Maps, Ships and Architecture

Museum Builder

F. Carrington Weems II, Museum Builder Written and Edited by F. Carrington Weems II (May 2013)

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Did Carrington build the Contemporary Arts Museum?  Here are the facts.  You decide.

In 1948, Carol Straus and her friends founded the Contemporary Arts Association in Sam Houston Park, in Downtown Houston which was housed in a triangular shaped building.  Carrington joined the membership and was at Rice Institute in Sophomore Architecture.  We were on temporary ground and had to move the building to the Prudential Parking Lot across from the Medical Center.

Carrington was asked to a be a Board Member in the 60’s, and later became the Chairman, and Dr. Mark Moldawer became President.  They made a great team.  Mark put on ten (10) magnificent exhibits and Carrington managed the financial affairs of the museum and started looking to its future.  We were beginning to wear out our welcome at Prudential.  Carrington was made Chairman of the Land Acquisition Committee.

Around this time, Carrington found Wilson Burdett at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of New York, and hired him as our Director.  We had a director and MFAH was looking for one.  The architect S. I. Morris and Bob Mosbacher met with Carrington and asked him to fold the CAA into the MFA and bring our Director.  Carrington respectfully declined this questionable opportunity wanting to keep our identity and purpose.

During the same time period, Carrington asked Pierre Schlumberger to be on our Board (our Director, Burdett and Pierre both had Portugeuse wives).  Jane Blaffer Owen also accepted Carrington’s invitation to serve on the Board.  Pierre and Carrington set out to find a suitable location for a new museum.  They studied several possibilities.  Carrington contacted William Japhet who owned the family home at the NW corner of Bissonnet and Montrose.

Bill Japhet agreed to sell us this corner for $200,000 and contributed $50,000 toward a new building.  Carrington contacted George R. Brown who agreed to give us a grant of $150,000 to buy the property.  At the next Board Meeting, Pierre Schlumberger got up and pinned a paper medal on Carrington and immediately made a contribution of $30,000 to a new building.  Jane Owen contributed a like amount at that meeting.  Carrington was appointed Chairman of the Capital Campaign to build a new building.  A fundraising campaign was organized involving at least 300 people.  We had raised about $240,000, and had a celebration at Jane and Bob Mosbacher’s house.  At the beginning of the party, Carrington reached Pierre Schlumberger’s attorney in New York and he said, “I mailed you a check today to the Contemporary something or other.”  Carrington asked, “Could I ask the amount of that check?  He said Mr. Schlumberger had emptied his Anchor Foundation before leaving permanently for France (giving up his America Citizenship).

Carrington was then able to announce to the fundraiser success celebration that Mr. Schlumberger had sent $200,000 more to us as his parting gift which of course put us over the top, and we all cheered and had a night cap.

In all, Pierre gave us $265,000.  Meredith and Cornelia Long gave us, at Carrington’s request, the cost difference between anodized aluminum and stainless steel for the skin of our museum (probably $50,000).  Adolph Susholtz and his wife gave $12,500 at Carrington’s request; Mary Ann and Carrington gave $5,000, and many other friends of CAM contributed to bring our total up to $600,000, the amount needed to build the museum.

The board appointed Carrington as the Chairman of the architectural selection committee.  The committee selected five (5) nationally highly regarded architects and each one was interviewed in Mary Ann and Carrington’s living room at 919 Kirby Drive.  The committee unanimously picked Gunnar Birkerts who had worked with Eero Saarinen and Birkerts had designed some very impressive buildings.

CAM Houston 1970

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas 1970-1972

Then, we needed a chair for the building committee.  Guess who the Board picked?  We were off and running and Gunnar Birkerts was trying to have a glass skin for the building, using Corning Glass, which was developing a glass that would darken in sunlight and lighten at night so one could see in and one could see out.  Corning didn’t get there, so we decided on a metal skin.  At first, the metal skin (stainless steel) was smooth and flat, but when summer came, the steel would develop huge blisters from the heat.  That would not do at all so the manufacturer took down the steel and corrugated it, and put it back up and that’s what you see today.

Carrington worked out a contract with Paul Gervais Bell Construction Company to build the building.  It was a cost plus contract with a ceiling.  Gervais Bell did a magnificent job and came in slightly under the contract ceiling.

Before the planning for the building, Carrington had hired a new director whose name was Sebastian (“Lefty”) Adler.  Lefty put together what he thought would be a spectacular opening exhibit which he called simply “Ten.”  It went over okay with most of us, but for the more conservative Houstonians who had come to the museum for the first time at our Grand Opening, they were astonished and disappointed.  It just wasn’t their cup of tea.  So, we lost a chance to bring in an expanded source of new supporting funds for operating the museum.

The next day, we had a “dedication to the city celebration,” and Carrington as master of ceremonies, asked City Officials to speak, and also wanted to thank Pierre Schlumberger, who came from Europe for the event, for all he had done to make the museum possible.  He graciously spoke to us on cue and made a most humorous and light-hearted reference to one of the ten exhibits, which involved an environment of pigeons, roaches and mice in a New York City, tenement house.

Lefty Adler remained with us for a while.  Forward thinking and wise Jane Blaffer Owen thought the citizens reaction to “Ten” which blamed Lefty was highly unjustified.  Lefty went on to become the Director of the Modern Art Museum at La Jolla, California.  He was highly regarded there.

Carrington’s files on all of this activity at the Contemporary Arts Museum were requested by and are on microfilm at the Smithsonian.  Sometime later, Carrington hired Jim Harithas as the new museum director of CAM.  It is fairly well known that Carrington personally raised 82% of the money to buy the land and build the building partially due to his friendship with Pierre Schlumberger and having lived next door to George R. Brown for the first 20 years of Carrington’s Life.

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F. Carrington Weems II with William J. Goldberg, CAMH Director and Curator, August 2013

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Excerpts from The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s Book “Finders/Keepers.”  1997.  224 pages; 63 color, 151 black-and-white reproductions.  ISBN 0-936080-41-8.

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CAMH 1

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