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Rienzi, the MFAH house museum for European decorative arts, was built as a home for Harris and Carroll Sterling Masterson in 1952.

HOUSTON — The home at 1406 Kirby looks like so many of its River Oaks neighbors with its gated driveway, sprawling garden and breathtaking façade. But this house has a name: Rienzi.

"I’m deeply fond of it," says Christine Gervais, the Fredricka Crain Director of Rienzi and Curator of Decorative Arts at MFAH. "When people come here, it’s this sort of quick trip to Europe, which I think is a really wonderful thing to give to Houstonians."

Rienzi was built as a home for Harris and Carroll Sterling Masterson in 1952. 

"When they passed away, it was given as a gift to the museum," Gervais explains.

It then opened as a house museum for the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 1999, showcasing not just the Mastersons' amazing home, but also the exceptional art collection within its walls. 

"The collectors were particularly interested in European arts and decorative arts," says Gervais. "When I say ‘decorative arts,’ I mean porcelain, furniture, silver, anything that you live with, that people lived with in the past, they also collected." 

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They collected and lived with the items. Each room from the master bedroom to the dining room to the ballroom is filled with the collection’s pieces.

"I think of each room almost as a series of stage sets because the Mastersons used to underwrite Broadway plays and were very involved in the theater scene here in Houston," Gervais shares. "As you go through, they’re loosely pulled together by time period, but each time you go into a different room, the floor changes, a subtle hint that we’re giving you something slightly different, a different scenario."

The Mastersons' collection is a dynamic one, meaning that MFAH has the ability to supplement it as needed.

"We consider what they bought the basic collection -- the very, very fine collection -- which we then take cues from and add to," says Gervais. "Every room that I go into I will tell you what was Mastersons’ and it’s usually everything from the carpet to the picture to that thing on the table. Then usually one or two things in it that we’ve added since."

The curatorial team at Rienzi also puts together separate exhibits using pieces from the collection. Currently, Materials of Empire: Colonial Narratives 1700–1860 uses objects from the Rienzi collection to "shed light on the links between Europe, Africa, the Americas, and India." It runs through July 31, 2022.

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"(The Mastersons) lived with these things, so it’s an interesting and kind of eccentric mixture of things," Gervais says. "I think because they lived here, lived in this house, the house still feels people-scale and it is a very happy house."

The legendary River Oaks party house is now a unique museum setting, one you could almost imagine living in too.

"Don’t we wish everybody could," laughs Gervais.

You can take a self-guided or docent-led tour of Rienzi. For more information about tours and admission, click here.

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Do you have a hidden gem we should check out? Let us know by emailing Brandi Smith at bsmith@khou.com!

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