“Darndest Thing You Ever Saw!”: BEST Products and Houston’s Indeterminate Facade

Claire Sewell / September 17, 2018

BEST Products’ Indeterminate Facade in Houston, Texas, circa 1975

Drive down a fairly benign, suburban road in southeast Houston, Texas, and you’ll pass the parking lot that once housed the BEST Products showroom known as Indeterminate Facade. Located at 10765 Kingspoint Road, the still-hanging-in-there Almeda Mall is nearby, along with a shuttered public library building that has since moved farther on down the road into modern digs. A few other haggard stores and strip centers dot the two lane road and, although a newer shopping development has opened nearby in recent years, the truth is that this particular road was never known for being anything other than completely ordinary. Indeterminate Facade, on the other hand, captured the imagination of the public from the moment it was completed, and it continues to fascinate historians and those like myself who grew up in the area. Despite its pull on my own memory, I realized that I actually didn’t know very much about the building’s origins. A conversation with my mom about pieces of art that she remembered being on display inside the store led me down a fascinating path of research to find out how such a curious structure came to exist in the first place.

BEST Products was founded in 1957 by Sydney and Frances Lewis in Richmond, Virginia, and grew to become a nationwide chain of over 200 stores, along with a catalog mail order. Houston shoppers had no shortage of department stores to shop at, including beloved local chains Foley’s and Weiner’s (both now defunct), but the first BEST location in the area, opened in September of 1972 and located at Fondren and Westheimer, had been successful as well. This was due in large part to economic growth in Houston in the 1970s, but also to the catalogs published and mailed by BEST advertising the ready availability of product in their vast warehouses.

New suburban developments were cropping up around Kingspoint, and the location for the second store in Houston was chosen for its proximity to the Gulf Freeway and other established area neighborhoods. The Lewises had recently purchased sculptures by James Wines, who was a member of a new architectural group, Sculpture in the Environment, better known as SITE. The group’s other founding member, Alison Sky, was a sculptor and a poet. Neither was formally trained in architecture, but each had a desire to extend their activist-inspired artistic philosophies developed in the 1960s to structures that would comment on and attempt to deal with a “post-industrial world.” Additional members, including artist Cynthia Eardley and architect Emilio Sousa, helped bring this philosophy to life, although Wines would become the group’s spokesperson.

Indeterminate Facade before, during, and after unveiling. Photos: The Houston Chronicle

In 1972, the Lewises commissioned the group to create unique facades for nine new BEST stores, bringing SITE’s unique vision to the suburbs and effectively kick-starting their career. By the mid 1970s, BEST Products had become the number one catalog showroom in the United States, and the Lewises could’ve chosen from any number of architects in the retail sector—or simply created a new print campaign. But they had a heart for creating a legacy and understood that they could help put SITE on the map, while continuing to generate publicity for their stores at the same time. In fact, a preliminary drawing of Houston’s SITE-designed location was included in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition in March 1975 before it was even opened to the public. A Houston Chronicle article in June noted the building’s inclusion in the show and featured a photo of the structure draped in black cloth (with obvious comparison to Christo) in anticipation of the grand opening. Indeterminate Facade made its official debut on September 12, 1975 to bizarre fanfare. A Washington Post profile of the Lewises from 1988 features the following anecdote:

When it was finished, the building was gift-wrapped in black gauze to preserve the surprise. On opening day, it was unwrapped by helicopter. A man wearing a white suit reportedly stepped out of a big white Cadillac, looked at the helicopter and the building and said, ‘Can’t do this no place but Texas.’

A full page ad in the previous day’s issue of the Houston Chronicle also made light of local reactions to the building’s appearance, calling it the “darndest thing you ever saw!” The ad itself is fascinating for the way it draws attention to people, both laborers and customers, instead of products. In the same way that it notes keeping the building’s appearance a surprise until opening day, it also does away with depictions of the products for sale in the store, focusing instead on the prices with normal, markup, and grand opening amounts noted for comparison.

BEST Products ad from The Houston Chronicle, September 11, 1975

The Lewises began collecting art in 1963 when Sydney saw an ad in a New York City paper by none other than Andy Warhol offering to “trade art for anything.” They adopted the approach of trading products sold in their stores (an RCA television set in Warhol’s case) for artwork and amassed a collection of 3,500 pieces by 1988. Their collection included works by just about every important modern artist you can think of, and the SITE-designed showrooms doubled as exhibit spaces. When Indeterminate Facade opened, paintings by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Estes could be seen inside the store. In all of the books I consulted for information about the store’s opening, I saw no mention of these paintings being in the store, so I was thrilled to find a short article available on microfilm from the September 11, 1975 issue of the Houston Chronicle that alluded to them. Thinking to check the now shuttered Houston Post newspaper as well, I found that they paid greater attention to the art with a full page write up in the September 12 issue, along with a photo of the Estes piece, a hyper-realistic oil on canvas, appropriately titled and depicting a “Storefront.”

