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Will Houston Demolish Its Iconic ‘Art Barn’? [UPDATED]

by Laura C. Mallonee on March 10, 2014

arts barn

The Art Barn (all images courtesy of Rice University)

The city of Houston might lose a 45-year-old artistic landmark. Dubbed “The Art Barn,” the corrugated metal building at Rice University was constructed by arts patrons John and Dominique de Menil over 10 short weeks in 1969 to house the MoMA exhibition Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. A twin “Media Barn” was also built.

Though the unorthodox design by architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry (who also designed the Rothko Chapel) scandalized traditional neighbors, it spawned an entire “tin house” movement during the 1970s that even inspired Frank Gehry. For the next two decades, the Art Barn brought a vast amount of contemporary art into the city, helping put Houston on the cultural map. When Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox was installed here, the artist himself appeared to plant an oak tree out front. “It brought a sense of a completely new adventure for the city,” graphic designer Don Quaintance, a student at the time, told the Houston Chronicle.

arts barn 2Since 1987, the Art Barn has housed continuing studies classrooms, but in February the university announced its impending demolition. A university spokesman told the Texas visual arts blog Glasstire:

The old structure made of corrugated galvanized sheet iron has held up well since it opened in 1969, but it is now in very poor condition. It was never intended to be a permanent building on the campus, and the cost to restore the structure for any possible use, and maintain it, is prohibitive. The university plans to plant grass on that site. The tree that was planted by Andy Warhol in front of the building will remain intact.

The university declined to disclose renovation costs, and unsurprisingly, its plans have not gone down without a fight. Several open letters of complaint were published in the Houston Chronicle, in addition to an op-ed by Drexel Turner, a University of Houston architecture professor. He wrote:

There is, to be sure, no urgent purpose that would dictate demolishing the former Rice Museum post-haste to create a replacement “lawn.” It seemed to work just fine up until a month or so ago as a classroom building and it even has an almost-brand-new roof.

Plainly, it is disingenuous to say that the building has to come down, the sooner the better, when in truth, the cost of keeping it in some useful capacity cannot actually be very considerable. And, as the Chronicle article also rightly asserts, the Media Center benefits architecturally from the companion piece the Museum provides. The two are very successful incubators and merit not only the university’s forbearance but genuine commitment to their care and upkeep.

Those appeals might not have fallen on deaf ears. A source at Rice University, speaking to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to publicly comment on the situation, confirmed that the demolition, slated for today, has been postponed, and that the university is weighing a relocation of the Art Barn. The project manager has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Update, 3/11, 11:45 am: The Houston Chronicle reported last night that the structure was granted “‘a stay of execution’ for a week or two following an 11th-hour appeal by a group of Rice alumni who offered to pay to dismantle, remove and store the building until a new location can be found.”

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  • RobertWBoyd

    The only reason this structure might be saved is that it is difficult to present a demolition as a fait accompli. The demolition permit has to be filed in advance. The Rice University administration would have loved to have torn it down in the middle of the night with no forewarning, if they could have. (That’s how they handled to sale of the beloved student radio station, KTRU. One day they owned it, the next day that had sold it to UH for $8 million. Secret negotiations, no student, faculty, alumni or community input.) But with the art barn, there are rumors afoot that it may end up being moved to private property. It seems doubtful, but we’ll see.

  • http://glasstire.com Rainey Knudson

    Rice has granted a temporary stay of execution for the Art Barn after a group of alumni offered to pay to move it: http://glasstire.com/2014/03/11/brief-stay-of-execution-granted-for-houstons-art-barn/

  • Apelles1

    Given that this was built by the d e Minils , I imagine Rice can expect no more support from this powerful Texas family. I can also for see that potential donors to Rice will frighten them off with the potential of buildings being built in their name and then demolished. Ditto for art that gets de -ascensioned from Rice’s collection. Way to go Rice ! The administrations actions reiterate the expression “Dumb Aggie”

    • RobertWBoyd

      Rice doesn’t have all that much art it can deaccession. The Rice Museum, while it lasted, was not a collecting museum.

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