Chapel in the Woods, Texas Woman’s University

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 colleague and traveling companion of David R. 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 also an architect of very broad interests – in advancing technology, in craft, in construction, and in architectural history. A voracious reader and seeker, Ford absorbed a broad variety of architectural concerns and incorporated them into his work.

O’Neil Ford was born in 1905 in Pink Hill, Texas, a tiny whistle-stop town just south of the Oklahoma border. As a youth he worked as a carpenter in the West Texas oil fields before moving to Denton in 1924 to attend North Texas State Teachers College (now North Texas State University). After two years of college, during which he had also taken a correspondence course in drafting, he landed a job working for David Williams in Dallas. He and Williams were kindred souls, but the older Williams had been more places and seen much more of the world than Ford. Ford, on the other hand, reacquainted Williams with the power and beauty of his own home state and was largely responsible for initiating their pilgrimages to the small towns of Texas in search of an indigenous architectural expression.

Shortly after the Great Depression hit, Williams closed his design office and Ford set out on his own. During most of the 1930s Ford went where he could find good work – to New Orleans to work for the Southern Pine Association, to Georgia and Florida to manage government land planning projects, to Washington to work for the WPA, and finally back to Dallas in 1936 to work on the Centennial Celebration. During these years he had also managed to do a few small houses, one of them for Mary Marshall, director of the Art Department at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman’s University) in Denton.

Marshall and others became involved at about that time in a proposal for a National Youth Administration project to build a nonsectarian chapel on the TSCW campus. Coincidentally, David R. Williams had just become National Deputy Director of the NYA, so that between Marshall and Williams, Ford had no trouble getting the job as architect for the new chapel.

The project was tailor-made for Ford and drew his best efforts from beginning to end. Ford had long been interested in crafts, using woodcarving and metalwork by his brother Lynn and weavings by his mother and sister in his previous house projects.  The meager $25,000 budget for the chapel was barely enough for materials for the building’ but its designation as an NYA project made available a small army of construction trainees. In addition, Ford and Marshall decided to involve art students heavily in both design and production of woodwork, mosaics, carpets, and especially stained glass. The building was designed to be very labor-intensive with the hand of developing young trainees evident at every point. Ford loved the idea of helping young people learn the building trades and found the whole process a “fine education for them, and for Arch Swank and me” (Ford, personal communication).

The resulting building is an impressive confluence of frontier simplicity, lingering Mediterranean ambiance, and hands-on craft and construction. Local brick and limestone are formed into simple masonry volumes that 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 simple but traditional church motifs, popular at the time among architects as diverse as Roland Coate and Ralph Adams Cram.

Inside, the hand labor of trainees and art students is highlighted in richly stenciled beams, delicate brass light fixtures, carefully patterned floors, and crafty wooden doors, altar pieces, and pew ends. But it is in the stained glass that the spirit and cooperation of the building’s creators is most evident. Of the eleven large windows, eight deal with themes of professional women ministering to human needs in nursing, teaching, science, and social services as well as in speech, literature, dance, and music. The focal chancel window above the altar is dedicated to motherhood, while the rose window opposite it has motifs derived from Texas wildflowers. The eleventh window, a small one in the vestibule, lovingly portrays the building of the chapel, giving credit to its donors, builders, and decorators.

The Chapel in the Woods was a labor of love, and it shows. Eleanor Roosevelt’s attendance at its dedication in 1939 confirmed the noteworthiness of the process that brought builders, designers, and craftspersons into admirable mutual support. The result is a gentle, meaningful, and evocative architectural expression which tells us much, even today, about the values and character of its makers.