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Dallas Architecture: Texas Modern Style

by Douglas Newby

Regionalism is usually rooted in centuries of influence and historical precedence. In Dallas, regional or indigenous architecture was pursued simultaneously with the explosion of modern architecture in Europe. The free plan of Mies van der Rohe, the industrial emphasis of LeCorbussier, and the organic design of Frank Lloyd Wright created a new approach to architecture that was both liberating and challenging. It is against this backdrop that David Williams, who had worked in Mexico and then traveled and studied art and architecture in Europe, came back to Dallas and began to experiment with traditional forms and spaces. While he was not satisfied with interpretations of European houses in Dallas, he did design beautiful and well-conceived Spanish Colonial influenced homes. He considered this the most acceptable European style for the Texas climate.

In 1926, he designed 700 Paulus for his youngest brother and physician, Raworth Williams. While this home incorporates Spanish idioms, such as wrought iron, carved stoned, multi-hued roof tiles, cathedral ceiling beams, columns and arches, Williams introduced many elements central to his regional and modern style. He oriented the house to the site so that the bedrooms would receive southern breezes. He included a sleeping porch, placed large fireplaces in the living room and dining room, and used building materials from the area. But this was not enough. Williams was still drawn to the early homes of European settlers who abandoned the styles of their native countries and built houses that he considered natural native Texas art.

As early as 1907, Williams photographed sod and dugout houses in the Panhandle of Texas, much like his own 1890 birthplace, which is also in the Panhandle. In 1926, he was joined by his new friend, protege and fellow ICS graduate, O’Neil Ford, and his brother, Lynn Ford, on trips to New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Castroville, San Antonio, and other little towns where they sketched original farm homes. Their excursions also included New Orleans and East Texas towns where they explored the regional styles.

In 1927, Williams built a house at 6992 Mercedes that was more regional, simple and primitive in its detail and artisanship than the home on Paulus. It drew on the Louisiana and East Texas Colonial houses that were respectful of the environment.

In 1929, O’Neil Ford took a crack at designing a house with indigenous roots. The first project he did on his own was a studio placed high on a cliff overlooking Bachman Creek. It was designed for his friend, artist Jerry Bywaters. Not only did he design this home, which is very close in appearance to the 1840s Klein-Naegelin house he sketched in the German community of New Braunfels, but also he, along with Jerry Bywaters, built it by hand. This one room house and studio at 4715 Watauga was then on the undeveloped outskirts of Dallas in the then suburb Bluffview. Now Bluffview is the location of many of Dallas’ finest modern homes taking advantage of the bluffs, creeks and wooded areas.

David Williams in 1930 built a regional house he considered his best because of the perfect orientation to the elements, something he said was not usually considered by the architects in the 1920s. In 1932, the same year that Henry Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson published their book, The International Style, that defined modern architecture, David Williams designed 3805 McFarlin, the house that best describes Texas modern architecture.

In 1939, O’Neil Ford, now on his own and in partnership with Arch Swank, designed 3201 Wendover, a more modest interpretation of the home Williams designed on McFarlin. It was built in a meadow at the end of a private road cut through a forest in Lakewood. As did the Williams house on McFarlin, 3201 Wendover had sleeping porches and the same intimate artisanship, but it was a house made up of a series of smaller, less voluminous rooms linked together.

Texas Modernism did not stop with Williams and Ford. In the same spirit of these two, Wilson McClure in 1940 designed 7354 E. Mockingbird on one of the six acre sites located on the peninsula west of White Rock Lake, Dallas’ original water supply and man-made recreational lake. In the 1960s most of these sites were subdivided, but 7354 E. Mockingbird remains positioned along the 650 foot dogleg of Humbard’s Branch Creek oblivious to the residential development around it.

