Five Of Houston's Weirdest And Wackiest Buildings

Derelict Dairy Ashford-area orb palaces, exuberantly neo-classical freeway churches, and more.

By Michael Hardy and John Nova Lomax October 7, 2013

Houston's ongoing real estate boom has offered little in the way of inspiring architecture. All these Neo-Tuscan condos and faux-Mediterranean mid-rise megaplexes might get the job done as far as providing basic shelter and having tony Inner Loop locations, but the vast majority of them are about as satisfying and worthy of mention as an $8 bottle of CVS Merlot. Most developers in the Heights, River Oaks, Upper Kirby and Montrose seem content to wrap the city's streetscapes in the outdoor equivalent of doctor's office wallpaper, smooth jazz in stucco and Tyvek. None of them make you slow down and wonder WTF and smile...

Finding exceptions is getting harder and harder, but hey, that's what we're here for. I've come up with pictures of five of the most joyfully eccentric edifices in town and asked Houstonia arts editor Michael Hardy to add his comments to my own. And we'll also include the critiques of Houston's foremost architectural historian Stephen Fox, author of the indispensable AIA Houston Architectural Guide, now in its third edition.    

And we begin with...

Image: Google Maps

The Penguin Arms, 2902 Revere

Stephen Fox calls the Googie erstwhile apartment building "zany," and defers to John Kaliski for further comment: "It seems either poised for take-off or imploding even as one views it." Hardy sees it as "Philip Johnson’s Glass House after being crushed in a horrible industrial accident." I see the grill of an enormous late '50s Cadillac about to squash me, or a 1970s Cylon buried up to its head. 

Moving on, we have the...

Image: Google Maps

Chong Hua Sheng Mu Gong Holy Palace, 3695 Overture Drive

Fox gives us a thumbnail history of this derelict temple: it was intended as the centerpiece of a Hong Kong-based Taoist compound. (The sect's leader was deported, and the Holy Palace alone was all that was completed.) He continues: "The building's dramatic, stair-step section, cradling a gold anodized aluminum geodesic globe, imbues it with a science-fiction aspect in the midst of a partially developed multi-family housing community dating from the early 1980s." Hardy likens it to "LA’s The Getty giving birth to Epcot Center" and "Richard Meier and Buckminster Fuller’s illegitmate love child." I first encountered the Holy Palace five years on an outward-bound metro bus before walking the length of Richmond back downtown, and it was the strangest thing hiking buddy David Beebe and I saw all that day and night. Back then, there were two smaller orbs flanking the larger one (where did they go?), and I likened it to Hank Scorpio’s World Domination Command Bunker, while Beebe surmised that it might be the private residence of a very weird Saudi sheik.

Sticking with holy places, we have....  

Southeast Worship Center, 144-149 Winkler Drive

"Proclamation of the word is that this little church is all about," wrote Fox in his second edition, back when it was known as Freeway Baptist Church, even though it's not on a freeway. (Fox seems to have excised this entry from the newer one.) I call it the Church of the Open Book, while Hardy deems it "Postmodernism at its finest. A church that would stand proudly beside a Las Vegas casino. Or, a post office crushed by a giant bible—symbol of church versus state?"

One last holy place, this one actually on a freeway...

Image: Google Maps

El Templo Regional de la Luz del Mundo, 8312 Eastex Freeway

Fox reveals the Eastex edifices surprising historical forebear. He says that it is a "Mexican-Texan version of the neoclassical Church of the Madeleine in Paris and adds that it "astonishes with its marble Ionic portico, storiated pediment, and brazen gilded dome." (Barely visible above.) All in all it brings a "Baroque frisson" to the Eastex feeder road, he writes. I once wrote that it was "a giant, golden-domed slab of Greek Revival wedding cake," and like me, Hardy is having trouble seeing where God fits in amid all this over-the-top stentorian splendor: "The Supreme Court building as reimagined by Donatella Versace," he cracks.  

And we close with...

Image: Google Maps

Bellfort Square Office Building, 6711 Bellfort

Citing its anodized gold aluminum mullions, green aggregate precast concrete panels and warped penthouse, Fox calls this "one of the zaniest buildings in Houston." Hardy is equally dumbfounded: "Paging air traffic control! Only in Houston would an architect think 'what this generic office block really needs is an observation deck.'" I've always thought this looked less like an airport than a 1960-vintage train station in some place like Bulgaria or Novosibirsk, Russia.

So what is this list missing?  

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