One highlight of David Beebe and John Nova Lomax’s Richmond Ave. walking tour mentioned here last week was Lomax’s description of this strange vision on the #25 bus route to Mission Bend:
Towards the end of the line, the bus turned left off Richmond and into a weird suburban residential neighborhood. Ashford Point, the street we were on, was bisected by a greenspace in which there was a sunken trail, which ducked under the streets in little tunnels.
And then there was… this thing, this sprawling empty complex, this five-story square building topped by a 40-foot golden geodesic dome, flanked by two smaller domes. Two exterior staircases flanked these orbs – the overall effect was something like a sawed-off Mayan temple of the sun.
The whole compound was ringed by an iron fence, and then there was another huge fence around the entry to the building. The vast parking lot was empty, and there were no signs nor apparently even a mailbox. It was completely surreal. Neither Beebe nor I had a clue what it was – Beebe thought it might be the private residence of a very weird Arab sheik. I thought at first that it might be a mosque, but it didn’t look much like one closer up.
After the jump: What was it?
As Lomax discovers the next day, after harnessing the power of The Google, the building is the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace, built by members of the Wu-Wei Tien Tao Association, a Chinese universalist religious organization. A Houston Press article by Steve McVicker from September 1996 — covering an earlier deed-restriction dispute between the Tien Taoists and residents of the Kingsbridge Park neighborhood — gives some background on the sect and includes this detail on the temple structure, shortly before it was built:
Within two or three months, construction on the first phase of a new Tien Tao temple is scheduled to be completed on Ashford Point, not far from Master Cheung’s home. The striking five-story structure will be stark white in color and will provide 40,000 square feet of floor space . . . The new temple, which will carry an eventual price tag of more than $6 million, will include a three-story, copper-colored geodesic dome that will serve as “the palace of the God.” The dome, and two smaller ones, will eventually be hoisted atop the structure, ensuring that the temple will stand out like the Taj Mahal among the apartment complexes and strip centers in the area. The structure is the first of its kind for Tien Tao, whose followers hope to have the first floor operational for services before the summer.
Apparently, more buildings were intended. This drawing, found on the website of Houston architect Duane Bradshaw, shows one image from the master plan of an 11 acre site — featuring daycare, retail, and residential facilities for the religious organization:
In 1999, the sect’s new leader, Kwai Fun Wong, made the mistake of traveling to her native Hong Kong to arrange the funeral of her predecessor. Wong had applied for permanent residency in the U.S. several years earlier, but had not yet secured permission for her trip from the INS (though her lawyer had applied for it). Upon her return, Kwai Fun Wong was deported, leaving the sect without a local leader. Wong’s legal appeals were denied.
The building now pretty much defines white elephant, but I guess you could say it is one of the most unknown of Houston’s odd places.
- Sole of Houston: Richmond Avenue, Houston’s Street of Dreamz [Houstoned]
- End Times [Houston Press]
- Kwai Fun Wong v. United States, 373 F.3d 952 [Public.Resource.org]
- A Walk Down Cheezy Street: Richmond Avenue, Past Its Prime [Swamplot]