5 Reasons to Visit MFAH's Hidden Jewel in 2011

We often need to be reminded that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is so much more than the Building at 1001 Bissonnet. In addition to the galleries in the museum district, the organization is comprised of a sculpture garden, library, movie theater, two art schools, and two house museums - Bayou Bend off of Memorial, and Rienzi on Kirby Drive in River Oaks.

If you aren't looking for it, Rienzi is easy to miss. When the MFAH acquired the John Staub-designed home from noted Houston philanthropists Carol Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III in 1997 there was some to-do in the community about operating a business in River Oaks, but technically the 4.4-acre property is part of the Homewood addition, putting it outside the jurisdiction of the neighborhood association. Still, they try to keep things low-key out of respect for the neighbors. The entrance is denoted only by a modest placard reading "Rienzi 1406" at the entrance on Kirby Drive. Once inside the gates, however, the property is anything but.

Open to the public since 1999, the Rienzi serves as the MFAH's Center for European Arts, housing a huge assortment of European furniture, paintings and ceramics, and an impressive collection of Worcester porcelain. The surrounding gardens, designed by Ralph Ellis Gun in the 1950s, feature maze-like shrubbery, sculpture, and even a secret folly nestled between two steep ravines leading to Buffalo Bayou.

For those looking for a taste of how the other half lives, the property is open to the public for docent-guided tours Wednesday through Saturday at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. On Sundays, Rienzi offers drop-in tours of the house from 1 pm to 5 pm; with the last admission at 4 pm. Rienzi's immaculate gardens are open for self-guided visits seven days a week from 10 am to 4:30 p.m., free of charge.

That said, there's so much more to do at Rienzi than simply stroll the grounds. Five of our favorite upcoming and ongoing events, listed below:

5. Open Sketching Hours (Every Saturday, 1:30-4:30 p.m.) Artists of all skill levels are welcome to take advantage of the opulent surroundings and decorative art objects in the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles during Rienzi's open sketching hours, every Saturday from 1:30-4:30 p.m. Seriously, if you can't find something to draw in there, you might want to check your pulse. General Admission ($6 adults / $4 members / $5 seniors & students)

4. Twilight Tours (Thursday, May 5, 12, 19, and 26, 5-8 p.m.) See the grounds in a whole new light every Thursday evening in May. Docents will be stationed around the property to interpret the collection while you meander around enjoying wine, hors d'oeuvres, and live music. $15.

3. Houston Grand Opera Studio Recitals Get up close and personal with opera. HGO takes advantage of the stunning acoustics in the Gallery (adjacent to the main Ballroom) with a series of intimate studio recitals. Enjoy performances by Houston's young, up-and-coming opera talent, followed by a "wine & sweets" reception. Be sure to mark your calendars, as the last performances in this season's series (Love, Loss, and Solitude) are Friday and Saturday, May 13 and 14, 7:30pm. $30.

2. "Pirates, Pistol-Packing Dwarves, and Other Surprises in Theatre History" (Thursday, April 14, 6 p.m.) Part of their ongoing "Twilight Talk" guest lecture series, April 14th's installment will be led by Dr. Robert Shimko, beloved Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Dramaturgy at the University of Houston. Shimko's lecture will center on Sir William Davenent, widely regarded as one of the great impresarios of 17th century England. Expect a lively discussion on pirates, sea dogs, and the "pistol-packing Royal Dwarf," Jeffery Hudson. A must for theatre enthusiasts and history buffs. $15.

1. "English Taste: Dining in the Eighteenth Century" (September 17, 2011 - February 2012) We've often wondered what people where really eating in the 18th century, so this exhibit is particularly enticing. The Rienzi, in partnership with renown food historian Ivan Day, will recreate an entire 18th-century feast in the spacious Bacchus-themed dining room, based on the writings of Elizabeth Raffald, a.k.a. the "Martha Stewart of the 1700s." To give you a feel for what to expect, one of the featured entrees will be "Larded Hare" (with face and ears intact). Price, to be announced.

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Lauren Marmaduke
Contact: Lauren Marmaduke