Originally published in Texas Architect, November/December 1983
IMPRESSIONS of a TRAVELER I
Four and a half centuries ago, the shipwrecked Spanish explorer Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was cast ashore along the Texas coast on an island the Spaniards called Malhado-”Wretched.” For six long years he and three companions trekked across the sparcely inhabited Indian territories from what is now Galveston to Corpus Christi, Austin, San Antonio, Big Spring, and El Paso.
In the first published account of this new land, printed in 1542, Cabeza de Vaca describes a vast empty landscape – sweeping coastal plains, rugged sun-parched hills cut by river oases, majestic mountain ranges, and endless flat deserts. He details specific places – the “prickly-pear region” where Indians migrated annually to gather and eat the cactus fruit, the “river of nuts,” which was probably the Guadalupe or Colorado.
As one might imagine, Cabeza de Vaca’s account created no rush to settle the newly discovered land. Although the interior of Texas continued to be penetrated by occasional parties of French and Spanish explorers for the next 150 years, the tough, hardscrabble life the region offered attracted no known settlers. In the fury of 17th-century European colonization, this was not judged to be a hospitable place.
One can imagine the awesome scale, the sense of vastness and isolation, and the formidable challenge of self-sufficiency that must have met the European eye.
When settlement did begin in the early 18th century, the pioneers were not “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” but your restless, your independent, and your strong-willed. The physical form of the place – its disparate climates and landscapes – shaped the society that inhabited it and began a reciprocal relationship which continues to the present.
The land shaped its inhabitants who, in turn, reshaped the land by the act of building-making it more habitable and hospitable. This act, in turn, shaped a subsequent generation of settlers who, likewise, left their own environmental mark to affect later generations – and so on and so on until today. More, perhaps, than it would have been in a gentle, benign landscape, the act of settlement in Texas was an assertive act of placemaking – establishing the presence of human habitation in a strong, indomitable land.
First Settlement – The Missions
Although both the French and the Spanish had made periodic attempts to establish outposts in Texas beginning in 1690, the first important permanent settlement was marked by the founding of San Antonio in 1718. During the following decade the great missions of San Antonio were built as part of an energetic effort by Spanish governors and missionaries to colonize Texas and civilize the Indians. They remain remarkably ‘intact after two and a half centuries, constituting one of the more impressive historical and architectural monuments in the United States.
The buildings express eloquently the austerity, the simplicity, and the devotion of mission life. Their thick stone walls make a bold, unflinching gesture on the landscape – a remarkably permanent gesture for a frail new settlement. The architecture here offers comfort and security in an untamed land – a confidence that may, in fact, have been essential for the success of the new colony.
The emphasis of the missions’ builders on spiritual comfort as well as physical comfort in an alien place is also impressive. The buildings touch the heart and soul and psyche. Sparse but expressive ornamentation enlivens portals, windows, and towers. Simple but dramatic interior spaces go far beyond the provision of pioneer shelter to give spiritual support for what was certainly a lonely and trying endeavor. Much remodeled and unevenly restored, the missions nevertheless still communicate much to us about the values and lifestyles of the state’s earliest colonial inhabitants.
IMPRESSIONS of a TRAVELER II
In 1854, more than three centuries after Cabeza de Vaca, the Yankee explorer and noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, made a six-month trek across Texas, taking an amazingly similar route to that traveled by the Spaniard. He reported his findings in regular articles in The New York Times and later expanded them into a book titled Journey Through Texas. In what was for many Americans the first extensive exposure to the newly annexed state, Olmsted describes a varied and sometimes dangerous frontier ranging from “disagreeable in the extreme – an unpleasant country” to regions with “a great deal of natural beauty” and a population of “agreeable, free-thinking, cultivated brave men.”
Olmsted was particularly impressed by the Hill Country of central Texas, with its “varied grassy surfaces, thick wooded borders, and many trees and shrubs standing singly and in small islands.” He admired the industrious German communities in San Antonio, New Braunfels, Sisterdale and Boerne, with their simple stone and wood homes, shops and farm buildings.
Texas, like most of the United States, was experiencing a period of great prosperity and material development in the 1850s. The state’s population almost tripled during that decade, producing many new settlements such as those Olmsted admired. The development of the railroad, beginning in 1853, conquered the formidable distances that had always hampered settlement of the region and made commercial agriculture possible. It was this prosperity and developing commerce that provoked the rapid growth of towns in a region that previously had been almost wholly rural.
