In addition to Big City Houston's many artistic, sports and shopping wonders, there are more than a few quirky places that inquiring minds visiting here might want to check out. Several are in the Third Ward district of town, where weird signs also abound, such as one reading "Chinese Food: Hamburgers to Go" and "Webster's Antiques & Feed Store."
Without a doubt, the Art Car Museum (140 Heights Blvd.; tel. 713/861-5526; www.artcarmuseum.com) gets the title of Houston's most fun collection. Whimsical artistry has been worked on ordinary cars and trucks to make them look like just about anything from giant roaches to space monsters or an enormous rabbit clutching an equally large Easter basket. They rotate about ten cars at a time, featuring different artists. My favorite was the "Milan" -- a car covered entirely in mirrors sporting a stove (complete with tea kettle) mounted on the hood. I had to admire "Shattered Vanity," a car also covered with broken shards of mirrors. The Orange Show, a community effort coordinating several museums in the area, holds an Art Car Weekend yearly, drawing some 250,000 spectators, and allowing it to call Houston the "Art Car Capital of the World." Free admission, open Wednesdays through Sundays.
You can experience the latest in trendy art and events at Diverse Works (1117 East Freeway; tel. 713/223-8346; www.diverseworks.org) in a former warehouse/factory complex, which says it presents new visual, performing and literary art and encourages the investigation of current artistic, cultural and social issues. They say they are the only multi-diversity arts center in Houston. They're a member of the Fresh Arts Coalition, the National Association of Artists Organizations, the National Performance Network and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, as well as being a participant in the Andy Warhol Foundation Initiative and the Doris Duke Foundation. In addition to the painting, photography ands sculpture here, you can get a literary fix by calling Phoneworks at 713/335-3443 to hear the hippest local writers. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6. Ticket prices vary per show, but are typically around $15.
It's hard to crack a smile at the National Museum of Funeral History (415 Barren Springs Drive; tel. 281/876-3063; www.nmfh.org), though they wonÂ?t mind if you laugh at some of the items in their rather pathetic gift shop, such as tombstone candy bars. Their slogan is "Any day above ground is a good one." You'll see caskets from around the world, two hearse sleighs, a funeral bus, a casket made of money, and a tribute to Thomas Holmes, the "father of US embalming." Also check out caskets in various shapes (flowers, a hammer, etc.) and a miniature model of Lincoln's funeral train, for instance, as well as a 19th-century casket factory, a 1938 Henney Packard Flower Car and the original "eternal flame" that burned at JFK's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. It's without a doubt the country's largest display of funeral service memorabilia. Some parts of the museum were closed at the time of my visit for renovation, please note. Admission is $6.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel, museum-wise, is the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art (2402 Munger Street; tel. 713/926-6368; www.orangeshow.org), headquarters of a group of civic-minded citizens who are trying to support the arts and the surrounding community, often working with materials that are big on idiosyncrasy and only fair on talent. The Orange Show itself is a complex of mostly outdoor cubbyholes and performance areas started by a onetime Houston postman, Jeff McKissack (d. 1980). Taking him 25 years to construct, it's a lesser version in some ways of the famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and is best described as "a personal reflection of (his) life." Author of "How to Live to be 100," partly through taking the baths at Hot Springs, Jeff died at 78, more than a bit disappointed at low attendance. From 150 on the first day he opened in 1979, it was all down hill thereafter. Open weekends, noon to 5. Admission is only $1.
I found the Beer Can House (222 Malone Street; tel. 713/880-2008; www.beercanhouse.org), another Orange Show beneficiary, somewhat less than fascinating, if only because nearly all the cans were flattened before being tacked to wooden panels inside and out. The late John Milkovisch, its builder, claims he and his pals drank 75% of the beer in the 50 to 60 thousand cans it took to cover the house surfaces. He died of a stroke at 88, I was told. ItÂ?s open weekends noon to 5.
A couple of other oddball places in town call themselves art museums, but are not open to the public except by appointment, and one of those has no phone. Maybe what you do when you find yourself stuck with a lot of junk is to declare the roof above it a museum, write off what tax deductions you can, and hope for the best.
In addition to Houston's many fine restaurants, there are plenty of mom-and-pop operations that are quite adequate. One such is the Last Concert Café (1403 Nance; tel. 713/226-8563; www.lastconcert.com) where I had a perfectly acceptable brace of bean tacos at $4.25. Dawn Fudge is the "proprietress," Tex-Mex is the cuisine and live music is offered nightly. The café is located in the downtown warehouse district, in a house adjacent to a former bordello.