Mention Houston, Tex., and most people think of stifling heat and bull-riding rodeo cowboys. Well, that's in the spring and summer. In the fall, the weather is pleasant, and there's nary a bucking bovine in sight, which makes it a perfect time to check out the city's lesser known cultural treasures.
From September through November, Houston enjoys a period of relatively low humidity and highs ranging from 60F to 80F. Relieved of the steam-bath conditions of summer, natives resume walking the city's many oak-lined streets, and restaurants reopen their patios for outdoor dining. A perfect time for leisurely strolls and meals al fresco in Montrose. Minutes from downtown, the neighborhood is akin to New York's Greenwich Village -- only the trees are more abundant and dripping with Spanish moss.
This bohemian enclave is where Dominique de Menil, who died last year, devoted much of her energy and fortune (from Schlumberger Ltd., the oil-services company co-founded by her father and uncle) to creating a sanctuary where the public could experience the spiritual possibilities of art. Her belief that "through art, God constantly clears a path to our hearts" led her to create four devotional spaces that attract more than 70,000 pilgrims per year.
ROTHKO'S LAST. Tucked unassumingly among trim bungalows where Dominique de Menil's foundation houses aspiring artists are two chapels, a museum, and gallery. Shaded by 100-year-old oak trees, the nondenominational Rothko Chapel is a somber, octagonal building that contains 14 huge, plum-colored paintings by Mark Rothko, his last before commiting suicide in 1970. Around the block is the Byzantine Chapel, a larger-than-life reliquary showcasing two 13th century Cypriot frescoes that de Menil ransomed from art thieves in 1983.
From there, walk 100 yards to the Menil Collection, which houses Byzantine and Modern art as well as ancient art from the Paleolithic to post-Classical period, and Pan-American, African, and Pacific tribal art. Although the collection includes over 15,000 works, only 10% are on view at any one time. The installations change frequently, so every visit is liable to be a different experience. The Menil Collection and the adjacent Cy Twombly Gallery -- which displays 40 major works completed by the Abstract Expressionist since 1954 -- were designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano to encourage contemplation. And they do, with interiors as sparse as monasteries and benches that look like pews in front of the paintings and sculpture. The art always seems to have a hallowed glow thanks to glazed skylights that are mechanically louvered to control the intensity of the Texas sun.
Differing markedly from Dominque de Menil in taste but rivaling her generosity to Houston was Ima Hogg (1882-1975), daughter of the rabble-rousing former Texas governor, James Hogg. In 1957, she left the city her 14-acre estate, called Bayou Bend, fully furnished in Early American antiques. Smaller in size but similar in quality, the collection is often favorably compared to Winterthur, Henry DuPont's famous house museum in Delaware. Located in a tony residential section of Houston known as River Oaks, Bayou Bend features furniture, paintings, silver, and ceramics from craftsmen who lived from 1640-1870. Guided tours are an hour-and-a-half, and guests are encouraged to roam the surrounding formal and informal gardens afterward.
BEYOND FUZZY DICE. In the mood for a little pop culture? Head to the Art Car Museum, another often overlooked Houston landmark. This collection of funky autos includes a furry, white bunnymobile and a 1982 Chevrolet Monte Carlo known as the "Swamp Mutha," featuring stuffed alligators and ducks among its many hood ornaments. The museum -- a chrome and stainless-steel construction that looks like a contorted bumper -- grew out of Houston's annual art car parade that attracts some 200 entries from all over the U.S. Owners lend their quirky cars to the museum for exhibition on a rotating basis.
If these cars aren't peculiar enough, tour the vintage hearses at the National Museum of Funeral History, founded by Robert Waltrip, CEO of funeral industry giant, SCI Corp. Among the vehicles on display are an 1860 gold-trimmed German hearse and a 1916 Packard "funeral bus," which was designed to carry the entire funeral procession. Also interesting are folk art coffins from Guiana, West Africa. The Ga people there bury their dead in colorful coffins that reflect the life just ended. For example, a casket that looks like a giant lobster was meant for a fisherman, and an enormous chicken would have been for a "mother hen" type. Clearly, Houston isn't just a bunch of bull.