The most prodigious growth in these new towns was in Austin, which had been founded in 1839. Its site was selected as the permanent Capital of Texas by a group of commissioners who, like Olmsted, found the Hill Country to be the loveliest of Texas’ varied landscapes. By the mid-1850s, with a growing population of just under three thousand, the town had begun to attempt a few public buildings of grace and monumentality that would befit the growing and prospering region.
The Governor’s Mansion
The finest of these is the Governor’s Mansion, completed in 1856, by Master Builder Abner Cook. Simple, but elegantly refined, the building is strong and frontal in its massing, making a bold claiming gesture not unlike that of the missions. Even in the city, a strong presence on the land seemed important.
The Mansion’s plain orthogonal shape is characteristic of the German-influenced homes that Olmsted admired in the area, but its graceful ornamented porch draws associations from the more elaborate antebellum homes of the Deep South. This is a plain building with a fancy front – a frontier plan and shape with a civilized porch. It combines the necessary straightforwardness of a new land with an already obvious aspiration to grandeur. It bespeaks both the hardscrabble past and the flamboyant future of the emerging state it was meant to represent at mid-century.
The State Capitol
Across the lawn from the Governor’s Mansion the old Greek Revival Capitol building of 1853 was badly gutted by fire in 1881 and, with little regret, was demolished to make way for a much larger and grander capitol building at the terminus of Congress Avenue. The first capitol had always been too small, timid, and homely to live up to its focal location in the city plan. The state resolved in its second effort to create a suitable crown for the capitol hill around which Austin was, by then, rapidly developing.
The state, which had grown very little from 1860 to 1870, was beginning to recover from the setbacks of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Panic of 1873. By 1880, a new era of prosperity and expansion had begun which the new Capitol building would come to epitomize. Texas was moving from a frontier to a rich agricultural and commercial region. Indicative of this rapid transformation, the number of banks in the state increased fifteen-fold in a ten-year period from 1880 to 1890. The architecture of the Texas State Capitol, completed in 1888, is far richer and more elaborate than that of the Governor’s Mansion across the way. The building is immense – second in size among the statehouses of its time only to the national Capitol. Its ground floor covers an area of two and a quarter acres and its dome reaches to a height of 311 feet – even taller than the dome of the Capitol in Washington.
The building is expressive of the state’s coming of age. Its classic configuration is elegantly proportioned and richly festooned with ornamentation, particularly around the dome. It would be a graceful addition to a capital city anywhere in the world. But its massive walls of local Burnet County pink granite tie it firmly to Texas. Their craggy rustication and simplified detail bespeak their place and time far more eloquently than the elaborate refinements originally proposed by the building’s architect, Elijah E. Myers. Its warm, richly colored interiors are informal and inviting as well as monumental – especially in the dramatic balconied shaft of the rotunda. The Capitol is rugged and refined; elaborate and straightforward; aware of the world, but suitable to its place. It has served appropriately and endearingly for almost a century as a potent symbol of the government of the State of Texas.
The State Capitol was but one of many built expressions of the flamboyant prosperity of the late 19th century in Texas. A great building boom filled the state with eclectic Victorian confections that not only followed international trends of the time but also satisfied a particular Texan penchant for exuberance and show.
The muscular and wildly ornamented Ashbel Smith Building (“Old Red”) in Galveston, by Nicholas J. Clayton, 1890, is a parvenu pile of unrestrained invention. It mixes Renaissance arcades with Spanish Baroque parapets, Italian Gothic gables, and almost Oriental pinnacles. Layered onto a robust Richardsonian massing and rendered in seemingly endless inventions of stone and brick patterning, the disparate styles are as compatible as the Greeks, Turks, Scandanavians, Germans, Spaniards and Anglos who rubbed shoulders in Galveston bars at the time. Immigrants were flooding into the state from all over the world, particularly into the port of Galveston, and were bringing with them ideas, crafts and backgrounds that were quickly assimilated into the cultural richness of the state. Privileged Texans were also traveling abroad and bringing back with them the beauties of exotic places.
The Gresham House in Galveston (Bishop’s Palace), of 1892, by Nicholas Clayton, was built around collections of fireplaces, woodwork, stone carving and other building elements imported by its owner from Europe. It is a museum of building forms, materials and details knit together only loosely in an asymmetrical aggregation common in residential building of the time. The interiors of the house are dazzling and sensual, voluptuous and excessive. Restraint and modesty be damned – the building revels in visual delights.
Perhaps not quite as eclectic as these Galveston works, but certainly as bold and exuberant, the Ellis County Courthouse by James Riely Gordon, completed in 1896, is typical of a genre of public buildings that gave physical presence to govern mental law and order in small towns across the state. An incredible, massive assembly of granite, sandstone, and marble, the hefty courthouse dominates the little town of Waxahachie and even the surrounding countryside. This was a building expression that matched the power of the vast Texas prairie, that grabbed a part of the infinite sky, that broke and marked the boundless horizons. The tough Texas terrain had been matched by a tough and strong-willed populace that was prospering and growing and leaving its bold mark on the built environment.
