CultureMap Video

The most romantic house ever: Historic lovebirds nest comes with a cursed chandelier

Most romantic house ever: Historic lovebirds nest has a haunted touch

Darling,

I haven't stopped for a minute so there's been no time to write. But I thought about you, and wished for you; in fact, I don't approve of the way I miss you!

I bought the figure of the girl with the grapes and the baby. It is gorgeous, I think; if you do too, I think it would be super in the middle of the hall. It is really beautiful from every angle.

I love you,

Guess who.

Pass the tissues, a box of bonbons and a gallon of ice-cream: This tender letter written by Harris Masterson III to his wife, Carroll Sterling Cowan, dated Sept. 15, 1952, is in a different league when compared to make-believe romantic charades common in television drama nowadays. No Shondaland fantasy holds a candle to an affectionately handwritten note that was never intended for others to see.

When he wrote this letter, Harris Masterson had taken leave from Houston to gallivant through Europe, in part to shop for items for their architect-designed home at 1406 Kirby Drive.

Carroll must have trusted his impeccable taste. How else does one justify allowing a Texas gent to decide on such significant decorative purchases?

The residence is best known today as Rienzi, nicknamed after Harris Masterson's grandfather Rienzi Melville Johnston. The home was bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which welcomed the public for the first time in 1999 when curators morphed the building as a satellite destination to house a sparkling collection of European decorative arts.

 Rienzi Begins heightens the heartwarming relationship between two lovebirds as they built their dream home — shall we say party house?

But as a cultural institution that's experienced by visitors with certain air of formality, it's often the case that the true story of how Rienzi came to be — one that's filled with emotional and amusing anecdotes — takes a backseat to the provenance of the items on display.

A new exhibition, titled Rienzi Begins: Architect John F. Staub and the Mastersons, on view through Jan. 31, 2014, calls attention to the decisions that shaped this mid-century River Oaks address and the important players who made it happen. Through hand-drawn sketches, architectural schematics, photographs and private correspondence gathered from the MFAH Archives and the Woodson Research Center at Rice University, Rienzi Begins heightens the heartwarming relationship between two lovebirds as they build their dream home — shall we say party house?

The marble sculpture mentioned in the letter is one of the collection's most impressive pieces. Giovanni Maria Benzoni's 1866 Young Dionysus with a Nymph — plausibly a classic nod to the couple's penchant for social affairs — anchors a skylight-kissed octagonal foyer with floors adorned with marble inlays, its walls coddling built-in displays teeming with delicate glass figurines.

The couple, who married in 1951, tapped notable Houston architect John F. Staub to design a Palladian home with contemporary accents on a four acre parcel of land that was purchased from Ima Hogg. Staub, who designed some 30-plus homes in the luxe neighborhood, took rough diagrams from the Mastersons to outline his renderings. Prominent landscape architect Ralph Ellis Gunn was hired to lay out the formal gardens.

As part of the exhibition, Rienzi debuts an original bathroom designed for the Mastersons' teenage daughter Isla Reckling. Bathed in Norwegian rose marble flooring, countertops and walls, the bathroom was by period standards quite posh. Creating a playful mood are swan-themed plumbing fixtures sourced from Midtown Manhattan, which are still available today, and a floor-to-ceiling glass door that opens to a poolside veranda.

Take a moment to watch the CultureMap video above in which Rienzi director Katherine S. Howe and curatorial assistant Caroline Cole walk through the exhibition and tell stories that include a potentially cursed regal chandelier.

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Rienzi Begins: Architect John F. Staub and the Mastersons is on view through Jan. 31, 2014, at Rienzi. Admission Wednesday through Sunday is $8 adults; $4 MFAH members; $5 senior adults, youth (10–18) and students with ID. Children 9 and younger are admitted free.

Harris and Carol Masterson Wedding Rienzi
Harris Masterson III and Carroll Sterling Cowan on their wedding day. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Today, the home houses the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's European decorative arts collection. Photo by Joel Luks
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Harris Masterson traveled through Europe in search for decorative items, including this chandelier. Photo by Joel Luks
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Giovanni Maria Benzoni's 1866 Young Dionysus with a Nymph anchors a skylight-kissed octagonal foyer. Photo by Joel Luks
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
As part of the exhibition, Rienzi debuts an original bathroom designed for the Masterson's teenage daughter, Isla Reckling. Photo by Joel Luks
Harris and Carol Masterson Wedding Rienzi
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Rienzi Joel Luks Video
Rienzi Joel Luks Video