Visit Houston's Hidden Secrets: Oddities in the Bayou City!
After I submitted my college applications as a senior in high school, an odd sensation overcame me. I felt glad and freed, of course, but I also felt a little pit in my stomach as I realized that the schoolwork I’d dedicated the last three and a half years of my life to no longer mattered. I grieved for what I had just lost. Starting this school year isolated in an off-campus apartment, I feel a similar void. My priorities are changing, my mind is reorienting. As R.O. Kwon explains in a phenomenal New York Times piece, the pandemic is a constant state of grieving, wishing for what could have, should have been.
In my angsty high school grief in 2017, I explored the nooks and crannies of my city that embodied the state of limbo I felt in my soul. The eclectic spoke to me as I acted without regard for imaginary futures and instead felt grounded in the odd flux between a rich but ultimately irrelevant past and an electrifying present. As I find myself facing a similar sense of instability this semester, I return to the curiosities of Houston, Texas and share them with others currently bursting with wanderlust.
Heaven On Earth
1802 Travis Street
What once was the continental United States’ largest Holiday Innnow sits derelict and abandoned, towering over the southern edge of downtown. The formerly space-themed Days Inn got passed around between owners like a hot potato before finally settling into the hands of followers of the Beatles-aligned spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They rechristened the building as “Heaven on Earth Inn,” planning to generate income and house members. Unfortunately for them, cults aren’t known for having great bookkeepers and they were promptly evicted.
The hotel has remained mostly empty since then, eventually being completely gutted and left hollow, allowing you to see right through it. Graffiti lines the few walls that remain, changing with the seasons. Bold teens sometimes find various entrances — “doors” as they are colloquially called — and sneak inside to climb the thirty flights of stairs for a rooftop view of Houston.* Every two years, a new company buys the building and promises to renovate it. I’ll believe it when I see it.
*Disclaimer: The Thresher does not encourage trespassing and urges readers to respect property signage.
The Palace of the Golden Orbs (Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace)
3695 Overture Drive
Deep within Houston’s Southwestern suburbs lies a massive, shining palace. Standing on a huge field, the white Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace derives its main moniker from the massive golden orb that tops the impressive structure. The first step in a visionary 11-acre Taoist compound, the project’s leader was deported promptly after the completion of the temple. One of the eeriest places in Houston, the Palace of the Golden Orbs stands slowly deteriorating, beautiful and dead silent.
The Orange Show
2402 Munger Street
In the mid-1950s, a Houston postal worker named Jefferson McKissack convinced himself he’d made a breakthrough and found the next Disneyland, a massively popular attraction. For the next 23 years, McKissack toiled, creating a maze-like compound complete with balconies, a wishing well and a gift shop. The catch? The entire emporium centered around McKissack’s favorite fruit: the typically unassuming orange.
The Orange Show was not the vast success McKissack envisioned, but it works as another passion project standing tall and proud in an amnesiac city that is typically proud to gobble up the esoteric. You can visit The Orange Show during non-pandemic times for just five dollars and experience the wondrous joy in the mundane.
2215 SW Freeway
Just a mile or so off of Rice’s campus lies the empty husk of Magic Island, an Egyptian-themed restaurant where your waiters performed magic tricks for you. Now that the spectacle is gone, the building that remains stands as an icon to native Houstonians, familiar with the glistening pharaoh’s head perched atop the building. Tucked between strip malls on Shepherd to the north and well-to-do houses on Bissonnet to the south, the ’80s era relic with its Vegas aspirations stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian ethos of Houston. Every few years some slick-talking businessperson commits to reopening Magic Island, but until then, it remains the seminal place a friend of a friend of a friend has like, totally explored.
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