By the beginning of the new century, the frontier of Texas had passed. Agriculture, especially ranching, which had been the economic lifeblood of the state, began to share its position with mineral exploration and industry. The year 1901 marked both the bringing in of the Spindletop gusher in Beaumont and the building of two large meat-packing plants in Fort Worth. Urban concentrations became more important as centers for manufacturing, business and commerce. Educational institutions grew and matured to develop leadership for these new endeavors.
Two urban universities – the University of Texas, in Austin, and Rice Institute, in Houston – commissioned major master plans for their campuses in the early decades of the century. Both of them sought the best architectural talent in the country for their planning – the University of Texas selecting the well-known New York architect, Cass Gilbert, and Rice commissioning the equally well-respected Boston architect, Ralph Adams Cram.
These were architects of broad experience, refinement and immaculate taste. They were best known for their transmuted Gothic and Classical styles popular in the northeastern United States at the time. Both found, however, that their accustomed stylistic predilections seemed inappropriate in Texas. As Cram wrote, “What were we to do here when there was no possible point d’ appui? A level and stupid site – no historical precedent.”
Cram and Gilbert solved their dilemma by searching through the historical styles with which they were so familiar for elements that seemed appropriate for Texas. Both quickly gravitated to the Mediterranean – for Cram “southern France, Italy, Dalmatia, the Peloponnesus, Byzantium, Anatolia, Syria, Sicily and Spain;” for Gilbert a simpler reinterpretation of the Spanish and Italian Renaissance. In the resultant Lovett Hall, by Cram at Rice, and Battle Hall, by Gilbert at UT, the imports seem at home. Indeed, both buildings set stylistic modes for their respective campuses that were followed judiciously for decades and that are being reasserted even today.
The simple stereometric volumes, the broad red-tile roofs, and the gentle rhythmic arches of both campuses evoke a congenial, relaxed feeling that has suited Texas campus lifestyles well. Cram’s rose-hued brick mixed with Oklahoma marble and Texas granite, and Gilbert’s cream-colored Texas limestone, root the buildings in their region. The thick walls, deep eaves and shadowy arcades borrowed from the Mediterranean bask comfortably in the bright Texas sun.
In the 1920s and ’30s Texans became, in fact, quite enamored with imported Mediterranean styles. Along with their counterparts in California and, to some extent, Florida, Texas architects mined their Spanish heritage, combining it freely with Tuscan motifs. Whole neighborhoods of houses, churches and schools adopted the pleasant, relaxed styles of southern Europe.
Highland Park Village in Dallas (1931) fits easily into this popular mode. But its innovation lies in the use of this imported style in creating a new building type – the shopping center. Here, red-tile roofs, stucco walls, timber balconies and heavy carved doors give rise to department stores, boutiques, movie theaters and lots of parked cars. If you think too hard, the combination is anachronistic, but if you simply experience the place, it feels wonderful – convenient, congenially scaled, gentle, and lovely – a striking contrast to the stark behemoths this innovative building type later spawned.
Back to Roots and Basics
A new stringency began to check the lavish use of imported styles during the decade of the 1930s. Economic hard times provoked by the Great Depression dramatically reduced building volumes as well as individual building budgets. This was not a time for prodigal show, but for belt-tightening.
For a small group of free-thinking architects of the period, it seemed high time for a purge anyway. Like free-thinking Modernists around the globe, they decried the decadence of imported architectural styles and promoted a greater reason and genuineness in design.
David R. Williams, a leader of this radical cadre, built an eloquent expression of reason and simplicity in this 1932 Elbert Williams house in Dallas. The plain-speaking but genuinely elegant house owes much to the simple rural buildings of the early 19th century in Texas, which Williams had studied and admired. The house is sensible and straightforward rather than stylish or showy. It is built honestly of common materials. It was shaped according to the domestic functions of its family of seven, with careful concern for orientation to view, sun and breezes.
Williams admired early Texas buildings because, “They are in good taste… They sit quietly and make no noisy clamor after attention… They are comfortable and beautiful, and there is not a useless detail nor a bit of unnecessary applied ornament.” He matched those intentions in his Elbert Williams house, making evident a philosophy that was to have a significant impact on architectural leadership in Texas for decades to come.
