The Untold Museum District, Part IV

The Houston Museum District is home to a number of hidden treasures and untold stories. This is the fourth installment in a series looking at some of the lesser-known facts related to the 19 museums in the district.

Houston Zoo

Perhaps the wildest creature to ever reside at the Houston Zoo was its first director — Hans Nagel.

The zoo’s first home was Sam Houston Park, and its collection consisted of rabbits, racooons, eagles, prairie dogs, alligators, capuchin monkeys, black bears and a great horned owl.

When the federal government donated a bison to the City of Houston in 1920, the need to expand the zoo became obvious. The collection moved to Hermann Park, the population grew to 40 animals and Nagel joined the team.

Four years later, the zoo’s population expanded to 400 animals and the property expanded to 30 acres. Nagel also become a fixture at the zoo, known for delighting audiences with his weekly lion taming demonstrations.

Nagel was a bit of a mystery. He was of Dutch ancestry, born in Germany, even though he reported to immigration that his birthplace was in Tobin, Texas.

Nagel’s showmanship was regularly featured in the city’s newspapers. Nagel was reported to have chased zoo intruders, while firing shots in the air. He once administered first aid to a student who accidentally stuck himself with a needle while extracting venom from poisonous snakes. Nagel also saved a park official being mauled by a Bengal tiger. He shot the tiger with his ever-present pistol.

On a quiet Monday afternoon in November 1941, Nagel died from a gunshot wound during what was described as a “jurisdictional dispute” with a police officer in Hermann Park.

Charged with the shooting death of the popular zookeeper, the officer was acquitted by a grand jury on grounds of self-defense.

But Nagel’s larger-than-life personality seems to have never left the zoo grounds. Today, Nagel’s legacy lives on in yellowed newspaper clippings, murals in the Houston Zoo’s Brown Education Building and when things go bump in the night in the Houston Zoo commissary.

Animal Nutrition Department supervisor Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays has been arriving at the zoo before dawn since 1986. Over the years, she and other commissary staff have seen and heard things that can’t quite be explained. They are certain that the shadowy figure in the doorways and faint voice come from the ghost of Hans Nagel.

“A few days ago I was in my office at the commissary early in the morning.  The office door was ajar and from the noise in the kitchen next door I thought Cotney Hughes, another member of the staff , had just arrived for work,” Pietrucha-Mays recalled.  “But when I looked up, there was no Cotney. In fact, nobody was in the kitchen.  I just started laughing, saying, ‘You got me this time, Hans!”

Houston Center for Photography

The Houston Center for Photography (HCP) was created to fill a void. When two local galleries closed their doors in 1981, area photographers lost the hub of their art scene.  They no longer had a place to hang out, share ideas and get inspired.

Houston Center for Photography
Anne Tucker judging the first HCP membership show
, 1982 by Paul Hester

They only had one place to turn, and soon photographers started knocking down Anne Tucker’s door. Tucker, founder and curator of the Museum of Fine Arts’ photography department, agreed to meet them at the Paradise Bar and Grill. The restaurant was owned by Betty and Frank Fleming – who later became two of the founding members of the HCP.

Around 20 people showed up, sat around a table and talked about ways to resurrect the photography scene. That’s when the idea for the HCP was born.

Progress came quickly. The group soon obtained its 501(c)3 status and took up residence at Bering United Methodist Church – a space founded interestingly enough by the great uncle of HCP’s current executive director Bevin Bering  Dubrowski.

After a couple exhibits in the church, the HCP moved to a space owned by John and Dominique de Menil, a former convenience store with a dry cleaner next door. Over the years, the HCP took over the dry cleaner space as well.

The photographers who drove the creation of the center still play an active role in the space. It remains a member-run group – only now there are 1,600 members.

The galleries are dedicated to bringing in photographers from around the world. Some of the world’s greatest artists hang their works next to student work from HCP’s Learning Center.

The HCP also hosts annual member exhibitions. This year HCP celebrated its 30th annual Membership Show. Tucker, who hosted the first member show, returned to jury the 30th. She remains active with the center and serves on its exhibition committee.

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

There isn’t just one untold story at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum – there are hundreds of them. Founder Captain Paul J. Matthews explained that every object in the museum’s collection has its own story to tell.

“We have a story about each and every piece – each item has a history to it, where it came from and who donated it,” he said.

The first piece of the collection was a regimental crest from the 10th Calvary Regiment, one of the original units of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Matthews purchased it while at a military meeting when he was a cadet at Prairie View A&M University. This was the first step in a lifetime journey collecting memorabilia.

Family and friends began giving collectibles to Matthews as gifts. The items took up a cabinet in his dining room; then they started taking up the whole house.

After years of collecting, Matthews founded the museum in 2000 – the only museum in the country dedicated primarily to preserving the legacy and honor of the African-American soldier.

Since the opening, visitors to the museum started adding to the collection. Matthews has received packages in the mail with old saddles, family photos and other treasures long buried away in the attic.

“Every week we get something from someone – a picture, a boot, a belt. Individually it’s insignificant, but collectively, it’s priceless,” he said.

All the pieces have come together to create complete uniforms and entire display cases of memorabilia, painting a fuller picture of the Buffalo Soldiers’ efforts.

“People are overwhelmed and in awe of contributions made by Buffalo Soldiers,” Matthews said. “They don’t have a clue what black soldiers did for the military.”

Likewise, many don’t know how one man’s passion turned into an important museum and how people, inspired by his work, joined his efforts to build a world-renowned collection.

Asia Society

The new Asia Society Texas Center is one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in Houston. Designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the structure is sleek, modern and unique.

Behind the establishment of Asia Society stands an equally formidable woman, native Houstonian Nancy Allen.

Allen, the head cheerleader at Lamar High School in 1954, knows how to encourage a team. Without her constant support, it is doubtful that the building would have been erected.

Allen donated $15 million to the society, covering around a quarter of the costs of construction. She also helped drum up support from foundations and individual donors.

Allen has two Asian-American grandchildren and was inspired to honor their heritage. She felt the best option would be to support a building that would house all forms of Asian culture, including dance, art and music.

An existing organization, known as Asia House, was trying to expand. Roy Huffington, a former ambassador to Austria and then chairman of the board of the national Asia Society, helped in the efforts. Once a plan was developed, the team set out to raise funds and get other generous community members involved.

Construction began in January 2010 and took about 18 months to complete.

Allen said her work is not finished yet. She still remains active in securing an endowment that will sustain the organization and in helping the center grow in whatever ways possible.