architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, principals of the internationally celebrated architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow in Tokyo, whose work is centered on dense, urban environments. Five shotgun structures, framed with local yellow pine, merge to form a star. Visitors enter and find in each wing a different, engrossing exploration into row houses.

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1906 Artesian Bottling and Manufacturing Company Building, or the Home of Dr Pepper. Photos: Allyn West.

1906 Artesian Bottling and Manufacturing Company Building, or the Home of Dr Pepper. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: The Ghost of W.W. “Foots” Clements

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series in advance of the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The Dr Pepper Museum is in the same building in Downtown Waco where the uniquely classified soft drink (it’s not a cola, it’s a pepper!) was first produced and bottled. The three-story Romanesque building, which dates to 1906 and survived the 1953 tornado relatively unscathed, was designed by Milton W. Scott, the most prominent and prolific of Waco architects. If anything, the building shows that we just don’t make ‘em like we used to. For a bottling works, it’s pretty and visually striking, with a jaunty turret and an asymmetrical elevation, stacked up in the rear with the smaller second and third floors that once held the distilled water and syrup tanks. The building also features these great burly arches, emphasized with roughly hewn voussoirs, that frame the doors and windows like the out-of-control eyebrows of white-haired philosophers.

Dr Pepper was bottled here until 1965, and the company donated the building in the late ’80s to the nonprofit that now runs the museum. It opened in 1991. Next door, the 1880s Kellum-Rotan Building, also fully renovated, houses administrative offices, educational spaces, and a boardroom. The museum, which has an operating budget of about $500,000 annually, is also home to the Free Enterprise Institute, “dedicated to educating students of all ages about the most successful and empowering economic system in the history of the world: America’s.”

It’s a truism that museums are dedicated to education, and I learned a lot at the Dr Pepper Museum about the carbonated soft drink. It also struck me as a kind of unintentional diorama of the division of labor and corporate hierarchical structures. You could cross-section the building, open it up, and show students of all ages roughly how American companies were made in the 20th century: Workers make things at the bottom; middle managers figure out how to package and sell it; and the head honchos make the big decisions at the top. For me, the experience of the museum was a story of these three stories. To wit:

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Humble Building. Photo: Allyn West.

Humble Building. Photo: Allyn West.

Stephen Fox: Plan for Humble Building Could “Save the Modern Landmark”

The police, we hope, save lives. But can they save historic buildings?

Mike Morris of the Houston Chronicle reports that “the city may move its police and courts operations into the Exxon tower downtown.” In recent weeks, City Council has struggled with how to accomodate a large police department housed in “crumbling” facilities. Instead of building expensive new facilities that would require a city-wide vote, the new proposal is to lease space in the Exxon tower.

Also from the Chronicle, Lisa Gray celebrates this plan as an alternative to an earlier proposal by the building’s owner that would have removed distinctive features from the 1962 building, originally called the Humble Oil Building.

In November 2013, Matt Johnson wrote for OffCite about that earlier proposal to give a facelift to the Humble Oil Building. “The building was once the tallest tower west of the Mississippi and is a great example of what might be termed climatic modernism: that is, architecture attempting to deal with Houston’s hot-humid climate through passive means,” Johnson writes. “Its most characteristic feature — a series of 7-foot-deep brise-soliel shades — will be stripped off and the floor plates extended to add ‘new rentable area’ and ‘lease-depths of 42 feet.’ Instead of the passive shades that currently shield and cool the building from Houston’s sun, we’ll get a high-performance glazing system (as well as roughly 100,000 new square feet to be air conditioned).”

On the recent report from the Chronicle, Stephen Fox, a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation and respected architectural historian, shared the following thoughts with OffCite:

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William Blake in Eastland, Texas. Photos: Allyn West.

William Blake in Eastland, Texas. Photos: Allyn West.

State of Museums: Outdoor Art in Eastland

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series in advance of the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The pièce de résistance of the Outdoor Art Exhibit in Eastland, Texas, is a 12-foot-tall cylinder painted to resemble one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. On the back is a paragraph on Pop Art. It’s located in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen.

Eastland is located about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. Named for a former Texas Ranger and one of Sam Houston’s lieutenants at the Battle of San Jacinto, Eastland was founded in 1891 and boomed in 1917 when oil was discovered. Since then, oil remains one of the prime economic movers, along with peanuts. The population has topped off at about 4,000. According to census data, Eastland comprises 2.8 square miles of land. The median family income is not quite $35,000. The town’s largest employer is a ductile iron castings manufacturer. The next is Walmart.

I reiterate these facts to suggest that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for Eastland to commit the resources to acquiring, then displaying, even a single famous painting. The town does have a museum of area history, located in a former bank building across from the county courthouse. Other museums are planned, including a “Dignitaries” museum devoted to the “Ladies of Texas” and an “Antiques” museum of the “Victorian era.” But there is no art museum. Why should Eastland, Texas, of all places, have one?

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Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence.

Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence.

Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence

Follow OffCite’s State of Museums series and the forthcoming issue of Cite. Use the hashtag #StateOfMuseums to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

An art exhibition on Gandhi could go wrong in so many different ways — too political, not beautiful, overly biographical. When the Menil Collection announced plans for a major program inspired by his life, I worried.

What set Gandhi apart from other twentieth-century revolutionaries was not only his adherence to nonviolent means but his embrace of a total political, cultural, and material alternative to industrialization. He wrote more about food and clothes than about governance. He obsessed over the proper way to bathe, when to sleep, whether to drink cow’s milk.

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