r
Real Estate / Houses

Inside The Menil’s Odd Montrose Bungalow

FotoFest’s Founders Thrive in a Unique Home

BY Rebecca Sherman // 07.31.15
photography Casey Dunn

Among the dozens of gray bungalows that line the Menil campus, only one is brown. Occupied since 1980 by a pioneering pair of photojournalists, Wendy Watriss and Frederick Baldwin, it stands out not just for its earth-tones and red door, but for the big ideas going on inside.

“We’re not sure why it’s the only one that’s not gray, or what that means,” says Watriss, laughing. But one thing’s for certain: Houston’s rich photography scene might not have existed had Dominique de Menil not offered them use of the bungalow. “We are in Houston because of the de Menils,” says Baldwin, who, with Watriss, co-founded the international biennial FotoFest in 1983.

Baldwin, the son of a diplomat, was born in Switzerland and grew up in Savannah, Georgia. He started taking pictures as a Marine in North Korea and later freelanced in Europe, shooting for National Geographic, Audubon and Town & Country, among others. He was the first to film polar bears underwater — his photos were later published in Life. Baldwin returned to his roots in the late ’60s to document the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

Watriss, who was born in San Francisco, lived in Greece and Spain as a child and began her career as a journalist stringing for Newsweek and The New York Times. As a freelancer, she covered the Prague Spring of 1968 and later studied photography in the early 1970s with renowned lensman Harold Feinstein.

Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin in the living room of their Menil bungalow, surrounded by books and objects brought back from travels. To the left of the fireplace, a leather case from Borneo and a mirror from Oaxaca. The painting is by a Bulgarian artist. The statue on right was brought back from Africa. The cushions on the chairs are from Afghanistan.
Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin in the living room of their Menil bungalow, surrounded by books and objects brought back from travels. To the left of the fireplace, a leather case from Borneo and a mirror from Oaxaca. The painting is by a Bulgarian artist. The statue on right was brought back from Africa. The cushions on the chairs are from Afghanistan.

They first met de Menil in the mid-’70s. “We were living in a camper on a farm in Grimes County,” says Watriss. They had been documenting rural black farm life 70 miles northwest of Houston — work that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their efforts caught de Menil’s eye, and she organized an exhibit of their photographs at the Rice Museum, where she ran a program for artists (her own museum would not open until 1987). Later, Baldwin’s old Mercedes hauled the camper to the Texas Hill Country, where the two continued to document rural life in Texas — in particular, Polish-German immigrants.

“When Texas A&M said they wanted to do a book on what we had recorded there, we decided it was time to move to the city,” says Baldwin. Rent at the bungalow was $400 a month. It has increased every year since then, Baldwin notes, “but it’s still reasonable given the area.” The two-bedroom house includes two smaller back houses, one of which was turned into a studio with a darkroom. “Over the years, we’ve printed whole exhibitions of our work in that  darkroom,” says Watriss, work that included her groundbreaking documentation of veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, the Ku Klux Klan and Baldwin’s early Civil Rights photos, which were mounted for a major show in Belgium six years ago.

Six books have emerged from the darkroom, along with countless images for magazine and newspaper articles and “every catalog since 1994 for FotoFest,” she adds. Visiting photographers from all over the world have borrowed the studio to print their work. Houston artist Suzanne Paul generated one of her most famous collections there, a series of portraits of artists and important figures in the art world, which were later exhibited at FotoFest.

The bungalow has also hosted innumerable visitors. “Between the couch and the guest room, we always had someone staying over,” says Watriss. “For the first 10 years, at least, we had candlelit dinner parties — Fred does a very good Italian pasta with good olive oil and cheese, and good wine. We’d have six or eight around the table.” They were museum curators, artists, writers, photographers and socialites: “Carolyn Farb, who is a big supporter of FotoFest; John Henry Faulk; Helmut Newton — we met him in Arles, France; Franco Fontana; Molly Ivins, who was our editor at the Texas ObserverThe New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson; and Dominique and (her children) Adelaide and Marie- Christophe. They all visited,” she says.

Fred, seated in the living room with a digital Sony 600 camera, which he uses for casual photography.
Fred, seated in the living room with a digital Sony 600 camera, which he uses for casual photography.

The dining table no longer plays host to luminaries, but to the detritus of their numerable projects. “It’s been converted to a computer work station for FotoFest, Fred’s books and our personal projects,” Watriss says. “Every flat spot in the house is now full of books,” including the sofa and guest bedroom. “With 200,000 people attending FotoFest, there’s no time for dinner parties.”

The bungalow and its lush environs remain an inspiration. “The front of our house looks out over the Rothko Chapel park,” Baldwin says. “Then there is the big park to the east side, with lots of trees, where you see so many young people enjoying the green space, sunning themselves. It’s really quite remarkable. Our backyard is left in a semi-tropical state with all kinds of wildlife — possums, raccoons, birds.”

Behind the bungalow on Richmond Avenue is the Dan Flavin Installation and soon-to-be built Menil Drawing Center. “When people come to this house, they always say what a beautiful area it is,” says Watriss. The bungalows and campus captivated an arts funder from Dubai, whom the couple recently invited to visit. “He was inspired to go back and create something similar in the Emirates,” says Baldwin. “If there is another place like this in the world, I don’t know about it.”

FotoFest now has eight fulltime employees, including Baldwin, who is chairman, and Watriss, its curator. Executive director Steven Evans was appointed to allow them more time to travel and promote the biennial. In July of 2014, the couple headed to Abu Dhabi, where photos from the 2014 FotoFest were in the fine arts festival. London, San Francisco and China are also on their upcoming itineraries. “We are in negotiations to create another FotoFest in Shanghai,” he says. “It’s very much a Menil-like idea — a permanent event that would involve China and other Far Eastern countries.” Plans for the 2016 biennial are no doubt spread across their dining-room table. “The theme is the future of the planet,” Watriss says. “We want to bring together the best work and best ideas, vis-à-vis the preservation and improvement of the environment. We’ll have conferences to look at policy making, some 3-D installations and wallhung work, performances and film. What we hope to do is inspire new thinking.” And, of course, stimulate activism.

[Editors’ note: This story originally appeared in the Houston March 2015 issue of PaperCity Magazine.]

Home, chic home.

Featured Properties

X