A variant on Williams’ notion of stringency and regional expression, and yet equally indicative of a spirit of the times, Fair Park complex in Dallas was built to house the Centennial celebration for the state in 1936. The degree of ornamentation here has less to do with pioneer simplicity or genuineness than with prominent styles of the day. The crisp, white stepforms, elongated proportions, and processional massing came straight from East Coast Art Deco. The muscled ladies in the elaborate bas-reliefs could almost have stepped right out of Rockefeller Center. But only almost. Details bring the buildings back to Texas. Lone Stars crown the Grand Dames. Artwork depicts pioneers battling the Mexicans. The austerity that was characteristic of the times is again regionalized to Texas.
The growing desire in the 1930s for an architectural expression in Texas appropriate to its place is nowhere more evident than in the work of the young architect O’Neil Ford. A cohort and traveling companion of David Williams, Ford was an outspoken advocate of the same sort of unaffected simplicity based on pioneer values that the Elbert Williams house illustrates. But Ford was more concerned than Williams for new developments in architecture outside the region as well. A voracious reader and seeker, Ford absorbed a broad variety of architectural concerns and incorporated them into his work.
His Chapel in the Woods at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, done with A. B. Swank, is an impressive confluence of frontier simplicity, lingering Mediterranean ambiance, hands-on craft and construction and contemporary European engineering. Built by trainees as a National Youth Administration project in 1939, the simple brick-and-stone volumes adopt the character rather than the specific forms of the early Texas buildings Ford so admired. To these plain-speaking elements a vaguely Romanesque romance is added by traditional church motifs such as the nave organization and rose window.
Inside, the hand labor of trainees and art students is highlighted in stained glass windows, stenciled beams, metal light fixtures, patterned floors, crafty doors, carved altar pieces and pew ends. The chapel was a labor of love, and it shows. But high above these ancient hand crafts looms 20th-century technology in the form of great parabolic arches spanning the space. Ford’s eye for engineering innovation had caught experiments in France and Germany with unconventional geometries used to create efficient load-bearing structures. The chapel merges these evocative new forms gently and unassumingly into more common building elements, creating a synthesis of tradition and innovation that was to become a trademark of Ford’s work.
In the 1958 Texas Industries Semi-Conductor Building in Dallas, Ford, with architect Richard Colley, and associate architects Arch Swank and Sam Zisman, created big house-like shapes out of innovative thin-shell concrete hyperbolic paraboloids, then sheathed them in marble. Old materials and new materials coexist. Old forms and new forms become a unified whole. The result is eye-catching, yet familiar; new, yet not so alien as to be disturbing.
Bridging the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, Ford worked with associate architect Bartlett Cocke for 25 years on the planning and building of Trinity University in San Antonio – a project that has become an impressive built catalogue of his ideals. Begun in 1949, the campus charts Ford’s progressive development through 46 separate building projects varying from plain and parsimonious in the early years to rich and generous in the end. The result is a charming, congenial, livable campus with many distinguished buildings woven into its dramatic and inviting landscape.
The campus is, as Ford intended, “in harmony with the site, preserving its beauty, utilizing its unique topography.” The rugged Texas landscape is occupied, but not conquered. The toughness and strength that once seemed so formidable to pioneers is accepted and made a dramatic asset.
If Trinity University proves that simplicity, charm, informal congeniality and a healthy respect for natural topography can make a successful urban environment at the scale of a campus, then the Paseo del Rio below it in downtown San Antonio is certainly similar proof that such values work at the scale of the city. Often associated with O’Neil Ford, who worked on and around its banks for almost 45 years, the “River Walk” is the product of efforts by hundreds of citizens, politicians and business proprietors, as well as architects and planners from Robert H. H. Hugman in the 1930s to Cyrus Wagner in the 1960s.
The Paseo del Rio is a slice of vital urbanity that continues today to grow and change as it has through almost half a century of development. It has seen the transformation of a neglected flood-prone sewer lined by blank basement walls into a garden paradise for tourists and citizens alike. It represents the very best of American and Texas urbanism. It is varied, dynamic, ad hoc and unpredictable. It is commercial, but humane; free, but sensibly restrained. It is deservedly winning growing recognition as a model for urban revitalization and has provoked, on its own home front, reuse of other urban artifacts as illustrated by the transformation of the old Lone Star Brewery into the San Antonio Museum of Art.
