Following on from the first part of this travel blog, we remain focused on the interesting and exciting things to do and see in Houston which don’t cost a penny. As befits such a large and iconic city, H-Town has many nature areas, churches and buildings that are free and open to the public to explore, as well as a great selection of museums and galleries that do not charge an admittance fee. In today’s world of social distancing, there is the added bonus that many of these attractions allow the visitor to enjoy their experience, while maintaining a suitable distance from others.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but over this and the following travel blog post we will detail, in no particular order, our favourite free things to do in Houston.
Julia Ideson Reading Room
The Julia Ideson Building is a gorgeous library built in the Spanish Renaissance style in the centre of Downtown Houston. The library houses archives, manuscripts, and the Texas and Local History Department. Designed by Ralph Adams Cram, the Ideson Building opened in 1926 as the Central Library for HPL. The real beauty of this building is the interior designs, and it is a joy to walk around.
Lanier Theological Library
Continuing the library theme, the Lanier Theological Library is one of Houston’s best hidden gems. The library can be found near the Willowbrook area of Houston and is located within a gated compound. You will need to buzz in at the gate, but don’t let that put you off, since you will receive a very warm welcome and an introduction to this stunning building and campus. Not only are the interiors of the library seriously eye catching, there are also small book exhibitions and a collection of ancient artifacts that range from Iron Age pottery to Roman currency. The Lanier Theological Library has obtained its own original fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls, not a facsimile. This fragment contains some of the Hebrew words from Amos 7:17 – 8:1. The library also has its own authentic Dead Sea Scrolls jar which is approximately 2,000 years old, having been produced between 50 BC and 50 AD. It is the only such jar in private hands in the United States, one of only four worldwide, with the others in Norway, England, and Bethlehem. It was excavated by Dr. Solomon H. Steckoll, a South African archaeologist, in April 1966.
As if the library wasn’t enough, there is also The Stone Chapel just outside, which is a reconstruction of a 500 A.D. church in Tomarza, Cappadocia. The Stone Chapel was built using photos of the original church ruins taken in 1909 as well as an analysis of the site by a Harvard student published in 1971. Typical of many Byzantine churches of that area, the church was laid out in the shape of a cross. Its ceiling has been decorated with beautiful images painted by Richard McCluskey. These images represent stories from the Bible.
Around the chapel and library, there are also a number of quirky art installations that shouldn’t be missed.
Waugh Bridge Bat Colony
The Buffalo Bayou Park is home to the natural experience of the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony. As the name suggests, the bat colony shelters under the Waugh Bridge, which crosses the bayou and the parks paths. The bats live in the crevices between the concrete beams of the bridge, which retains the heat perfectly for the mammals. If you visit the colony at sunset, you will see hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging. Most of these bats fly south for the winter, but a portion of the colony live here through the winter months. During the day, you may struggle to see the bats holed up in the crevices, but you will definitely hear them!
Cy Twombly Gallery
When visiting the Menil Collection, you should also visit the eponymous Cy Twombly Gallery, which was opened in 1995 across the road from its sister gallery. The works on view created by the highly influential artist Cy Twombly date from 1953 to 2004 and comprises many of his large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works. As well as the artwork, we were also very interested to see the architecture of the building as we are great fans the designer Renzo Piano. Maybe not as memorable as some of his other buildings, this was Renzo Piano’s second U.S. museum commission, and began with a design sketched by the artist.
Old Town Spring
Old Town Spring is a historic town with over 150 shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Many of the original buildings, some over a hundred years old, now house places to buy antiques, collectibles, clothing, and gifts. The town's name, "Old Town Spring," is said to have originated after one of the worst winters in Texas history when a group of tired railroad workers were so happy at the approach of spring that they named their new camp "Camp Spring." Old Town Spring is just a great neighbourhood to walk around and explore, one of the few places in Houston suited to see on foot.
The museums at the Houston Baptist University
The university can boast of not one, but three great museums. The Dunham Bible Museum, the Museum of Southern History and the Museum of American Architecture and Decorative Arts can all be found in the Morris Cultural Arts Center building at the Houston Baptist University.
The Dunham Bible Museum has an extensive collection of rare Bibles. On public display are ancient manuscripts; decoratively illuminated medieval Scriptures; examples of the earliest printed Bibles; the earliest Bibles in English; the earliest Bibles printed in America; Bible translations from across the centuries and around the world. For us, however, the most interesting Bible on display was the ‘Wicked Bible’ which was printed in 1631 and mistakenly omitted the word ‘not’ from one of the Commandments, so that it read “Thou shalt commit adultery”!
