Travel Itinerary: Houston, Texas
Houston just might be the most surprising city in America. Yes, the eye-popping statistics about its sheer size are true: It could fit Boston, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle within its far-flung borders. But this sprawling Texas metropolis is large on the cultural and historical side, too.
Locals proudly spout off details about the city’s founding in 1836 by the Allens, two brothers from New York, on a plot of land near Buffalo Bayou. The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park features 10 restored buildings from different eras in Houston history, as well as rotating exhibitions that often highlight the area’s vast ethnic diversity. Art lovers from all over the world flock to see the jewel-like Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel.
Art also takes center stage at Project Row Houses, a community-based nonprofit in the Third Ward neighborhood that has rehabilitated old houses into exhibition space, studios, and workshops. Fans of Modernist architecture can find buildings by Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Gunnar Birkerts in Houston, not to mention an Isamu Noguchi–designed sculpture garden.
The booming energy and health care sectors have helped lift Houston’s economy; last year, Forbes magazine named it “America’s Fastest-Growing City.” Infrastructure is keeping up: A light-rail system opened in 2004, with two new lines added last year, and a 4-year-old bike share program, Houston B-cycle, is thriving.
Preservation got the scoop from three local residents—Emily Ardoin, buildings curator at The Heritage Society; James Glassman, founder of Houstorian, a preservation and history advocacy group; and Karen Lantz, an architect and founding president of Houston Mod—about their favorite spots to eat, stay, and visit.
Buildings Curator, The Heritage Society
EAT: The number of restaurants in Houston is mind-boggling—there are so many cultural communities here from different countries, and so much variety. On Bellaire Boulevard, there’s a big concentration of really good Asian restaurants.
STAY: The Lancaster Hotel [a Historic Hotel of America] opened in the 1920s as the Auditorium Hotel. Hotel ICON is in a historic bank, the 1911 Union National Bank, that’s been converted. Both are a few blocks from Market Square Park, in downtown Houston’s Historic District.
DO: The light rail takes you all the way down to the Astrodome, which everyone involved in Houston preservation is hopeful about. The Heritage Society is in the oldest city park in Houston and also has one of the oldest buildings in Houston, the Kellum-Noble House from 1847. That’s old for us! The Orange Show is a landmark. It was built from 1956 through about 1980 partly out of cast-off pieces from buildings being torn down. It’s bizarre, but really colorful and vibrant. The nonprofit that maintains it also maintains the Beer Can House, which is covered in flattened beer cans. I really like going down to Galveston, just about an hour from downtown Houston. On the way you have NASA, which you can visit.
Architect, Lantz Full Circle
EAT: The Pass and Provisions is in a 1950s building that used to be a deli and warehouse. It’s two restaurants with two James Beard Award–nominated chefs. One part is expensive and fancy, and then there is a casual part. Uchi is a sushi restaurant in another vintage building. Both are in Montrose, one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Houston.
STAY: As far as where to stay, my favorite is the Hotel ZaZa, which used to be the Warwick [a hotel that opened in 1926]. It’s a beautiful hotel right in the center of the Museum District, on the light rail. You get the beauty of Hermann Park and views to downtown.
DO: Hands down, you’ve got to visit the Menil Collection. Renzo Piano designed it and it’s a world-class building. It’s free! The Menil Collection Bookstore is across the street in a 1920s bungalow. You can also have lunch at Bistro Menil. On the Rice University campus, see the James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace. Go at sunrise or sunset. The Julia Ideson Building [part of the Houston Public Library system] downtown is incredibly beautiful. It’s classic elegant Houston and has won all kinds of preservation awards.
EAT: About 40 miles from [downtown] Houston is Gilhooley’s Restaurant, a little shack surrounded by live oaks on the edge of Galveston Bay. I love to go out there and eat fried oysters outside. When people come here they always want to go eat Tex-Mex food, but I like to remind them that Houston is a Gulf Coast city through and through.
STAY: For hotels I go toward older stuff. I’d say The Sam Houston Hotel [a Historic Hotel of America] downtown. There’s also La Colombe d’Or in Montrose. It’s a fun place for weddings, in an old mansion.
DO: Take a pontoon boat tour of Buffalo Bayou. The tours are run by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership and pass by Allen’s Landing, our Plymouth Rock. You get this wonderful tour of Houston, where you see the physical remnants of our history.
You can do high and low in the same day: Wander around the Menil Collection and then walk over to the West Alabama Ice House. It’s a former grocery store where people used to go to buy ice. It’s fun to sit outside on picnic benches and drink beer next to a college professor or a barber or a house painter. Everyone’s there.