Back to the future: Sleekly modern Bayou Bend visitors center pays reverence toits Hogg legacy
Editor's Note: A new 18,000-square-foot sleek and modern visitors center for the Bayou Bend Collections and Gardens will open Saturday, providing easier access and a centralized starting point to get to the estate of Houston-changing philanthropist Ima Hogg. In this series, CultureMap will examine the impact of the transformation, leading up to the public unveiling.
In this edition: The Hogg Family Legacy Room and some lesser known aspects of Ima Hogg's impact on Houston are given a closer look.
Bonnie Campbell, director of the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, knows a lot about Houston's revered Hogg family.
And so it was up to her to oversee the daunting task of cramming generations of family history onto four walls of text interspersed with a few choice artifacts for an exhibition space devoted to the family at Bayou Bend's sleek new visitor's center. The finished product, though condensed, paints a vivid picture of a family committed to giving back.
Ima Hogg, perhaps the best-known Hogg, spent much of her childhood in the Governor's Mansion, where her father taught her and her three brothers about the importance of public education and the arts. Although she grew up comfortably, it wasn't until her late thirties that she fell into the massive wealth that allowed her family to shape the future of Houston.
Ima and her brothers were left a large tract of land called Varner Plantation, which their father, former governor Jim Hogg, had specified in his will shouldn't be sold. Near the time his stipulation on the land would have expired, oil was discovered there. As with others made rich by Texas oil, Ima and her brothers felt indebted to Texas. They didn't consider themselves deserving of their newfound super-wealth, and famously asserted that inherited money was a public trust. They decided to dedicate it to enriching the state that had made them rich.
Campbell says that though she was famously polite, "my sense of things is that you didn't say no to Ima Hogg." She had a power of suggestion that compelled people to rally behind anything she deemed a good idea. Lucky for us, those good ideas included what is now DePelchin Children's Center, museums, public parks and public education. (You can't turn around at the University of Texas at Austin without seeing Ima's name on something).
She was socially progressive and fiercely independent, all the way until her death in 1975 at age 93 while traveling in London.
Most people cursorily familiar with the Hogg's legacy know the hand the family had in the development of the arts in Houston. The Hoggs founded the Houston Symphony and established the founding collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Will Hogg spearheaded fundraising efforts for the completion of the MFAH when it faltered, pledging $40,000 in family money to match $5,000 individual commitments from a dozen or so friends. What many don't realize is the interest (and influence) that Will, in particular, had in city planning. (If Will had his way, we'd have zoning).
The Hoggs established River Oaks in the 1920s, then outside the city limits, as one of the first master-planned communities in the nation. They believed that beautiful surroundings were essential to citizens' happiness, and the same devotion to green spaces inspired them to buy the land that is now Memorial Park.
The Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center is an extension of this ideal, and something of a culmination for Bayou Bend — it was one of Ima Hogg's last dreams to build a separate space for infrastructure and learning.
"It starts you in modern-day Houston and when you walk across the foot bridge over the bayou, you go from 2010 to 1928," Campbell says. "When you walk into the house you go even further back in time, to the 17th century.
"It's important in today's virtual reality to have a tangible connection to America's past."
That past lives on, not only through the Bayou Bend Collection and its new visitor's center, but through living links — through volunteer organizations connected to the family and through Alice Simkins, a life trustee at the MFAH and Ima Hogg's niece.
The Hogg Family Legacy Room beautifully communicates the family's civic ideals and their generosity to Houston — in public education, the arts, city planning, and mental health. Described by Campbell as a self-effacing family, one gets the feeling they might be embarrassed, if honored, by the attention.
Choice personal artworks (one of Will's Remingtons), jewelry (worn in Ima's most iconic portrait, and a selection from the MFAH Southwest collection) and the very first piece of Ima's renowned furniture collection are also on display. The visitor's center opens Saturday with a free event from 1-5 p.m. that includes music, performances, garden tours, colonial-era games and food.
Ima Hogg would no doubt to pleased to see such a fuss being made over art and green spaces.