The Museum of Southern History chronicles the history of the South during the mid-1800s. The many cases and dioramas display the clothing, fine furnishings, uniforms, tools, and weapons of the people who settled in the region and how they rebuilt their lives after the Civil War.
The Museum of American Architecture and Decorative Arts display the social history and material culture of people settling in Texas between 1830 and 1930. The Museum provides a warm, intimate and friendly setting for the household furnishings and decorative arts which help the visitor appreciate the changes that occurred as Houston grew from a frontier settlement to a town.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Stafford
BAPS Shri Swaninarayan Mandir is a traditionally built Hindu temple and was constructed according to the ancient architectural scriptures of India dating back 5000 years. The stones used were quarried in Turkey and Carrara Italy, and then shipped to India where 2000 traditional artisans hand sculpted them. In total, 34,000 stone pieces were carved and shipped to the United States. Hundreds of local volunteers and artisans from Stafford, Texas put the pieces together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The Mandir was inaugurated on July 25, 2004 by spiritual leader, Swami Maharaj. The Mandir is available for public tours, but unfortunately when we visited, these tours had been postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis. Still, the building is stunning and well worth seeing from the outside. There is also a large canteen and shop where we could stock up on some yummy Indian delicacies as well as incense sticks!
Mercer Botanical Gardens
Mercer Botanic Gardens spans over 400 acres. The Aldine Westfield Road divides the property into the east side botanic gardens and the west side arboretum. The botanic gardens consist of over 60 acres of beautifully maintained gardens that feature bamboo, colour displays, daylilies, endangered species, ferns, gingers, herbs, tropicals, and more. The East Side also has an extensive walking trail system, a Remembrance Walk for memorials and honorariums, ponds, and a visitors’ centre. The gardens and arboretum were ideal for Ythan to run around expending excess energy and for us to chill out in beautiful nature.
Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall
The Dan Flavin Installation was unveiled at Richmond Hall just two days before his death in November 1996. It is a remarkably simple artwork, consisting of many different coloured vertical fluorescent-light tubes, but is very eye-catching, with it being described as both a carnival and a cathedral.
Byzantine Fresco Chapel
The Byzantine Fresco Chapel is just a short walk from the Menil Collection and hosts regular art installations. The chapel, however, was originally built in 1983 to house two dismantled Orthodox frescos which originally came from Cyprus. The frescos were restored and put on display, but by 2012, it had been agreed to return the frescos to Cyprus. On our last visit to the chapel, we were lucky enough to catch the Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project on display. This quirky presentation consisted of more than 450 reproductions of a lost 1885 painting of 4th century Roman Saint Fabiola by French artist Jean-Jacques Henner. The project was initiated by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs in the early 1990s and we were amazed by the small, but perceptible differences in each painting, which was reportedly an exact copy of the original.
Eclectic Menagerie Park
One of the quirkier free and not so well known of Houston’s attractions is the Eclectic Menagerie Park. The park is an open-air public museum created by the Rubenstein Family on the edge of their 108 acre Houston pipe yard. Numerous handmade metal sculptures by local and famous artists, handpicked by the Rubensteins’, line the edge of the yard along 288 South and West Bellfort Ave. The collection began many years ago when Jerry Rubenstein, Chairman of the Board for Texas Pipe & Supply, purchased a hippo sculpture from a statuary in El Campo, TX and placed it on the edge of the pipe yard. Shortly after a Rhino appeared, then Snoopy, and art pieces kept coming from there. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any dedicated parking for this attraction, so when driving on the 288 Freeway ramp going south towards Pearland, pass West Belfort Avenue and very soon after pull over onto the grass verge on the right. We weren’t very sure if we were breaking the highway code by parking there, but it seemed the only way to explore the sculptures closely. Please note, the sculptures in the photos here are HUGE! For example, the SUV and the Beetle are actual full sized cars incorporated into the designs. One more tip – wear shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit messy, as we found the that grass area in front of the sculptures was a little bit boggy in places.
Winter Street Studio Murals
We covered some of Houston’s street art in the previous blog post, but there is just so much great artwork out there that we had to cover it again, but this time focusing in on one particular concentration of murals. The area around the Winter Street Studios and Silver Street Studios has many great works of art and there is an added bonus that Holler Brewing is on site as well, so you can enjoy a pint after a hard afternoon of mural spotting!
Join us next time when our family adventures continue exploring Texas when we visit the charming town of Huntsville. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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