Holocaust Museum Houston was created to recall the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million European Jews and millions of others, and the attempt to destroy a great civilization. It was also designed to teach people of all ages, backgrounds and interests that we can resist the worst in humankind. For these purposes, a dedicated site was commissioned and built to gather, teach, collect and preserve the history of the Holocaust.
Over six years, a small medical clinic at the Museum’s current site was converted into the administrative offices and library of Holocaust Museum Houston.
But when New York architect Ralph Appelbaum, designer of the Permanent Exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was selected in 1993 to design Houston’s Permanent Exhibition, “Bearing Witness: A Community Remembers,” he proposed more space was necessary to do it justice.
Today, Holocaust Museum Houston comprises the original building, housing classrooms, a library and galleries plus the Permanent Exhibition, a 105-seat theater and a Memorial Room totaling more than 27,000 square feet. The two wings are linked by a long tapering lobby that opens with an entrance hall and terminates in a tranquil outdoor garden.
Appelbaum and his colleagues devised an austere and forceful addition to the existing building, a compelling collage of basic geometric forms. The new wing is wedge-shaped, with a sloping concrete surface, out of which rises a dark and looming cylinder. The top surface of the wedge is treated as a field of names, commemorating the destroyed Jewish communities of Europe. The cylinder references the chimneys of the crematoria used by the Nazis to burn the bodies of their victims in their killing centers and concentration camps. As Appelbaum remarked at the time, “We wanted to trigger moral and ethical discussions in the community to alert people to what hate and racism can ultimately do.”
At the front of the entrance stands six steel columns that recall the 6 million murdered Jews. A series of steel trestles evokes the railroad tracks on which thousands were carried to their deaths. Austere finishes-dark steel plates and beams combine with gray concrete to remind visitors of the faceless architecture of the death camps and the industrialization of mass murder.
The Permanent Exhibition inteprets chronologically the history of the Holocaust. The gallery ceiling starts high above the exhibition, then descends, just as the specter of death closed in on victims of the Holocaust as time passed. At the conclusion of the exhibition, visitors arrive at a circular theater that lies directly under the towering cylinder.
Commemorating those who perished is a primary theme of the Museum’s mission. In 1992, a national competition was announced for the design of a Memorial Room, a central space within the Museum that would recall the millions lost in the cataclysm. Artists Robert and Patricia Moss-Vreeland of Philadelphia and Murphy Mears Architects of Houston were selected to complete the design in 1993.
To create a space for reflection and remembrance, the designers created a light-filled, chapel-like space, with high, strained-glass windows, of which each wall serves as placeholder for particular memories and messages. The dominant feature is the Wall of Tears, a sweeping mosaic of 600 glazed tiles (15 feet high by 22 feet long), suspended in front of a glass wall on the east side of the chamber. The brown and gray tiles create the “impression of a wall made from and washed by tears,” wrote journalist Patricia C. Johnson.
Flanking the installation of tiles, and creating a triptych, are the Wall of Remembrance (north side) and the Wall of Hope (south side). The former alludes to death and dying, the latter to renewal of life. Facing the Wall of Tears, along the west side of the Memorial Room, is the Memorial Wall designed by Houston architect Mark Mucasey, paved with ceramic tablets that are inscribed with the names of lost families. Beneath a line of scripture, families can commemorate the names of Houston survivors who have died. Together, architecture and art create a meditative space that is dignified and serene.
Just beyond the Lack Family Memorial Room, at the terminus of the central circulation corridor, is the Eric Alexander Garden of Hope. This tranquil outdoor space, designed by Houston architect Carlos Jimenez, commemorates the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. At the center of the garden is a monument of blue granite, inscribed with a poem by a 16-year-old Holocaust survivor, Alena Synkova of Czechoslovakia:
Though there is anguish
deep in my soul -
What if I must search for you forever?
I must not lose faith.
I must not lose hope.