Let's play a quick word association game. I say "Houston," and you say, "(Fill in the blank)."
You probably did not answer "quirky." "Astrodome," maybe, or "humid," or "We've got a problem." All solid, serious words that evoke the opposite of quirk.
But there's probably more quirk than you'd think. America's fourth-largest city (population 2.2 million) may not be a Berkeley, Austin or — pardon me, — L.A., but Houston has a passel of offbeat art sites. They're also off-the-beaten-path art sites (Houston's sprawl can make L.A. feel like Manhattan), but once you reach them you'll find the life's — and in one case, death's — obsession of dedicated artists and craftsmen, mostly away from whatever weather might plague you.
The Beer Can House: John Milkovisch was an upholsterer for the Southern Pacific Railroad; in his spare time, he was an artist whose influences seemed to have been Schlitz, Miller Lite and Lone Star.
Milkovisch was said to enjoy throwing back a six-pack or so each night after work in his bungalow in the residential Rice Military neighborhood west of downtown Houston. He is also said never to have thrown away a can, and by the mid-'60s, something had to be done. The solution: Cut the cans open, flatten them, weld them into sheets and tack them up like aluminum siding fit for Homer Simpson. This decorating project continued until his death in 1988 at age 75. Ripley's Believe it or Not! places the number of beer cans used at 50,000.
THE BEST WAY
From LAX to Houston Intercontinental Airport, Continental offers nonstop service, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United, US Airways, American and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $384.
WHAT TO SEE
Beer Can House, 222 Malone St.; (713) 926-6368, http://www.orangeshow.org/beer-can-house. Admission $2; open noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It is a permanent exhibit of the Orange Show Monument, 2401 Munger St.,
, which is now closed until mid-March.
Project Row Houses, 2521 Holman St.; (713) 526-7662,
. Admission free. Open noon-4 p.m. Wednesday-Sundays.
National Museum of Funeral History, 415 Barren Springs Drive; (281) 876-3063,
. Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for senior and $7 for children. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays.
"You've got to hear it too," says Barbara Hinton of Eyeopener Tours, who leads periodic excursions around the city's out-of-the-way art sites. Milkovisch also strung together the cans' lids and hung them like sheets off the house's eaves, effectively creating wind chimes. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, the click-clack-tick is audible from three blocks away. Some of his more delicate beer-can-art pieces have been moved indoors — Houston's climate can take its toll — and would be equally at home in a fine art museum. "Budweiser Curtain From South Wall of the House" (circa 1980) ripples like an ivory quilt.
Milkovisch almost certainly would have been bemused by the acclaim. A caption inside the house quotes him as saying, "Everybody thinks this is great. I wouldn't walk around the block to see this."
Orange Show Monument: The Beer Can House is administered by the same foundation that oversees the Orange Show Monument across town. The Orange Show is 3,000 square feet of architectural sunshine, a shrine to the favorite citrus species of postman Jeff McKissack (1902-1980). It took him nearly a quarter century (1956 to 1979) to build this site in the East End neighborhood, southeast of the city center.
American and Texas flags fly on conical turrets above the building, lending an air of a medieval castle, and whitewashed walls are adorned with cheery, candy-colored tile-mosaic slogans such as "Love me orange" and "We're glad you're here." McKissack filled the maze of indoor-outdoor spaces — from wishing well to decks — with found objects: wrought-iron fencing, unusual rocks, a concrete lion and wheels from farm equipment. In the open-air amphitheater, you might find yourself watching Shakespeare while perched on a tractor seat.
Project Row Houses: "Shotgun" is an architectural term for a house with a corridor connecting the rooms in a straight line from the front to the back door, as in, "You could shoot a shotgun through it." In the pre-air-conditioning days, this airflow was essential in hot climes such as southeastern Texas, and front porches helped foster a community atmosphere.
But by the 1990s, shotgun had taken on a more menacing meaning in Houston's 3rd Ward. Crime and poverty had left the neighborhood in what Linda Shearer, director of Project Row Houses, calls "terrible, terrible, terrible shape." A block of 22 shotgun houses from the 1930s had been abandoned and overgrown with weeds.
Enter artist and community activist Rick Lowe, who rallied organizers and volunteers to renovate the homes, and Project Row Houses became a mixture of workshops and galleries for artists in residence. Next came housing for young mothers and mentoring programs on such topics as managing finances and cooking. Shearer says it's what German performance artist, sculptor and politician Joseph Beuys called "social sculpture," transforming a society through art.
It's also become a prime example of how to improve a neighborhood without displacing people, as gentrification often does. Project Row Houses has since expanded to encompass a community garden, newly built housing with the cooperation of the architecture school at Houston's Rice University, a sculpture park, a boxing studio and the Eldorado Ballroom, where acts such as B.B. King entertained African Americans from the 1940s to 1960s, when the city's venues were segregated.
National Museum of Funeral History: On the northern side of Houston, in a nondescript office park a (comparatively) short drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the museum bills itself as "the largest educational center on funeral heritage in the United States and perhaps the world."
The museum's slogan is, "Any day above ground is a good one," and good it is. Its 33,500 square feet showcase funerary exhibits large and small, including historical hearses — a British Rolls-Royce model and specially decorated ones from Japan, Germany and West Africa — and Victorian mourning jewelry made out of human hair. A timeline of embalming practices dates to ancient Egypt, there's an exhibit of presidential funerals beginning with George Washington, plus a cheery video explaining the process and history of embalming.
Other treasures include a casket covered in coins, a horse-drawn funeral bus, a funeral sleigh and an open-backed "flower car" for the blooms funeral guests pile on top of the casket. My favorite was the ambulance-hearse, macabre for its dual purposeness.
Actually, macabre is a matter of degree here. As the museum's director, Genevieve Keeney, told me, "A funeral is a celebration of life." Nowhere was that philosophy more apparent than in the brightly painted "fantasy" coffins from Ghana, in shapes including a chicken, boat, an airplane and various forms of seafood.
Now, do you believe "quirky" and "Houston" belong together?