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Real Estate / Houses

Eye on the Past

The Menil House

BY Laurann Claridge // 03.16.15

The Phillip Johnson-designed, Charles James-decorated modernist home of Dominique and John de Menil is carefully — and courageously — conserved.

A house is not always just a house. In the instance of Dominique and John de Menil, their International-style River Oaks-area home, designed in 1948 by architect Philip Johnson and decorated by the legendary couturier Charles James, teetered on the edge of the avant-garde. The first private home that Johnson, a disciple of minimalist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was commissioned to design shocked many of the affluent neighbors ensconced in their chateaux and mock-tudor manses. They didn’t know what to make of its flat roof and plain brick facade, bereft of manicured landscaping that scandalously faced San Felipe, a roadway once primarily used by the neighborhood’s servants.

Menil

One would only have to look to Dominique de Menil for answers. An unpretentious, fine-featured woman who posessed an unself-conscious beauty, Dominique harbored a curious intellect and a contemplative nature. Her husband, Jean (who would later anglicize his name to John) de Menil, a decorated French soldier and former banker, joined and later became chairman of Schlumberger Ltd., an electronics company specializing in oil-exploration equipment founded in France by Dominique’s father and uncle. A member of the French Resistance, John was born to a titled French Catholic family of modest means yet, joined by his equally high-minded spouse, had the will to change society.

In a pivotal move that would alter the course of their lives, the de Menils were introduced to modern art by Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier. On a quest to find a place for the burgeoning modern-art movement in the Catholic Church, Couturier would come to commission buildings such as Le Corbusier’s famous chapel in Ronchamp and the Matisse chapel in Vence. He acquired the work of Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger and others for the churches of Audincourt and Assy in France. Soon after the de Menils befriended Couturier — his passion for art was infectious — they began a lifelong journey of their own, collecting works by Braque, Léger, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and postwar artists Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. In total they acquired one of the world’s largest collections of the surrealist work of Max Ernst and René Magritte, Byzantine and medieval art, and a cache of the native art of Africa, Oceania and the Pacific Northwest. Their zeal for collecting culminated in the acquisition of more than 15,000 pieces and the eventual founding of The Menil Collection, the world-renowned Houston museum opened in 1987 by the steel-willed Dominique, the widow who survived her husband by more than 20 years.

But before there was The Menil Collection, there was the de Menil house, the modernist Johnson structure that was home for five decades to not only the ever-expanding stash or art the de Menils collected, but also to the couple and their five children. Upon the death in 1997 of 89-year-old Dominique, the home was bequeathed to the Menil Foundation. In 2001, the foundation undertook an ambitious three-year preservation and conservation project, led by Houston architects the lateWilliam F. Stern and David Bucek of Stern and Bucek Architects, to return the 5,600-sq-ft house to how it appeared when the de Menils first furnished it. Essentially, the interior had remained unchanged, with the exception of art rotating in and out of the house. But after 50 years, like most structures, a bit of spiffing up was in order.

“We wanted to maintian the spirit of the house,” Stern said, at the time, “the way it was when it was occupied by the family. And that was very challending. There were many things we had to do. For instance, we had to replace the electrical wiring, the roof drains, plumbing — and that’s all very invasive.”

Set back from the street on three lush acres, its borders marked with a towering thicket of bamboo, this landmark was built on land technically incorporated as Briarwood, adjacent to River Oaks. The story goes that the recent émigrés, unsure in the late ’40s about the financial security of Schlumberger or their life in the States, told Johnson they wanted to situate the one-story house on the property in such a manner that if they needed to sell off a parcel of the land, they could — hence the decision to place the house in the center of the acreage with huge expanses of greenery in the front and back. With an entrance that is essentially a blank facade, the house’s salmon-hued brick walls seem to measure to infinity, interrupted only by a very un-Miesian anomaly: four windows, probably requested by the clients, added to the kitchen.

The house is “a very simple organization,” Stern said. “The rooms are organized around the courtyard, and in the original plans there was no dining room. Well, there was, but it was called the playroom.”

Armed with strong opnions, the de Menils were never shy about expressing them. “We have a letter from Mrs. de Menil to Philip Johnson,” David Bucek notes, “that said, ‘We want the entry to be large enough to set a dining table in.'”

