Cliff Notes

How Nancy Allen's magnificent obsession gave Houston a building worth shouting about: The Asia Society Texas Center

How Nancy Allen's magnificent obsession gave Houston a building worth shouting about: The Asia Society Texas Center

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Nancy Allen, right, in a traditional Korean gown, with Louisa Sarofim, left, and Yoshio Taniguchi, center, during the architect's visit to Houston in 2010. Photo by Jenny Antill
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"When I walk through the building I just have a feeling of beauty," Allen says. Photo by Paul Hester/© 2011 Hester + Hardaway
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Fortunately for Houston's cultural arts scene, women have continuously stepped up to make things happen. Dominique de Menil created a museum for her collection that has garnered the city international attention; Caroline Wiess Law's impact on the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — in both her record-setting financial donations and artwork — has been transformative.

Now native Houstonian Nancy Allen, a 75-year-old dynamo, has come forward as the guiding force behind the new Asia Society Texas Center, the most architecturally-stunning building to be built in the Bayou City in a generation. The serene structure designed by noted Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi opens to the public with an official dedication on Saturday, along with an open house all weekend. Other activities include the annual Tiger Ball tonight and a cocktail party Friday night.

Allen, who recalls that she was head cheerleader at Lamar High School in 1954 when it won the state football championship, modestly maintains she is simply a cheerleader for the new building. She credits others, including her son Eddie and the many foundations and individuals who have supported the project, for making it happen. 

 "When you have a passion and you're willing to put your heart and soul into it, you just keep taking steps and people come right along."

 But few believe it would have been built without her. In addition to donating more than $15 million towards the $48.4 million cost of construction, she has cajoled foundations and personal donors for donations and worked closely with Taniguchi to create a building that doesn't compromise on quality.

"When you have a passion and you're willing to put your heart and soul into it, you just keep taking steps and people come right along," she said during an interview at the new building on Wednesday.

It started with a conversation

Allen's passion for the project began, surprisingly enough, around the breakfast table of her home in 2001. Her son and daughter-in-law, Chin Hui, have two daughters who raised a question she had never thought about. "I have these two beautiful Asian-American grandchildren. And one of them said, 'Mama Bear, if we had been born before Martin Luther King, we would have had to sit in the back of the bus.'

"I couldn't get that out of my mind," Allen recalled. "I just made my mind up that I really wanted to honor their Asian background. I thought I don't want to just honor it with a name on a plaque. I want to build a building. And I want people to look at that building and say what is that? You'll say it's the Asia House; it will have education programs, dance, music, exhibitions, forums, all kinds of things to educate Asians and Americans all about each others' culture."

 "The elephant in the room with any project is money. You can have a project and it will sit on the table until someone is 1) willing to give money and 2) is willing to raise money."

 As it turned out, an organization in Houston, then known as Asia House, was considering a new building and greater presence in the Bayou City. Soon afterward, oilman Roy Huffington, the former ambassador to Austria and former chairman of the board of the national Asia Society, hosted a luncheon to discuss ideas.

Allen said she would donate $250,000 to get the project going and would match the donations of the same amount from up to five people. Huffington, Fayez Sarofim, Louisa Sarofim and Albert Chao took her up on her offer.

"The elephant in the room with any project is money. You can have a project and it will sit on the table until someone is 1) willing to give money and 2) is willing to raise money," Allen said.

With that seed money land was purchased at Southmore and Caroline in an area of the Museum District primed for growth and the search for an architect to design a $20 million building began. Allen and Huffington co-chaired the architecture committee, which, after an exhaustive process, chose Taniguchi, who was completing a much talked-about renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Asia Society Texas Center is his first free-standing project in the United States.

"This is when you say timing is everything," Allen said. "I think having had such a big project, our little one appealed to him."

Attention to detail

Costs for the Asia Society Texas Center rose as Taniguchi, who is known as a perfectionist, pushed for high quality materials and detailed craftsmanship. Allen became his champion.

"He's not at all prickly; he's just demanding. He has a commitment to a project. Every single detail is amazing. He has such high standards," Allen said, pointing to the way that the lines in the limestone walls match up with the lines in the balsatina stone floor in the main foyer as one example.

In some ways Allen feels a kindred spirit with Taniguchi, who at 74, is one year younger than she is. "I share his vision of simplicity and purity. There's an honest integrity about his work that I adore," she said.

"When you walk through this building, there is a spiritual serenity that comes from the proportion and balance and simple materials and clean lines. It has a beauty that's felt in your heart, and that's just about the best thing I can say."

 "When you walk through this building...it has a beauty that's felt in your heart, and that's just about the best thing I can say."

 As a member of Houston's old guard society, Allen has participated in lots of fundraising drives for good causes over the years and "I hated it," she admitted. "I hate to ask someone for money, but for this project it was never a problem. I was so convinced that we were building something beautiful, I was giving them an opportunity."

Allen believes the timing is right for the building, as Asia has exploded both culturally and economically. "Having the center will bring great diversity to our city. And this is great for the Museum District. The building is actually art, it's not just a regular building. That raises the bar," she said.

Allen admits that the project filled a void after the death of her husband in 1990. "Nothing has been better for my life than being involved in this project," she said. "Someone asked me if I would do it again and I said, YES. When your world opens up, it's such a wonderful adventure that you get so much from it."

But she's not finished yet. "It's only half over," she said. "We've got a building but we don't have an endowment. We have to have fabulous programs to equal the quality of the building. That takes money."

She looks around the museum, mentioning dozens of naming opportunities that are available to donors. "There's opportunity," she says sweetly but emphatically.

The adventure continues.