Houston’s Menil Park makes a distinct and unique impression on every person who visits the prized green space. It’s a picturesque setting for family picnics, a fresh date spot for singles and a peaceful expanse for walking dogs.
For art lovers, it’s a destination with free art museums and lectures. For festival fans, it’s the site of cool, small-scale events. For epicureans, it’s an escape to pair great views with wine and dining. And for spiritual seekers, it’s a place to relax after meditating at the adjacent Rothko Chapel.
If you haven’t visited Menil Park or it’s been a while, read on to discover all there is to love about it.
Federico Bauder relaxes in a Menil Park tree while his dog, Cookie, plays with another dog. Bauder comes to the Houston, Tex., park, part of the grounds of the Menil Collection, almost every day with Cookie to find quiet and think.
Mark Mulligan/Staff photographer
Menil Park offers the perfect setting for picnics and a stroll
Menil Park is 1.5 acres of sculpture-dotted green spaces just west of the University of St. Thomas. It’s bounded by Branard, Mulberry, Sul Ross and Yupon streets, and surrounded by art museums and the Rothko Chapel.
This urban oasis is tucked in a quiet neighborhood of early 20th-century bungalows where Houston’s Montrose community and the Museum District meet. The 30 acres of the Menil campus feature inviting lawns, trails, shady oak trees, magnolias and crepe myrtles—along with outdoor sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, Michael Heizer and Jim Love, whose giant playing jack is a family favorite. Mark di Suvero’s large steel Bygones sculpture, has literally X-marked the spot since the park, along with the Menil Collection building, opened in 1987.
Designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg, the park’s walking trails, benches and picnic areas activate Dominique and John de Menil’s original concept of the total cultural experience to be enjoyed by everyone.
“Part of Menil Park’s charm is its informality. It feels like an expansive yard,” said Melissa McDonnell Lujan, the Menil Collection’s Director of Project Development. “The landscape is largely a Saint Augustine lawn and a collection of trees, including live oak, bur oak, nuttall oak, overcup oak, pecan, bald cypress and yaupon.” A grove of fig trees creates a little wonderland where children play. And, each spring a mass of wisteria blooms purple.
Swing on the red swing suspended from a huge live oak
The swing is one of 200 swings installed worldwide as part of the Red Swing Project created by University of Texas architecture students to inspire playfulness.
Explore The Menil Collection, gifts to the city from a remarkable power couple
Dominique and John de Menil left Paris during WWII and eventually relocated to Houston, where Dominique’s father, Conrad Schlumberger, had established a petroleum-related business.
Menil Park and the art campus sprung from the de Menil’s mission to expand the cultural resources of their adopted city. The couple’s Houston home overflowed with art they collected, and they had a salon to which they invited artists and other creative talents. According to the Menil Collection, John died in 1973, and, “A decade into her widowhood, Dominique engaged Renzo Piano, then known as one of the architects of the high-tech and colorful Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, to design the museum she and John envisioned.”
Italian architect Piano made his American debut with The Menil Collection. Dominique de Menil directed him to design a museum that was “small on the outside yet large on the inside.” Low-profile to blend into the neighborhood, the contemporary building’s big windows illuminate the single floor of galleries. Mrs. de Menil chose pine instead of hardwood floors, so wear from foot-traffic would add character over time.
At the Menil Collection’s campus, see the Dan Flavin Installation of illumination art at Richmond Hall.
The main building, built to share the de Menils’ art collection with the public, holds nearly 20,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books. Marvels include works by Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Jackson Pollock, prehistoric Cycladic figurines, African ceremonial carvings and lively special temporary exhibits honoring icons from multi-media artist Niki de Saint Phalle to curator Walter Hopps. Check the calendar for free tours, curator talks, local history lectures, receptions and other events.
The Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall fills a building constructed in 1930 that once housed a grocery store. When Flavin, who sculpted works from standard fluorescent tubes and other items from hardware stores, was commissioned to create artwork for this building, he had full creative control. Choosing not to alter the original structure, he designed three pieces: a green light sculpture on the exterior, two sets of daylight lamps in the lobby, and a large rainbow light sculpture illuminating the interior space.
Opened in 2018, the Menil Drawing Institute fosters the study and appreciation of modern and contemporary drawings.
The understated serenity of the exterior of the Cy Twombly Gallery, part of Houston’s prized Menil Collection, belies the noisy, exuberant paintings within.
Inspirations for Twombly’s calligraphic paintings in the Cy Twombly Gallery span ancient Mediterranean history to Greek and Roman mythology. For this building, architect Renzo Piano collaborated with a Galveston sailmaker to create scrims that filter the light over each ceiling, producing a Mediterranean glow on the plain plaster walls.
Looking for a memento to fondly recall time spent touring The Menil Collection? Find jewelry and artwork by Texas-based artists and cool children’s books and toys in the Menil Collection Bookstore.
Find it: The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St., Houston, TX 77006; 713-525-9400
Wine and dine at Bistro Menil
If you’re looking for a place to dine during your visit, enjoy European-inspired fare, craft beer and a thoughtfully curated wine list at lunch, happy hour and dinner Wednesday through Sunday, and at brunch on Friday and Saturday at the Bistro Menil. The dining room and patio overlook the park.
Find it: Bistro Menil, 1513 W. Alabama St., Houston, TX 77006; 713-904-3537
Ponder and meditate at Rothko Chapel
Rothko Chapel, a separate organization from The Menil Collection, is located on the edge of the Menil campus. This ecumenical center is walled with atmospheric Rothko paintings. It’s free to enter the chapel, so be sure to save some time to wander inside and around the reflecting pool, as well as appreciate Barnett Newman’s 25-foot-tall Broken Obelisk sculpture, which is dedicated to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Find it: Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon St., Houston, TX 77006; 713-524-9839
BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer) event at Menil Park.
Aurora Picture Show
Attend fun events at Menil Park
The Menil Collection’s annual Neighborhood Community Day is free to all. You can even show off your own visual art during BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer) evenings. (Beamer is a Euro term for devices that beam images onto a screen). Attendees are invited to project their own video, film, overhead projector or slide imagery on The Menil Collection’s facade. Register to participate and get a slot on the Aurora Picture Show website.
Find it: Menil Park, 1423 Branard St., Houston TX; 713-525-9400
This story was edited by Hearst Newspapers Managing Editor Kristina Moy; you can contact her at email@example.com.