By CDR Byron (Jug) Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)

So you think those of the older generation can't cut it anymore, huh? Well, let me introduce you to Jim Manzolillo, a human dynamo whose exploits could put most young modern day “wannabes” to shame

Jim's establishment of his new Houston Maritime Museum is typical of how he has operated most of his life during an adventurous worldwide career that included a lot of things — except slowing down! That's something he can't seem to do.

He was a member of the Merchant Marine in WWII, a naval architect, maritime engineer, ship builder, patented inventor, world traveler, lecturer — to name a few. His latest adventure is as the self-appointed creator and curator of Houston's newest cultural and tourist attraction. He says it “fills a void for a city that boasts the second largest port in the United States but had no maritime museum.” Until now, that is.

One of the amazing things was how quickly he accomplished it. In April 2000, he purchased a 60-year old house at 2204 Dorrington, between Holcomb and Main, not far from the Texas Medical Center and Rice University. Then he set about complying with all the zoning and planning red tape, drawing up plans for a complete remodeling inside and out, adding extra rooms, hiring and firing tradesmen working under his demanding supervision, decorating, furnishing — then fine-tuning the finished product in time to open the 4,000 square feet museum in late November of that year.

“I first offered all my collection to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and they sent a representative out to talk about it,” Jim explained, “but I never heard back from them. Time was essence to me, so I decided to do it myself. I've conquered challenges much greater than this, so I knew I could do it.” It wasn't easy, but he did it right and at his own expense.

Over the years, Manzolillo visited more than 100 countries and collected objects as both a hobby and a byproduct of his work. When he operated his shipyards people would bring items and ask him to find buyers for them. Often Jim ended up as the “buyer” if the relic was worthwhile and reasonable enough. Many are now of great value.

Jim Manzolillo shows two of his prized relics,
a flintlock gun, and a shark's tooth
more than two million years old. KA photo.

Houston Maritime Museum
He is quite proud of all of them, especially a 180-year old diving helmet, a 1570 era flintlock gun used on sailing ships, a megledon (tooth of a 60-foot whale-eating shark that lived 2.65 million years ago), a pair of 16th Century Spanish stirrups, a lump of coal recovered from the Titanic, a walrus tusk decorated with scrimshaw in 1830, antique prints and charts, shipboard relics and several dozen historic ship models.

Since the opening of the museum, several visitors donated or loaned their private collections for display here and others plan to do so in the near future.

Approaching the Museum for the first time, one gets the immediate impression it is nautical, even before reading the signage. Its gray and white exterior and shipshape appearance looks like a well-trimmed vessel ready to set sail. It is a preview of coming attractions. Inside, every display gallery is well lighted and tastefully arranged for maximum enjoyment of varied and interesting objects.

Louis XIV Galley, from an island in the
Indian Ocean. KA photo

Partial view of the Houston Maritime Museum
entry Gallery. KA photo

One of more than 50 models displayed is the
15th Century Santa Maria, left center. KA photo.

“Off limits” to visitors is a workroom designated as the “Shipyard.” It is the special domain of professional Historic Ship Builder and Cuban refugee Reinaldo F (Rey) Berre, 59, who volunteers his talent to this worthy cause four days a week. And what a talent!

Following authentic plans, he patiently builds intricate models of historic vessels, carefully connecting timbers, decking and hulls of mahogany and other special woods with miniature brass nails. He doesn't like or use balsa wood other model makers use.

Reinaldo Berre at work in the “Shipyard”
on a model of a Spanish Galleon. KA photo.

Detailed decking and hand-made accessories
shown on Berre's English sloop model
of a bygone era. KA photo.

Partial view of the well-stocked gift shop.
KA photo.

Rey creatively fashions every detail of the many miniaturized accessories such as ports, hatches, ladders, helms, sails, rigging, nets, etc. He even braids miniature lines and hawsers for the realistic look.

Like most great artists, he applies “tricks of the trade,” learned through years of experience, to enhance the detailed beauty of the finished product. (See also Berre story, SMALL BOAT TO FREEDOM.)

Jim has thought of every need. One room is for scouts and other youth groups. Here, they can learn to tie seaman's knots similar to those displayed on the chart shown above, with line for their use attached to a bar below the chart. Also, there are books and displays about ships and the sea. In addition to the galleries, is a large room for meetings, lectures and slide presentations for all age groups.

A special feature of the museum is its high quality, but reasonably priced gifts and souvenirs.

None of the stereotyped, mass-produced, items found at most shops of this sort are here. Instead, one can take home something of substance and consider it to be a comparatively true bargain.

The metal ship shown at bottom right is a good example. This and numerous other brass and copper items such as diving bells, clocks, lighthouses, etc., are lower in price but better quality than those made of plastic or composition materials sold elsewhere. Jim's stated concept is: “I buy them at a reasonable cost, so why shouldn't I sell them the same way?”

Owning and operating shipyards in Mexico from the 1950s to the 1980s, Jim Manzolillo built 240 work vessels of various types for 30 foreign countries. Among those he designed and built was the world's first ship with quarter-inch copper plating for its hull. In 1981, he got what he says was “one of those offers I couldn't refuse” to purchase his business. After the sale he decided to retire in Houston. “This is a great city with a seaport and the kinds of activity that suit my temperament.”

His love for the sea soon prompted him to start cruising again. “I've been on about 95 cruises, seven of them around-the-world types.” He collected much of his memorabilia while cruising, including many of his models. “It was almost like gathering items for a museum, without realizing it,” he reminisced.

During these journeys, he gave many lectures and slide presentations about naval architecture, ship building and harnessing the energy of ocean waves to generate electricity. “We're soon going to run out of fossil fuel,” he warns, “and it is important to seek other means.” He still gives lectures and is in demand on the local and national guest speaking circuit, but has to decline them more and more frequently because of commitments to his beloved museum.

The adage “If you want something done, give it to a busy man” describes Jim quite well. He's both a “thinker” and a “doer” and the Houston Maritime Museum is a great testament to that fact!

Despite its seeming completeness, the museum is in its fledgling state, and Jim Manzolillo hasn't even started to run out of ideas for improving it. A new computer has been installed and, hopefully, a Web site will be forthcoming. Learn more by:

  • Visiting the Museum Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
    Address (click here for map & directions.):
       Houston Maritime Museum
       2204 Dorrington St.
       Houston, TX
  • E-mail Jim Manzolillo
  • Calling: 713-666-1910 (he will return your call if not available)
  • Send a FAX to 713-838-8557