Museum Worthy

When a pair of indefatigable world travelers and art collectors in Houston ran out of room to display their treasures at home, they built an 8,000-square-foot private museum next door.

A dramatic enfilade of lighted limestone arches sets an elegant tone for the private museum’s design, which includes four galleries.

The homeowners’ collections include hollowed-out canoes, tribal sub-Saharan African masks, root-wood carvings from India and other rare tribal totems. The galleries’ floors are made of indigenous mesquite wood.

Houston architects Joe and Gail Adams are celebrated for their sustainable orientation. Whether it’s applied to residential or commercial projects—it’s a given. In their 30-year practice they’ve done it all, but when the call came to renovate and expand a ranch residence, tucked away on 500 acres in the rolling bluebonnet countryside an hour outside Houston, there was a curious conundrum to consider. The owners, world travelers who insatiably collect art and artifacts from their peregrinations, had a special need: a place to house and display their collections. The solution? A private 8,000-square foot museum, right on the property with their home. “The clients are serious collectors, and believe it or not, all of this collection was in storage; they’d never really seen it before,” Joe explains. “The big issue, planning-wise, was how much is the museum part of the residence, and how much is the residence part of the museum?” The result, which gestated for more than a year from design to construction, is a seamless modern wonder that knits the museum’s new structure into the home renovation, making a beautiful case for genius loci, the spirit of place.

To characterize the homeowners’ collections as eclectic would be an understatement. Representing all seven continents, it’s a smorgasbord of African tribal masks, American Southwest sculptures, European altar pieces, Australian ostrich eggs, wild game trophies, a panoply of curiosities from exotic ports of call. Both Joe and Gail studied with 20th century architectural giant Louis Kahn, whose Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth was a crowning achievement. “Our sensitivity to light is absolutely fundamental in all of our architecture,” Joe says, “and it came from sitting at the foot of the master.” Accordingly, their design utilizes three large clerestory light monitors set in triangular dormers on the northern exposure of the museum, “slicing the sky” and flooding the interiors with natural light. One challenge was how best to showcase the museum’s large and diverse collections. They addressed that issue by designing enfilade galleries along an arcade of limestone arches, a “ceremonial circulation spine” that links to the residence. Joe adds, “The owner was so happy with the rooms, just in their bare, light-filled glory, that he brought all of his collection out, placed it in the middle of the rooms and said, ‘Here, you hang it.’”

One pulse point of the museum floor plan is the cooking galley, a gallery itself, which features exquisite La Cornue cooking platforms; the owners occasionally entertain friends and neighbors with soirees including cooking exhibitions and guest chefs. “It’s really quite the evening,” Joe notes. “You walk through Africa and Oceania, and then you have some exotic dish.” Joe himself is a native of Muleshoe, in the Texas Panhandle, and the Lone Star State is stamped on his DNA; he first worked at the firm of O’Neil Ford, the hugely influential Texas architect. And for him, a sense of place is essential. “Our idea was to give the clients an intimate understanding of the site, via the architecture,” he says. “With the renovation, the house has porches and extensions of interior rooms into the outside. The owners tell me, ‘We know our site like we never did before. And although we travel all over the world, coming home to this place is a new experience; we feel like we’re coming home to the essence of our land.’ We gave them another collectible, in the form of a building. The design process was another one of their travels, in a way. I think they realized that afterward—it was quite a ride.”