Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Houston, We Have a Mansion

----I know, I know... some were surprised that I am a space geek. Actually, there are so many things in life that interest me, I can't keep up with them. And the older I get, the more things there are.

----I don't remember when I was first interested in the whole space thing... further back than I can remember. Back in my married days, we moved a lot. Every couple of years in fact. That's how you got ahead in my husband's company at the time, by transferring to another of their facilities. For me, each new place meant a new job, which was not always a bad thing. Sure, it's stressful moving, and very stressful going on job interviews. But looking back, I had some great opportunities, and also lived some places I might have missed out on otherwise.

----One of my favorite places was the Houston area. We lived midway between Houston and Galveston. Here's my house--

Nooooooooo... not really! This is what is referred to historically as the West Mansion, built in the 1920s by James West, an oil/lumbar/cattle baron. If you drive past the Johnson Space Center, it sits on a large expanse of land, facing the breezes of Clear Lake, and the Gulf of Mexico beyond that, with moss hanging from the giant oak trees, swaying in the breeze. It was very ornate inside, with lots of imported tile, gold fixtures in the bathrooms, marble, and hand painted ceilling beams. It had a swimming pool, a tennis court with gazebos at each side, a sunken garden and a reflecting pool lined with blue tiles. It had a solarium which doubled as a children's play room and also an art gallery. It was built in a time when most people were recovering from the Depression, but rumor had it Mr. West had his money hidden, not in banks, and so was able to build this opulent 17,000 square foot summer home.

----The house was vacant for 15 years after Mr. West's death in 1941, then was eventually deeded to Rice University to be used for scientific purposes. It eventually became a planetary research center where NASA scientists and other scientists from all over the world came to study moon rocks and other planetary findings. The bedrooms were converted to offices, the solarium converted to a conference room. There was a multi-car garage (or carriage house) a short distance from the home. The upstairs became the offices of the graphics department. Further back on the property, there was a large stable. This became the Imaging Center, and housed copies of every image that had ever been sent back from space, from Apollo missions to later shuttle flights.

----There was a large "sleeping porch" on one end of the house (see photo below--second floor left side). When the West family lived there, they would sleep in this area on hot nights where the breezes would keep them cooler. This later became the Publications Office, where manuscripts were edited and published, papers reviewed and assembled, conferences planned. And that was where I found a job in 1986, in the office in the "sleeping porch".

That has to be one of my all time favorite jobs, in what was back then a very exciting industry. I met so many nice people, and once even met Buzz Aldrin at a conference. Well, not "met", but I was sitting next to someone who gave him his registration packet... does that count? I kept trying to see his ring. I had heard so much about the ring he wears. It is on his right hand, and the gold band wraps around from the back but does not quite meet in the middle on the front, with a sliver of golden moon on one side, and a diamond in a star on the other side. I saw him in interviews on TV over the last couple of days, and he was wearing that ring. But I'm still trying to get a good look at it!

----So, that's how I came to have an even deeper interest in this field. I was editing and typing research papers that contained words I never heard of before and scientific data that is way beyond my comprehension. And to put this in perspective of how far we have come since the 80s, the scientists used to mail us their papers that they had typed and printed. We edited them, then re-typed them for publication. Can you imagine? How far we have come! I'm sure these days, they zip those suckers along the fiberoptic internet lines, no re-typing required!

----I looked on Google Earth once to see what the mansion looks like now. Not long after I moved away, the organization moved to a nice new office building, so I knew the mansion had been vacant. When I went to street view on Google Earth, I was sad to see a giant for sale sign there. After some research, I learned that a real estate company (one of whose partners is Hakeem Olajuwon, the retired NBA player in Houston) wanted to tear down the mansion and develop the land. A charitable organization then sprang up to try to rescue it and turn it into a meeting place, possibly a bed and breakfast, or anything to save it. Its fate remains uncertain at this time. It has survived hurricanes, vandals, and all manner of critters I'm sure (I frequently saw armadillos in the yard, and once saw a mom with baby armadillos.) It would be a shame to see it torn down for condos.

----Somewhere I have a few pictures I took before we moved away, but I have searched and searched and can't find them. I checked online to see if I could find some pictures. While looking, I came across a video. This might not be of interest to anyone but me, but I really enjoyed seeing it. If you want to see more of the interior, both the architectural details and also the sad state of disrepair, you might enjoy this video. At about the 4:30 mark, there is a picture of an empty sleeping porch. It sure looked bigger when I was there, and it's hard to believe that back then it held 4 desks. Right after the 6:00 mark, there is one of my favorite rooms...the blue and gold bathroom. The first time I saw the dark blue sink, I wanted one. The blue and yellow hand made tiles from Tunisia didn't impress me as much, but I sure loved that blue sink! There is at least one good shot of the giant mahogany beams in the living room. I guess because they are out of reach, they have escaped the vandals over the years. Mr. West had local craftsmen hand paint the beams with representations from Music, Art, Astronomy, and Mathematics. There are some great shots of the grounds too. The apartments off to one side weren't there when I worked there, so already "progress" is marching silently toward the old mansion.

----Enjoy the video if you have about 10 minutes to spare. If nothing else, there is nice soothing music from Enya and Nora Jones!
----Live long and prosper! (And I'll try not to be so wordy next time!)

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