Small steps, big impact
Downtown scion and collector Jim Petersen does his part to develop art scene

Jim Petersen is passionate about two things – art and downtown Houston. And it shows in the sleek urban home (and art showcase) that he’s created out of near rubble on the edge of the city’s center.

The former Magnolia Ice House and Brewery had been slated for demolition by the city in the mid 1990s, but a group of architects convinced leaders the building could be salvaged and then bought it for a song.  Petersen laughs when he remembers “the pretty story” that kept the structure from the wrecking ball but masked its true state of disrepair.

The brewery had been abandoned during Prohibition, and the impressive edifice that once stretched its way across Buffalo Bayou was partially washed away by a massive flood in 1935. Much of the brewery now lies at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, Petersen says with a smile.

What he didn’t find amusing were the buyers’ development plans. “The people that owned this building were going to put a bail bonding company on the second floor, an ice house on the first floor and law offices on the third and fourth floor, “ he said. “And I really, really didn’t want people to come into downtown and the first thing they see is a bail bonding company and a bar – and a low-end bar at that.”

Already a longtime downtown resident and devotee, he bought the building and set to work bringing it back to life. As an engineer, he quickly learned he had his work cut out for him.

“It was in very bad shape,” he said. “Of what you see right now only the exterior walls are original. And the steel beams. The building needed so much more repair. We had no idea.”

It took seven years to rebuild, but the results are simply spectacular. Massive windows look out on downtown’s historic district and bring light to Petersen’s beautiful contemporary art collection. And now it is more than his home. It is the space for Window into Houston – a partnership between Petersen and the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston.

Window into Houston takes Petersen’s commitment to his two loves and merges them into a downtown public art space that is both whimsical and accessible to anyone walking by his building on Milam between Franklin and Commerce.

Two street-level display windows have been turned over to Blaffer for rotating exhibitions that started this spring with Elaine Bradford: The Sidereal, the artist’s first solo presentation in a Houston museum.  The next presentation will open on June 22 and will be a work by Patrick Renner, who will create a display that deals, in part, with the history of Petersen’s building.

The current exhibition by Bradford re-imagines the two windows as dioramas that display the habitats of small, crocheted creatures – a collection of animal specimens “discovered” by the fictitious fringe scientist Dr. Thomas Harrigan during his explorations into a dimension known as The Sidereal.

The idea for the window display grew out of a brainstorming session during dinner with Petersen and Blaffer director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli. The two had been discussing plans for renovations to Blaffer and whether a downtown satellite location could be created to house exhibitions during the construction work. While discussing possible spaces, Petersen showed Schmuckli his display windows.

 It was an “ah ha” moment for both of them.

“It was a happy convergence of interests,” says Schmuckli. “Blaffer had been tossing around ideas for an off-site venue for a while with a particular interest in downtown, and Jim was thinking about using the windows as an active exhibition space. When he expressed interest in us programming it on a regular basis, we eagerly jumped at the opportunity.”

It was a simple thing Petersen could do, but he believes it yielded a huge impact.

“You’re walking down the street,” he says. “And you see art. You may like it, you may not, but at least for a moment you’ve had art in your day.”

Schmuckli says public response to the windows has been “tremendous.”

“People are genuinely excited about this very public venue to see and experience art outside the museum context and the exposure it affords for local artists,” she says. “We have installed labels for passersby to take away, and it seems that we can never refill the box fast enough in response to people's curiosity. “

The idea that one person can have that sort of big impact on another is part of the reason Petersen spent so much time, money and energy rebuilding something that others would have condemned.

“I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit and I’ve seen what other downtowns are like all over the world,” he said.

He’s excited about downtown and the prospects for bringing art there.

And it frustrates him when he encounters negativity when it comes to revitalization efforts for downtown. He points out that not every effort needs to be on the scale he took with the rebuilding of his historic home. Small actions (like the window displays with Blaffer) can be very effective, he says.

“It just takes a little more thought,” he says. “That’s all it is. A little bit of care.”

“And it takes people that are willing to do both, he continues. “I think that in the end a beautiful building, a beautiful interior is going to make lives better.”

Schmuckli, for one, is grateful for his passion when it comes to Houston, downtown and art.

 “Jim does nothing half-heartedly,” she says.  “When he embraces an idea he will pursue its realization passionately. He was already a great supporter of the museum, but working with him on the Window into Houston project has been an incredibly rewarding experience. His enthusiasm and commitment have been the driving force behind making this new exhibition series a reality and success.”

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