The thematically unrelated yet oddly complementary areas she and her husband, the Schlumberger executive John de Menil, focused on—surrealist and twentieth-century painting and sculpture, African and Northwest American tribal artifacts, antiquities from the Paleolithic to the classical, and Byzantine art—give the Menil Collection an intensely personal character, reminiscent of the renowned Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, with a comparable mix of quality and quirkiness that makes it impossible to confuse it with any other museum.
One key to understanding the Menil Collection’s magic can be found in the couple’s intriguing Houston house, where they combined severely reductive architecture with voluptuously sculptural objects decades before Piano’s luminous galleries were installed to similarly striking effect. The timeless time capsule of the Menil house, albeit in an imperfect state of presentation at the moment, is administered by the Menil Collection, which uses it for special events, and it is not open to the general public.
Apart from illuminating a significant chapter in American patronage and taste, the Menil house is an architectural landmark in its own right (Fig. 2). Designed by Philip Johnson in 1949—the same year he began his breakthrough Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—this was his first building for anyone other than himself. It was also the first modern residence in Houston’s staid River Oaks section, which caused some embarrassment to at least one of the family’s five children, the photographer Adelaide de Menil. “As a teenager I longed to live in a ‘normal’ house like everyone else,” she told me not long ago.
For the first fifteen years of Johnson’s career he followed the international style principles of his idol, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The Menil house relates closely to Mies’s flat-roofed, redbrick courtyard house series of the 1930s in Germany. Alas, this pedestrian adaptation lacked Mies’s sharpness, or even the élan of Johnson’s own Glass House (another Miesian knockoff).
Although the Menils were pleased with the external appearance of the finished product (and Dominique’s sister and brother-in-law were sufficiently impressed to order their own house from Johnson), the owners found the interiors disappointing. Never ones to be cowed by an architect, they took matters into their own hands and had four windows punched into the forbidding exterior. Later on they asked a local architect, Howard Barnstone, to add a steel-frame barrel- vaulted tent to cover the building’s central glass-walled atrium, which they filled with tropical plants.
When various architectural alterations failed to make the Menils’ house more livable, they turned to other means. Instead of following Mies’s textbook furnishing formula of his paired Barcelona lounge chairs, X-base glass-topped coffee table, Knoll leather-upholstered daybed, and Brno dining chairs (which his principal American follower used at the Glass House), they confounded Johnson by introducing furnishings antithetical to high modernism’s minimalist aesthetic.