A cubist-like armadillo stands atop a hillock next to a sleek roadrunner in a 2-acre field at the intersection of State Highway 288 and Bellfort Avenue, just south of Houston’s Loop 610. A dragon rears menacingly nearby, while King Kong scales a boom crane near a stegosaurus-like dinosaur. A colorful grasshopper zips through the air, not as fast as the stealth fighter pilot—who looks a lot like Snoopy—or the missile it has let fly from beneath its wing. Arachnophobes beware: a 20-foot-tall spindly-legged spider will trigger you. Take comfort in the fact that the missile fired by the stealth fighter is well on its way to destroying this fearsome beast.
This is the land of the Eclectic Menagerie, a public sculpture garden and roadside attraction that comprises some two dozen sculptures, including an enormous chrome owl—perhaps as a nod to Rice University—with its wings outspread as it prepares to perch or pounce on an unlucky mouse.
The site is owned by the Rubinstein family, proprietors of the adjacent oil pipeline company Texas Pipe and Supply and lovers of quirky roadside art. (This is the Rubinstein family’s second entry in our series of Roadside Oddities. The family’s flying heifers are on another property the family once owned in Richmond.)
It all began in 1987, when, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a concrete hippo mysteriously appeared on the site. The hippo, rescued from an attraction in El Campo where it had been deemed old and clunky, was not alone in its solitude for long. It was joined by a rhino, similarly rescued. Snoopy came next, roaring in at the controls of a sporty, red-and-white twin-tailed airplane.
Somewhere along the way there came a turning point, and the rescued statues came to be steadily augmented with new creations. Most were made by welder Ron Lee, a more than 50-year veteran employee of Texas Pipe and Supply. A true artist-in-residence, Lee, who passed away in 2017, never exhibited his work anywhere else. As late as 2012, Lee was not credited for creating most of the works, and neither on the site nor at Texas Pipe’s website are the works credited piece-by-piece. Those not created by Lee were made by light metals artist Mark Rankin. No new works have been added since Lee’s death.
In some ways, it is very much in the spirit of Houston’s Orange Show, and lots of people make the comparison. “It’s obvious why people link this place to the Orange Show, as it’s very close-by and the materials and methodology is essentially the same,” says Pete Gershon, curator of programs at the Orange Show Center.
One difference: If the Orange Show was guided by an eccentric man’s evangelical zeal for the magical properties of a certain citrus fruit, the Eclectic Menagerie exists simply to make commuters smile.
There is no true parking lot—to visit on foot you must pull off the 288 feeder road and on to a wide shoulder. There are no footpaths and the grounds are sometimes soggy; the grass occasionally too tall for comfort. Asked if it was best seen as “drive-by art,” Gershon says it is, “in a sense.”
If approaching from Houston on State Highway 288, exit Bellfort, turn left, and then make a U-turn. Turn right at 288’s feeder road and drive slowly past. While there is no parking, there is a wide shoulder if you’d like to pause and snap a few pics.
“It’s primarily glimpsed by those driving by,” he explains. “People like you and me may stop at the roadside, hop out, look around, and take pictures, enjoying an unmediated experience outside the bounds of [our cars].
“I spend a lot of time mansplaining to people how the Orange Show is contemporary art and not folk art. But in this case, I believe the Eclectic Menagerie is folk art and part of a passed-down tradition among trade welders who also, of course, have senses of aesthetics and humor, and as a result, creating works that may surpass or at least defy comparison to those created by ‘decreed’ fine artists.”
In this way, Gershon continues, the Eclectic Menagerie is “quintessential Houston art—rough, ready, and right there on the roadside for your viewing pleasure.”
Many of the metal sculptures are made of scrap from Texas Pipe and Supply’s yard. In a way, this collection is a distillation of the process whereby many Texas art collections are purchased and displayed. You have a company that sends petroleum to a refinery, and sells the gasoline and other byproducts. The founders of these companies become very rich and acquire pretty things that eventually need a home. Voila, you have the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where so many of the halls, wings, and buildings bear the names of the city’s oil elite-turned-philanthropists.
At Eclectic Menagerie, the process is democratized and short-circuited midstream, as it were: The very materials used to sluice the petroleum from the well to the refinery are crafted into art that is put on public display for free. I find something uproariously Houstonian about that.
Today, the lot fully lives up to its name. Basically, if you can imagine a toy box of a 100-foot-tall child tumped out by the side of the road, you’ve got the Eclectic Menagerie.
But the park came together so gradually that many commuters never noticed, even as the menagerie’s residents rose from five, to 10, to a dozen, and more over the course of a decade. In the daily grind of Houston traffic, they’d become accustomed to tuning out that stretch of highway as visual white noise, inching past it some days, flying past on others, never noticing the growing population of critters and airplanes.
For people like 24-year-old photographer Giovanni Montes, who stumbled upon the park on his way to a drone event, it elicited the highest honor a roadside attraction can command: “I slammed on the brakes and did a U-turn,” he recalls.
After that first encounter, Montes, a native of the other side of Houston, returned with his camera and his drone to shoot the footage you see here.
“I realized how unique it was while I was capturing the artwork,” Montes says. “And to think about the amount of hours that went into making it all! It’s just lovely artwork. Lovely artwork for the whole community to see.”