Houston oilman's near-death experience spurs Holocaust Museum's new beginning
When Houston oilman and philanthropist Lester Smith lay recuperating in the hospital after a double lung transplant, profound questions of life and mortality ran through his mind — questions such as, “What would I do if I had another month, another year?" "What would I do if I had another song to dance with my wife?" "Did I do what God wanted me to do with the resources and personal gumption that God has given me?”
Almost a year later, Smith, who is just about fully recovered, and his wife, Sue Smith, dance on through life, but they also choose to find answers to those deeply human moral questions by continuing to give back to the community. Their most recent gift will allow one Houston organization that teaches lessons of hope within the world’s history of great tragedies — the Holocaust Museum Houston — to expand its mission and grow into the future.
In a recent unveiling event for dignitaries and supporters, Holocaust Museum Houston announced plans for a $33.8 million expansion of its Caroline Street building, with a $15 million matching grant contribution from the Smiths — a gift that museum chairman Gary Markowitz called “Texas-sized” and a “gift of miracles.”
During the announcement celebration and reception, HMH CEO Kelly J. Zúñiga made clear why the construction of the new building, designed by Mucasey and Associates with exhibition and media design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, is so important. As the community loses local Holocaust survivors through time, an institute that secures and shares their stories for the coming generations becomes all the more vital.
Into the Future
With a $49.4 million campaign goal that is now 73 percent secure, construction on the facilities will begin in the early fall, with the 57,000 square feet, three-story building scheduled for completion in early 2019. Two-thirds of the current one-story building will be razed for the new construction, so HMH will leave the current location on July 24 and move to a temporary facility at 9220 Kirby Drive that will open on September 5.
When completed, the facility will feature several new education galleries, including The Rhona and Bruce Caress Anne Frank and Young Writers’ Voices Gallery, which will give visitors access to electronic diary resources and The Human Rights Gallery, focused on human rights and incidence of genocide during the 20th and 21st century.
Art and beauty will, of course, also flourish within the new building, especially within the Moral Choices Hall and Jerold B. Katz Foundation Butterfly Loft, where gloriously rendered butterflies will float, symbolizing the 1.5 million children that perished in the Holocaust. The Samuel Bak Gallery and Learning Center on the second floor will display 129 works of the renowned artist and Holocaust survivor.
All together, the construction and expansion will create the fourth largest Holocaust museum in the U.S, quite appropriate and needed for the fourth largest city.
“We share the museum’s mission to leave a mark of remembrance in the hope of peace, tolerance and understanding to all who enter its doors,” explained Sue Smith of the importance of the Holocaust Museum and her family’s dedication to lead by example.
Near the end of his remarks Lester Smith told the celebrating crowd his personal motto is “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” something everyone involved with the HMH expansion project appears to be taking to heart.
“Sue and I feel so compelled to continue our longstanding support of Holocaust Museum Houston to create a beautiful and powerful place where we can teach from the past and look toward the days to come with the clarity that only comes from history,” said Smith, continuing always to look to the future.