Responding to the dramatic topography of the ravines leading to Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, landscape architect Ralph Gunn collaborated with architect John Staub to develop this 4.4-acre property in the affluent River Oaks Community. The site was designed in 1952 for philanthropists Carroll and Harris Masterson III and named for Mr. Masterson’s grandfather, politician Rienzi Johnston. Observing the classical notions of centrality, form, and symmetry while echoing the property’s natural geologic formation and plant communities, the split-level house was situated amidst formal and naturalistic gardens on a descending bank of terraces.
With steep, wooded ravines on both sides, the house is approached via a picturesque drive providing glimpses of the gardens and surroundings. Low, serpentine walls enclose the gardens and provide stabilization of the steep terrain. Nested into the ravine on the east side of the house, a garden room encloses two parallel sets of stone stairs flanking a shallow rectangular pool. A formal boxwood parterre garden and fountain enhances the west side. The rear of the house is dominated by a pool set into lawns and the entire grounds are planted with beech, magnolias, oaks, and loblolly pines.
In 1997 the property was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston which maintains the gardens and exhibits European decorative arts inside the house. At that time, the Garden Club of Houston and Thompson + Hanson Landscape Architects assumed care of the gardens. In 2003 a bulb garden inspired by Belgian botanist Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s watercolors was installed for educational programming.