Many elements found in Williams’ and Ford’s early homes reoccur here. McClure used white washed brick, 12′ cedar planks, and a painted red standing seam metal roof for the exterior of the Mockingbird home. The ceilings are lower like the house on Wendover, but the floor plan is open. The full depth and length of the house is visible from any room on the first level. Multiple doors, windows, and sleeping porches allow ample cross ventilation in the cool grove of trees. There is no man-made surface in this home. The floors are pegged pine planks; the walls are 8′ red center heart pine beveled edged boards. And the ceilings are the same beveled edge finished wood installed in a diagonal pattern alternating at the rough cedar structural ceiling beams. The effect of this total wood interior is surprisingly, not rustic, but elegant and pristine because of the precise cut and polished surface of every board. The living room is far larger than those of the other homes, an expanded dimension Wilson McClure kept pushing for through the 1960s. He was an advocate of larger multi-use living areas that are so common today.

The influence of David Williams has continued throughout the century. Some of the architects in the second Texas modern movement from 1950-2000 are influenced more by the clean lines of Mies van der Rohe than David Williams, and yet Texas idioms prevail in their work. Other architects very close in the spirit of David Williams have employed new materials, toyed with spaces and have expressed their point of view, but the look of David Williams is still clearly evident. They are all modernists at heart and have designed projects across the country, as well as internationally.

We see that Texas modernism relates not only to the tenants of modernism but to native Texas materials, as well as the concepts, idioms, and designs indigenous to the region. Respect for the environment, an ability to adapt, and a tradition of craftsmanship are all characteristics of Texas houses. Farm houses were constructed with stone excavated from the property and wood cleared from the land. The design was without excessive ornamentation and was sympathetic to the needs of the inhabitants. Early Texas houses were designed on the site, built by hand, were simple rather than crude, and were practical but always elegant in their honest expression.

Quite visible is the influence of Central Texas. Standing seam metal roofs are common, derived from the efficient, inexpensive durable roofs found on farm buildings. There continues to be emphasis on the inside of the house relating to the outside. This might be the well thought out use of shuttered windows or continuous walls forming courtyards and shaded patios. Multiple structures or sections of a single house are often grouped together to add further protection. Unrelenting heat is mitigated by dogtrot hallways that provide ventilation from one end of the house to the other. Large fireplaces are found in every major room to provide warmth in the winter.

Downstairs windows are oriented to capture the south-southeasterly breezes from the gulf, which exit north-northwesterly windows creating the effect of a cooling thermal chimney. Banks of windows are positioned to both capture winter light and the heat of the sun as it travels lower on the horizon and be shielded from the summer sun. Trellises and arbors are used to filter the sun while celebrating it, by creating a natural ornamentation of light and shadow on simple walls.

Another element of Texas modernism is a quirkiness that comes from the self-confidence and rugged individuality deeply rooted in the Texas psyche. Often it is just a note of personal expression that might be found on railings or carved doors that adds to the human scale and touch of these houses. Some of the original features of frame and ranch houses might be adapted in contemporary houses. The ranch style porch might be moved to the second floor and become a balcony, but it still conveys the same message and mood. Accommodating a beautiful or troublesome site encourages originality. Architects put aside conventions as novel solutions are sought.

Modernism provokes an honesty of form and materials, which in Texas means walls made of exposed brick or unpainted wood, or stone from a local quarry while load-bearing beams are unvarnished. Along with using indigenous materials, Texas Modernists prefer handcrafted elements, or designing components on the spot rather than be limited to prefabricated stock. When an exceptional site, the architect’s vision and the artisan’s craft are equally merged to provide a functional home out of native materials. The result is a successful Texas modern home.

David Williams best described the melding of modernism with the 1800s inspiration of the early pioneers that gives us Texas Modernism. He states in the 1931 April issue of Southwest Review, “There is not in any one of these homes built in the Southwest before 1850 an instance of imitation of foreign styles, of show, of striving for effect, of any use of unnatural, unnecessary ornament, or of material not structural and fit for its purpose – Their style is modern for it satisfies all the requirements of modern design and construction.”

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