The inclusion of the Warhol painting “10 Marilyns” is particularly notable because its display follows a lesser-known but important exhibition of the artist held at Houston’s Rice University called Raid the Icebox, which was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1969. This was 18 years before the de Menils would open their acclaimed Menil Collection museum in Houston in 1987 to display their own collection of pop and surrealist art, sculptures, and other works. The inclusion of Warhol’s work inside a department store seems, perhaps, the most appropriate venue for his brand of pop art. That the Lewises brought modern art to the suburban masses of Houston in such an unpretentious, almost egalitarian way is a factoid that has been lost to history in the years since BEST’s closure.

And so, rising from a ubiquitous parking lot like some piece of wreckage flung out of space, Indeterminate Facade was easily the most interesting thing about the area of southeast Houston when I was growing up. The rumor I remember from childhood was that the building was struck by lightning, but others guessed that it was damaged by a hurricane or even an improbable earthquake. Little did we know that we were living in the midst of such an important piece of architecture. More surrealist and conceptual than postmodern, SITE’s designs for BEST Products defy easy categorization. Even the architectural critic and historian Charles Jencks, known for his seminal works on postmodern architecture, reserved Indeterminate Facade for inclusion in his Bizarre Architecture book. Some of SITE’s other showrooms for BEST Products are arguably more interesting than Indeterminate Facade, each continuing to refine the group’s vision. Sacramento’s Notch Showroom, for instance, is another favorite of mine. It was the third SITE location and could be considered a sibling to Indeterminate Facade. It featured a mechanized corner portion of bricks that moved back and forth each day to expose the store’s entrance, effectively inverting and putting together again what SITE had previously accomplished. On close inspection, both structures feature a hole in the brick in almost the exact same location. Most of SITE’s other showrooms also utilized brick “as a means of social and psychological commentary on both retail architecture and consumer culture” that made the structures fascinating as well as endearing to shoppers.

Wines ultimately described SITE’s philosophy as “de-architecture,” an approach that sought to “develop a new public imagery based on such nonformalist ingredients as humor, irony, inversion, environmental commentary, and phenomenological references.” His 1987 book of the same name serves as something of a manifesto or textbook for this philosophy in which he charts the development of SITE’s attitude and projects, placing them within art historical context and at odds with much of architectural theory:

By insisting that a building stand for conditions of determinacy, structure, and order–a translation of corporate America’s values of investment, stability, and profits—twentieth-century architecture has consistently presented a false vision of the contemporary world.

Wines also noted that “SITE’s challenge was to bring evidence of the Lewis family’s art patronage into the public domain by means of architecture.” The building became an international conversation piece that proved more successful with consumers than critics, one of whom described Indeterminate Facade as “an affront to human dignity, an insult to architectural innovativeness, and stooping to the lowest altar of gimmickry.” Clearly, it’s SITE that’s had the last laugh.

A bricklayer working at the Indeterminate Facade site, circa 1974. Photo from SITE: Architecture as Art by Pierre Restany and Bruno Zevi (1980)

Houston’s Indeterminate Facade so perfectly captures SITE’s obvious comment about commercialism, urban decay, and the specter of ruin, as well as Houston’s reputation for building everything from the ground up only to destroy it all, time and time again, in the name of the next big thing. Hunter S. Thompson probably said it best when he called Houston “a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in east Texas with no zoning laws…” Indeed, it is exactly the absence of zoning laws that enabled the construction of Indeterminate Facade in the first place. Houston is the largest city in the United States with an absence of such laws, which usually govern land use and sometimes property appearances. While many neighborhoods still enact deed restrictions, Houston’s overall landscape is a collage of mismatched buildings and dwellings, none of which are compelled to resemble the other in any way whatsoever. Even in the oil money boom of the mid-1970s, citizens nonetheless saw something of their city’s wildcatter ethos in that towering cascade of bricks. SITE was able to construct Indeterminate Facade thanks to the patronage of BEST Products, and it has become a direct representation of Wines’ philosophy of de-architecture by serving as a comment on the surrounding environment.

