Congratulations to Texas Pipe & Supply, Co., Inc.!
Texas Pipe & Supply celebrates its centennial this year. It has grown to nine branches and has its own rail spur. It routinely processes up to 100 truckloads of pipe whenever a boat comes into the Houston Ship Channel. The art lover here is Jerry Rubenstein, who, with brother Bo, inherited the company when their mother passed away in 1996.
Jerry prefers to go by his last name and “wants to share that love with people; bring some smiles to people’s faces,” says chief administrative assistant Fay Adam. She’s worked for Texas Pipe for 30 years and has the glass obelisk on her desk to prove it.
See below concerning the Texas Pipe & Supply Art Field:
It all started with the hippopotamus.
Weighing nearly a ton, this life-size river horse was “born” in an El Campo concrete plant. But soon enough, a rhinoceros came to keep it company. After that, Snoopy joined them in a carbon-steel fighter plane — someone needed to keep an eye on things. One Saturday afternoon, a drone got stuck up there.
Today, roughly two dozen sculptures are strewn across a field at Texas 288 and West Bellfort, in an otherwise forlorn patch of south Houston on the way to Sunnyside and Pearland. Here’s a locust, there a dragon, over there a soldier. An old ship’s anchor has been turned into a palm tree.
This unique spot is officially known as Eclectic Menagerie Park, and it’s easy to see why — you might see a gorilla scaling a crane, or an armadillo the size of a tank, or a 38-foot fishing pole that’s just reeled in a pickup.
That’ll take the edge off that daily commute.
But this source of endless rubbernecking, and the occasional fender-bender, is more than one of Houston’s most unusual roadside attractions. It’s the natural byproduct of an art lover owning one of the nation’s leading industrial-supply companies.
The “art field,” as it’s known around their offices, sits on two and a half of Texas Pipe’s 108 acres between Almeda and 288. The statues are here because, Adam says, when Rubenstein bought the hippo, there was nowhere left on the family ranch in Richmond to put another one. Not longer after it appeared by the highway, a call came from the Houston Zoo.
“They thought they had some competition,” Adam says with a laugh.
METAL MENAGERIE SPRINGS FROM THE MIND OF TEXAS PIPE’S ART-LOVING OWNER
Early statues, including that giant armadillo, were made by Mark Rankin, whose work also adorns Six Flags in Dallas. But he got hurt, so taking over was Ron Lee, who served as Texas Pipe’s unofficial artist-in-residence until his death last year. The whole company took the loss pretty hard, Adam says, and for now no new additions are planned — even the 40-foot T. rex that never made it past Lee’s drafting table. The park has been dedicated to him, and a memorial plaque is on the way, Adam says.
“I’m sure he’ll find someone else” to do more sculptures, she figures. “Just not yet.”
According to Adam, there’s little rhyme or reason to the statues’ placement, or sometimes even the underlying motive. Lee’s “Running Man” came about when, she says, “Ron was being silly one day and playing with some straws.” As for that towering fishing pole, “He wanted something to do with his truck. It was fun watching him fit these pieces together.”
On the other hand, Rubenstein commissioned the roadrunner in honor of his late friend Pete Knowles, with whom he founded the National Association of Steel Pipe Distributors. The biplane was done by another friend of his. The wire-mesh soldier guarding Bellfort is by a University of Houston student he took a liking to.
Texas Pipe has a peculiar visitors’ policy regarding the art field. There’s no seating, and Adams says the company relies on employees’ 24-7 comings and goings to keep an eye on the place rather than hired security patrols. Other than that, the public is more than welcome; Adam figures she fields two or three calls a month, more in the summer. Some people have come from as far away as North Dakota. Set up an appointment, she says, and she’s happy to show you around.
The park has appeared on a PBS travel show and shows up every once in a while on local TV news. It’s a popular photo spot for local brides-to-be. Still, the only PR the company really does for it is a sign at the edge of the property. It doesn’t need to advertise much more than that; word gets around.
The day the gorilla statue went up, a couple from up north showed up in a Winnebago, sheepishly admitting they had been so busy gawking at it they rear-ended the car in front of them. A fifth-grade class in Katy once spent a whole six-week grading period studying their favorite creature in the field; when the kids visited, Adam says, “they had 40,000 questions per minute.” Their grades improved dramatically.
So there it sits, the Eclectic Menagerie Park — wide open to schoolchildren, little old ladies and anyone else who appreciates the utter oddness of walking among the legs of a sculpted steel spider as big as a house.
That statue’s name is “Wicked Cool.” So is this sculpture garden Rubenstein created from acres of pipeyard. “Some people don’t get to go to a museum,” Adam says.
Chris Gray is a writer in Houston.