Douglas Newby
Architecturally Significant Homes
Horse & Trolly

Seventy-Five Years of Texas Modernism in Dallas

A Special Issue On Dallas Architecture in Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and
North Central Texas, Fall, 1997, pp50-55

Seventy-Five Years of Texas Modernism in DallasSeventy-Five Years of Texas Modernism in DallasOne of the most compelling groups of houses to emerge from recent nominations for Dallas, 50 Significant Homes, was the Texas Modernist dwellings built over the last seventy-five years. Europe may have exerted the greatest influence on architectural modernism in general, but Texas Modernism triumphed in Dallas. Even East Coast-trained architects like Howard Meyer were influenced by the region, as evidenced by his use of soft Mexican brick for the facade of 3525 Turtle Creek, his pioneering high-rise apartment building.

Texas Modernism relates not only to native Texas materials, but also to the concepts, idioms, and designs indigenous to the region. Its roots are embedded in early Texas homes. A respect for the environment, an ability to adapt, and a tradition of craftsmanship are all characteristics. Ranch houses were constructed with stone excavated from the site and wood cleared from the land. Early Texas homes were built by hand, on a very human scale, without excessive ornamentation. They were simple rather than crude, practical but always elegant in their honest expression.

It is easy to see the influence of West and Central Texas, especially, on Texas Modernist architects. Standing seam metal roofs are common, derived from the efficient, inexpensive, and durable roofs found on ranches. Inside and outside become one by way of windows; continuous walls form courtyards; and buildings grouped together add further protection. Dogtrot hallways allow ventilation from one end of the house to the other. Downstairs windows are oriented to capture the south-southeasterly breezes from the Gulf which exit north-northwesterly windows upstairs, creating the effect of a cooling thermal chimney.

Banks of windows are positioned to capture winter light and heat as the sun travels lower on the horizon, yet they are shielded from the summer sun. Trellises and arbors filter the light while celebrating it by creating a natural ornamentation of shadows 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 on railings or carved doors, adding to the human scale and touch of these houses. Accommodating a beautiful or troublesome site encourages originality. Conventions are put aside as novel solutions are explored.

Traditional features of ranch houses get adapted in modem homes. The ranch-style porch may be moved upstairs and become a balcony, but it still conveys the same message and mood of its inspiration.

Modernism promotes an honesty of form and materials, which in Texas means walls made of exposed brick or unpainted wood, or stone from a local quarry. Load-bearing beams are unvarnished. Along with using indigenous materials, Texas Modernist architects prefer hand-crafting elements rather than ordering prefabricated stock David Williams had O’Neil Ford’s brother, Lynn, do the hand carving for some of his houses on site. When O’Neil Ford and Arch Swank worked together, there was a hole in the design studio that allowed board being ripped to be pushed through by Lynn Ford in the adjacent shop. Jim Wiley put in wood tracks for sliding doors at 4808 Drexel to avoid having to send off for manufactured track Gary Cunningham has a workshop adjoining his Fair Park studio. Lionel Morrison will have a general contractor personally build a tricky staircase on site. Yet there is never a reluctance to experiment with new materials. In 1956, Jim Wiley used a lightweight honeycomb material sheathed in Plexiglas for the sliding doors of the Drexel house.

David Williams is credited with initiating Texas Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. Born a Texan, he had an ongoing love affair with the Lone Star State and was bored with rehashed classical design. He was a romantic who would sprinkle Lone Star symbols throughout his houses.

According to his biographer, Muriel Quest McCarthy, Williams considered the Warner Clark house at 4408 St. Johns Drive in Highland Park (1930) his best house “… mostly because of the perfect orientation of the elements, something never heard of by architects in the mid twenties.”

The outside of the home is white-washed to reflect the sun, balcony porches are positioned to catch the breeze, vertical shutters protect the tall windows, and masonry arches create transitional rooms from the inside to the outside. The inside surfaces include rough wood planks, varnished wood, unpainted brick walls, shellacked and waxed wood surfaces, and natural plaster. These provide a rich contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth, dull and lustrous, accentuating the craftsmanship and texture of a home built by artisans. The roof is standing seam copper. The terraced brickyard has stone and brick pathways and stairs that serve as a natural extension of the home.