Of course, with the ongoing rise of online shopping, SITE’s designs have become even more universally relevant as an architectural critique of consumerism, especially considering that only one of them still exists in its original structural form, although not as a shopping center. This location, the Forest facade in Richmond, Virginia, is now a Presbyterian church. The bricks of Sacramento’s Notch were dismantled, and it became a Best Buy—natch. The remaining seven locations have all been dismantled or demolished. BEST Products filed for bankruptcy twice in the 1990s, and the last of their stores closed in 1997. While this happened with the online shopping boom still on the horizon, changes in consumer habits and expectations were nonetheless a factor in the company’s decline. BEST also continued with the catalog shopping model and print ads throughout its existence; the company seems to have eschewed television advertising. Although I could find no evidence of commercials created for BEST Products, a few videos on YouTube offer glimpses into the showroom interiors. A fascinating short documentary features interviews with members of SITE and vintage footage of their showroom openings, along with customer reactions.

As for the fate of Indeterminate Facade, it lived on in a few other retail incarnations until 2003, when the bricks were finally removed by a new owner. All that remains of it now is the original nondescript warehouse, fenced off and stripped of its once spectacular false walls. It’s painted beige, and only the white awning hangs on along the front of the warehouse. A Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits now occupies a portion of the expansive parking lot. Oddly, the strip center to the building’s right still stands, bedraggled and definitely worse for wear, but still occupied. In a 2015 interview, Wines shared that “the systematic elimination of the BEST stores in the name of ‘progress’ has been difficult to experience; but, as the architect, my only choice is to remain philosophical and succumb to the system.”

The Indeterminate Facade site in August 2018. Photo: Johnny So

A frequent, though dubious, claim about Indeterminate Facade is that it has “appeared in more books on 20th-century architecture than photographs of any other modern structure.” I can’t provide an exact count to prove that assertion, but in the course of my research I did find a seemingly never-ending trail of sources. One especially interesting example is Architecture and Design 1970-1990: New Ideas in America by Beverly Russell. Each chapter is juxtaposed with song lyrics (such as “Life During Wartime” by The Talking Heads in the chapter that deals with Indeterminate Facade, titled The Jaggered Edge) to create a new form of commentary that incorporates pop culture references. The Critical Edge: Controversy in Recent American Architecture by Tod Marder provides one of the most comprehensive rundowns of newspaper and magazine articles published about Indeterminate Facade throughout the 1970s and 80s. Blog posts and other pieces on the Internet continue to add to the volume of discourse about the building.

While it is often stated that everything is bigger in Texas, one might also say that everything is more outlandish in Houston, including the sprawl of the city that has only stretched out further and yonder since the 1970s. Yet, depending on which area of the city you grew up in, it is still possible to feel a sense of being in a small town within the big city. After all, Indeterminate Facade was less than six miles away from Gilley’s, the legendary honky-tonk bar featured in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy (Warhol made an appearance on the night of the film’s premiere). But that could seem a world away from the oil money affluence of Houston’s wealthiest enclaves. I don’t know about the areas that surrounded SITE’s other BEST buildings around the country, but in Houston there’s often not much physical distance between suburbs and mansions, poverty and wealth. Houston continues to be a city full of contradictions. Perhaps that’s why Indeterminate Facade seemed to work so well, existing in the architectural milieu of other buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, two architects that are often referenced in writing about SITE’s influence. The Astrodome is perhaps the only other Houston structure to have received as much attention over the years. In a 1983 Time magazine article, Wines said:

Nowadays all architects want to be humanists. Some believe forgotten historic trappings can make their buildings human. I am trying to do it with something new, with images of our time that everyone understands.

It is exactly this attitude that has allowed the spirit of Indeterminate Facade to become so universal. Even people who only remember the building for what it was, to say nothing of the history I’ve since discovered, find its appeal stirring something in their consciousness. Education (or money, depending on which source you prefer) may still have been the great equalizer in 1975, but what it could be in 2018 is anyone’s guess. Houston is certainly no great beauty but, like the fabric that covered Indeterminate Facade for its unveiling, it’s what’s underneath the surface that truly matters.

Click here to access a list of sources consulted for this feature.

Claire Sewell is a librarian and the author of The Golden Girls Fashion Corner blog. She shares her thoughts about many random and wondrous things on Twitter at @clairesayswhat.

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2 thoughts on ““Darndest Thing You Ever Saw!”: BEST Products and Houston’s Indeterminate Facade

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  2. Pingback: Andy Warhol gem in the Doc C collection | What's in Woodson

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