Arts & Culture

Houston’s Orange Show Monument to undergo $1 million restoration with help of federal grant

The money will be used for structural and foundational improvements to the decades-old architectural work, which was handcrafted by the late Jeff McKissack.

Orange Show Concert
Emily Jaschke
Robert Ellis performs a concert at the Orange Show Monument, which will undergo a $1 million restoration with the help of a Save America’s Treasures grant.

A unique part of Houston's history and culture will be restored with the help of federal funding.

The Orange Show Monument, a decades-old, carnival-like structure near the East End that is on the National Register of Historic Places, will undergo a $1 million restoration thanks to a Save America's Treasures matching grant. The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, which owns the monument and is best known for organizing Houston's annual Art Car Parade, was awarded the $500,000 grant earlier this month by the National Park Service.

The colorful, 3,000-square foot monument made partly from found objects is located at 2401 Munger St. in an otherwise residential area. It was constructed from the mid-1950s through the 1970s by the late Jeff McKissack, a former United States postal worker who considered it to be an ode to his favorite fruit, the orange.

"It's not just a monument that sits stoic and static," said Tommy Ralph Pace, the executive director for the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. "It is activated in the spirit that Jeff left behind. It sparked our belief, which is now our mission, that we celebrate the artist in everyone and preserve works of extraordinary imagination."

The National Park Service, in a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, awarded a total of $24.25 million this year to 80 projects in a total of 32 states as well as the District of Columbia.

The Orange Show Monument restoration was one of only two projects in Texas to be awarded, and it received the maximum grant amount of $500,000. Pace said the money will be used for structural and foundational improvements as the monument was built without a concrete foundation, making it susceptible to shifts in the soil caused by rainwater. He said the goal is to have the project completed within two years.

"Through private and public investments, the Save America's Treasures program supports community-based preservation and conversation work on some of our nation's most important collections, artifacts, structures and sites for the benefit of future generations," National Park Service director Chuck Sams said in a news release from the agency.

Orange Show Monument
David Brown
The Orange Show Monument was constructed between the mid-1950s and late 1970s by the late Jeff McKissack, a former United States postal worker.

Pace described the Orange Show Monument, which is open to visitors on weekends, as a "really eccentric piece of idiosyncratic architecture that one might call carnivalesque." It resembles a miniature amusement park, has a maze-like design and includes a wishing well, pond, museum, gift shop, upper decks and two stages that periodically host events such as musical performances and comedy shows.

The monument was constructed with brick, concrete, steel and objects such as gears, tiles, wagon wheels and tractor seats, according to Pace, who said each piece was personally painted and placed by McKissack. Pace said McKissack's vision for the Orange Show was for it to become a competitor of DisneyWorld, which opened in 1955 outside Orlando, Florida.

Following McKissack's death in 1980, Marilyn Oshman and 21 other Houstonians who supported the arts formed a foundation to preserve the creation, according to Pace. The group of donors included Billy Gibbons, the lead guitarist and singer for the Houston rock band ZZ Top, along with art collector Dominique de Menil and arts patron Nina Cullinan.

The initiative spawned the creation of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art in 1982. The first Art Car Parade was held five years later – it now draws about 250,000 visitors annually. The center also owns the Beer Can House, a Rice Military bungalow covered in 50,000 flattened beer cans, and Smither Park, an evolving mosaic sculpture park.

The organization is launching a capital campaign to fund the construction of a new headquarters, to be located immediately behind the Orange Show Monument and Smither Park. That effort is in addition to the monument restoration, and Pace said both initiatives aim to elevate the center's profile.

Donations can be made online at orangeshow.org.

"The Orange Show Monument and Beer Can House and Art Car Parade kind of represent the entrepreneurial spirt of Houston and its cultural and creative ethos," Pace said. "We're just so proud that the federal government has seen the value in preserving something like the Orange Show Monument."

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