O’Neil Ford sought out Williams through unanswered letters and finally by way of an interurban train trip to Dallas from Denton, knocking on his office door. Williams’ response on seeing Ford was, “Where have you been? I have been expecting you.” Williams gave Ford a drafting table and let him begin using the skill he had acquired through the International Correspondence School. Ford apprenticed with Williams from 1926 to 1932, sharing ideas with him on the Warner Clark home and designing a studio for artist Jerry Bywaters in 1929. Along with Williams, O’Neil Ford and his brother, Lynn, would often search out and sketch indigenous houses in Central Texas that would become inspiration for later work.

Williams disbanded his shop in 1932. By 1937, Ford was receiving big commissions from clients such as Frank Murchison and Sid Richardson. In 1939, working with Arch Swank, he designed a house at 3201 Wendover. This home has all the handcrafted details and the almost primitive quality of David Williams’ house on St. Johns and the stair-stepped roof line of another Williams’ house at 3805 McFarlin. The Wendover house is tucked away on several acres down a hidden street in the heart of Lakewood and, like many great homes, is being maintained by its original owners.

In 1956, Jim Wiley of the Oglesby group built a charming home at 4808 Drexel based on modularism that is even more modern in design. Yet even this house reflects the indigenous architectural influence. This was an inexpensive home, using recycled materials from an earlier house on the property. Sited on a peninsula, accessible only by a footbridge, the house is defined on three sides by a meandering creek. To accommodate the owners’ love of music, a forty-eight square-foot shell is centered around a concert room with sixteen-foot ceilings. Sliding doors to the bedrooms allow privacy for a family of four and balcony spaces for audiences up to 125. The creek is in full view through two walls of stacked eight-foot windows, framed by four-inch-square posts that serve as the sole support. Six-inch-wide wood planks are used for the ceilings and concrete for the floors. David Williams would have been proud of the way this home is positioned. The concert room is shaded from direct sunlight until September 1, when the sun begins to hit the edges of the floors. By the end of December, the entire room is illuminated as the winter sun travels lower on the horizon.

Open stairs with metal railings lead to different levels and cubicles that can be opened up to become part of the concert room. Perhaps more than in any house in Dallas, a visitor can enjoy the hidden, elegant setting, the intimacy of a somewhat primitive structure, and the elegance of a very sophisticated design. Additional bridges cross the back creek, and a path lead to the turn-of-the-century servants’ quarters.

In contrast to Wiley’s small, inexpensive house on Drexel, which ended up quite grand, O’Neil Ford in 1957 designed 5455 Northbrook, his largest and most elaborate house, to look modest. In an essay for the 1958 Texas Society of Architects competition, Ford wrote, “the whole scheme became a series of small ‘houses’ connected with roofed galleries.” This complex house was determined by a difficult site of stone ledges and monumental trees. Broad shelves were cut into the rock ledges. Wide external steps connected different levels of the house. Trees were surrounded by gardens that became small courts.

Besides the soft brick, the paving materials came from Mexico and included pinkish-ochre paving tiles and big cut squares of gray lava. Lynn Ford hand carved and signed the front door, and a continuation of folk quality permeates the house. A sense of refinement and polish come from the balance and precision of the intricate craftsmanship. This is a Texas house for Texas art.

In 1961, James Pratt and Hal Box designed and built 9035 Broken Arrow, which submits to its site. It provides a daring and fanciful bridge, lined with surface-weathered fence stone, leading to the center of the house, from which visitors descend to the first floor. Unpainted fir, mahogany, and stone are a practical mix of materials that accentuate the texture and form of the house.

Frank Welch designed a house in Bluffview in 1979 that blends in with the scale of the neighborhood and yet recreates the same mood as the home his mentors, Arch Swank and O’Neil Ford, designed on Wendover. The circular drive seems to be almost embraced by the heavily landscaped facade of this warm house, while the balcony porch could easily be an extension of a home designed by David Williams on St. Johns. The White Rock Lake home Welch designed at 4831 West Lawther in 1997 reinterprets the front balcony porch of the house Williams designed in 1932 at 3805 McFarlin. The pegged beams and polished craftsmanship of the White Rock Lake home are reminiscent of homes designed by Ford, and the music room recalls the proportions and scale of the house Jim Wiley designed on Drexel.