IMPRESSIONS of a TRAVELER III
In 1976, almost a century and a quarter after Frederick Law Olmsted, another Yankee explorer made a short plane and car’s-eye trip to Houston. Ada Louise Huxtable, then architecture critic for The New York Time, reported her mini-journey, like Olmsted, in a series of articles in that venerable publication. These were, one may assume, for many New Yorkers, eye-opening essays on the new Texas. Huxtable describes Houston as “the city of the second half of the 20th century… the American present and future… an exciting and disturbing place.” She found Houston a “study in paradoxes.” There are pines and palm trees, skyscrapers and sprawl; Tudor townhouses stop abruptly as cows and prairie take over.” She determined that the city was “an act of real estate… Houston has been willed on the flat uniform prairie by the expediency of land investment economics.” She was not charmed.
Huxtable found, however, a number of architectural jewels amongst the city’s “unabashed commercial eclecticism.” She noted, for example, the “handsome” extensions to the Museum of Fine Arts by Mies van der Rohe, 1958 and 1973, sitting “among odd vacant lots in a state of decaying or becoming, next to a psychoanalytical center.” Despite their setting, the extensions are, along with the equally handsome Tenneco Building by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (1963) consummate American Modernism. Clean, rational, and immaculately tectonic, both works use a powerful generosity of space to gain drama and grandeur. They are landmarks of an era.
But Huxtable was even more impressed with Pennzoil Place, the late-Modern fare of Philip Johnson, which was just being completed at the time of her visit and which she called “Houston’s Towering “Achievement.” She lauded the building for its marriage of “the art of architecture and the business of investment construction – a union essential to the American economy and the urban environment.” But she also admired its “complex and unconventional three-dimensional form … that meets the eye differently from every viewing point, changing as the perspective changes in a brilliant, shifting geometry.” She liked the building best, “from the freeway, where the elements come together and apart, compose and recompose, with the kinetic advantage of the moving car.”
Unlike the Museum of Fine Arts extensions or the Tenneco Building, which refined and applied a mature genre of architecture developed elsewhere, Pennzoil broke new ground. It shed the constraints of rational Modernism in favor of art, excitement, flair and dynamism. It became the calling card for a new generation of high-rise buildings, and it singled out Houston as fertile soil in which such emerging architectural directions could be nurtured.
Pennzoil Place and the Paseo del Rio are the radical extremes of Texas post-war urbanism. In the late 20th century, the state maintains an environmental diversity almost comparable to that noted by Cabeza de Vaca in the 16th century. Downtown Houston is no more like downtown San Antonio than it is like New York. Austin has more in common with Perth, Australia, than it does with Dallas. And certainly Anson, Burnet, Mineola, and Gonzales are worlds apart from each other as well as from their urban neighbors. In this homogenizing era, it is a diversity which will be hard to maintain.
But even amongst this appropriate variety, there is occasionally an instance where a single environment captures much of what Texas is and has been. The Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth is one such instance. Designed by the renowned American architect, Louis I. Kahn, and completed in 1972, the Kimbell is a timeless expression of the very best of what architecture can be. It is no surprise that it makes the “significant Texas architecture” list of more Texas architects than any other building.
Like the early museums, there is a toughness and severity in the Kimbell Museum evident in its simple, repetitive massing and unabashed use of concrete. It is strong and elemental, clear and uncompromising. It stakes itself broadly into the landscape.
It is like the pioneer buildings that David Williams and O’Neil Ford admired – “honest and comfortable and beautiful… not a useless detail nor a bit of applied ornament on it.” The building’s ruggedness, flatness, its tawny naturalness of surface and color – and especially the way it copes with the sometimes brutal Texas sun-all tie it comfortably to its place. It is part and parcel of Texas.
But like so many of Texas’ other great buildings – the State Capitol, the Bishop’s Palace, Battle Hall , the Chapel in the Woods, the Tenneco Building – it is also part and parcel of a broader world of architecture. It imports from other times and places, from ancient Rome and Egypt to 20th-century Le Corbusier. It bends and warps diverse precedents, molding them into new and appropriate forms.
The Kimbell Museum, like Pennzoil Place, has also become an influential, world-class piece of architecture known and admired from Japan to Scandinavia. It is a crowning achievement, a symbol of a society that is not just striving, but is reaching a cultural maturity.
The next decade offers a stimulating challenge for the environmental future of Texas. Again we are in the midst of significant growth and building. Again the society is reassessing its values – altering its aspirations and their environmental implications. Again, great opportunities present themselves – opportunities to capture for future generations an architectural expression of this place and time. But more so than in the past, architecture in Texas now has the potential to impact environmental thinking beyond its borders. The eyes of more than Texans are upon us. Important new buildings are sprouting up in the region and immediately gaining national and international attention. A new capacity for architectural leadership is evolving along with a capacity to develop for this place a rich, mature cultural expression based on a fertile architectural heritage. It is a hopeful and challenging time for building in Texas, and an appropriate one for reflecting on the best of our environmental inheritance.