In the foyer — indeed a room grand enough to accommodate several tables of 12 — there is a floot-to-ceiling, blue-and-white Yves Klein canvas. Here, Dominique and John entertained at dinner parties honoring artists such as René Magritte, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Max Ernst, as well as internationally known scholars, visiting filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard, and liberal-minded political leaders and activists in the civil-rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s — a cause that often made the vocal de Menils unpopular with many in Houston.

Menil
Sinuous banquette designed by Charles James; The three-paneled fireplace screen is a collage of cigar bands.

Stern revealed that in a recorded interview, when the subject of decorating her house came up, Dominique sad, “We know what Philip would have done: It would have been very modern furniture, something expected.” But the de Menils took everyone by surprise — especially Johnson — when they hired renowned couturier Charles James to fashion the interior. James was a temperamental clothing designer with perfectionist tendencies and peculiar work habits. At the urging of her husband, Dominique and later her eldest daughter Christophe became clients of James, commissioning him to create sculptural, timeless, one-of-a-kind gowns and suits. Today those gowns, still done up in their Charles James boxes and ribbons, are off view in the “treasure rooms” of The Menil Collection.

In what is believed to be the the only residential interior James ever designed, he insisted that the original low ceilings (typical of the International style) be raised 10 inches, to the displeasure of Johnson. Within the ever-changing, art-filled walls of the sharp-edged house, its gracious large windows and sliding doors open to a Southern exposure, James included pops of luscious color, sensual rococo-style furniture and custom-upholstered pieces of his own design. Arriving at the house just as workers were headed to lunch, James often labored late into the night, even employing young Christophe and her sister, Adelaide, to hold up lights and cardboard cutouts the scale of intended furnishings.

Never straying far from his penchant for dressmaker fabrics and textiles, James used plush antique silk velvets and humble wool felt dyed in rich ochre, subtle gray and deep rose-petal hues to line the back doors, upholster niches and create optical play off the mirrored doors in the corridor of the children’s wing.

Elizabeth Ann Coleman, a Charles James scholar who curated the seminal retrospective of James’ work in 1982 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, was brought in to assess what pieces needed to be repaired and which should simply remain as they were. Most painted or fabric covered walls, niches and doors in good condition were deemed “sacred” by the conservation team and left untouched, protected from the debris and hazards of construction by false walls build around them. The late Elizabeth Lunning, who was chief conservator with The Menil Collection until her retirement in 2006, recalled, “When I came out here with Ann Coleman, she was saying that Charles James was always picking up used fabrics. One thing everybody who sees these velvet-colored doors in the children’s wing says is ‘Why is there a seam down the middle?’ She thinks it’s very possible that it had a seam down the middle when James bought it.”

Sacred, too, was a drinks closet off the living room, festooned with miniature paintings by artists in their collection and shelves of barware — a mix of dime-store glasses and finer cocktail accoutrements. Perched on the shallow shelves: a half-dozen taxidermy birds that met their demise when they smacked into the expansive windows lining the back of the house. Also sacrosanct were the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the hallway, complete with rolling library ladder. Housing John’s philosophy books, French literature and art catalogues raisonnés, the Menil conservation department was careful to remove and then replace each book after construction completed, just as they found them.

And to the consternation of the Bucek and Stern restoration team, a firm hired to analyze the house’s original paint treatments revealed that “James wanted to use very lush colors, but at the time you couldn’t go to Benjamin Moore … an find them.” says Jhonny Langer of Source Design Studio. “So he hand-mixed a lot of these colors. If you look around on the walls … close enough, there are variations on the color. He might have put up color and, if he didn’t like it, change it midway.” Lunning notes that when the interiors were painted decades ago, rollers had not yet been invented. After closely inspecting the surface of every painted wall, it was decided that those which had not been repainted in recent years with a roller — surfaces where the hand-painted hatching brushwork was still in evidence — would be repainted in that same manner.

Today the preserved mid-century house serves many functions: as an archive or a space to hold special events and lectures. Yet one use this house will never serve, as mandated by the foundation and the de Menil heirs, is that of house museum. “The de Menils were very independent in the way they saw and combined and lived with art,” Menil director Josef Helfenstein says. “To them it was very spiritual and intuitive. And that is very palpable in their home today.” And although it be impossible to recreate the magical aura that once filled this house, for the lucky few who now walk through its fabled rooms and view the priceless, changing display of art, it feels — as the preservation team intended — as if the de Menils might walk through the doors any moment and invite you to stay for lunch or a nice long chat about Magritte.

Home, chic home.

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