Max Levy is formerly of the Oglesby group and like James Pratt and Frank Welch is originally from West Texas. A house he designed at 4305 Glenleigh captures the balance of the Welch-designed home in Bluffview and provides images of West Texas simplicity. Levy has stated that every once in a while he likes to visit the dog-trot house at Old City Park to cleanse his architectural palate. After he breaks down a home to the simplest form, he can become playful with sunlight. Here it shines through a trellis forming the diagonal linear patterns that provide the ornamentation on the facade.

In 1997, Lionel Morrison is a reductionist while Gary Cunningham is known for his effusive expression. Both design homes rooted in Texas Modernism. While Cunningham experiments with Texas materials and explodes with ideas based on Texas tradition, Morrison continues to refine and pare down to the essence of the tradition. At 3215 Princeton, Morrison expresses the precision of the details, seamless joints, and smooth surfaces. He includes bowed curves and the subtle pattern of gray limestone for the vertical spaces and, from a different depth, cream limestone for the horizontal spaces, maple cabinets without any external hardware, and basic cement and wood floors. Yet this house is also a shed with a dog-trot hall, a continuous wall of stacked bond Granbury limestone forming a courtyard edged with a narrow strip of river rock.

Cunningham incorporates all the idioms and devices previously discussed at a home he designed at 5400 Surrey Circle. Soft limestone excavated from the site is used in the landscaping, and cantilevered balconies jut into the trees that have been incorporated into the design. Bridges, compound walls, limestone, concrete, cement, and copper sheathing arc all ingredients of this home. Inside, there is a rich mixture of materials corresponding to those in David Williams’ Warner Clark house.

Inexpensive, composite wood chip grain beams accentuate the rich mahogany ceiling. The house includes soft colors and rich finishes. In the spirit of Lynn Ford, metal and stone arc combined with wood, emphasizing the craftsmanship and clarity of the materials.

Each of these Texas Modernist architects refers to his work and approaches it in different ways. But they all place great importance on the natural site, the house’s orientation, and honesty in materials and form, while still incorporating technological advances and a measure of Texas whimsy. Residential architecture in Dallas has been immeasurably enriched by their presence.

The author wishes to thank the following individuals whom he interviewed in pa-paring this article: Patsy and Arch Swank; Margaret McDermott, Clifford Welch, A1A; Jim Wiley, FAIA; James Pratt, FAIA; Frank Welch, FAIA; Max Levy, MA; Lionel Morrison, FAIA; and Gary Cunningham, FAIA.

OTHER SOURCES CONSULTED: David Dillon, “Arts and Crafts; Legacy of Design,” Texas Homes, October 1981; David Dillon, “Frank Welch,” The Dallas Morning News, October “I’ ‘9971 Dallas Chapter, A1A, The Prairies Yield: Farces Shaping Dallas Architecture from 1840 to 1962; O’Neil Ford, unpublished essay written for the Texas Society of Architects competition which accompanied the entry of the Haggerty residence, 5455 Northbrook, September 16, 1958; Mary Carolyn Hollers George, O’Neil Ford, Architect (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1991); Muriel Quest McCarthy, David R. Williams: Pioneer Architect (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, [984) Dallas, 50 Significant Homes

The presidents often organizations involved in architecture, history, preservation, and art selected a committee of sixty individuals. These individuals each nominated five houses he or she felt were the most significant. Hidden homes were discussed, and estates closed for twenty years were reopened. Homes large and small spanning a 100-year period were nominated. Some were designed by nationally recognized architects, others were designed and built by their owners. As this issue of Legacies goes to press, die committee is completing the difficult task of selecting the fifty homes that will be featured in a book to be entitled, Dallas 50 Significant Homes, authored by Douglas Newby, the project chairman.

Douglas Newby is the #1 Realtor for Significant Properties.