Elbert Williams House

The gracious Elbert Williams House in north Dallas was built as a tour de force of Texas regional expression in architecture, art, and craft. Its designer, David R. Williams, was the most prominent of a small group of self-styled artists and intellectuals who, in the 1920s and early 1930s, sought a particularly Texan expression in the arts. Their work, paralleled by similar interest in regional expressions both nationally and internationally in the period, sparked the first real re-evaluation of the history of architecture and building craft in the state and was directly responsible for the establishment of a consciousness of the need for preservation and restoration that has reached full bloom in recent years.

David Williams came by his interest in Texas tradition naturally. He was a fourth-generation Texan born on a cattle ranch in the northwest Panhandle in 1890. After his education in architecture at the University of Texas, he traveled widely for a number of years, living in Mexico, Paris, London, Rome, Florence, and New York. He returned to Texas in his early thirties and settled in Dallas. Shortly thereafter he began a series of pilgrimages across the state to view and photograph what he called “indigenous” Texas buildings. He was particularly attracted by the early homes constructed by German and Alsatian settlers in Central and Southwest Texas. He searched small towns like Castroville, Fredericksburg, and Salado for roots of Texas architecture from the early nineteenth century.

In an article in the Southwest Review in 1928, Williams declared, “Dropping into Castroville is finding peace.” He observed that “In the many beautiful little houses left scattered over Texas by early settlers, there is full proof that some of our grandfathers and most of our great-grandfathers possessed the refined taste for which we have been searching abroad.” He found that “The houses they made were nicely suited to their purpose. Built of native stone and clay and wood from the immediate locality, they seemed to grow out of the ground on which they stood; and they were beautiful because they were simple and natural, and because their builders were honest enough to be satisfied with beauty of line, and simplicity and delicacy of details.”

Although Williams acknowledged the pioneers’ debt to their native European backgrounds, he concluded that “these little houses are not French or Spanish or even English at all, but are natural, native Texas art, suited to our climate and indigenous to our soil. We should be very proud of them. We should use them as sources from which to draw a beautiful architecture which we could call our own and then invite the world to come and see.” This is precisely the approach that Williams took in designing the Elbert Williams House. Most of the forms of the house are familiar to any student of pioneer Texas building. Specific precedents such as the Joseph Carle House in Castroville of 1840 are evident in the roof shapes, cantilevered porch, and general proportions. The house reinterprets the early Texas vocabulary, but in a literal way so as to pay due homage to its sources.

Williams had admired the Castroville houses for the way they had “shady places-wide verandahs and porches along the wings that run off to the rear on the west side, forming shady courts and little gardens full of flowers and potted plants.” These traits were worked carefully into the Dallas house’s plan. He also had high regard for the pioneer buildings’ “slatted shutters which are closed into deep reveals of thick stone walls during the heat of the day to keep out the glare of the sun.” These too were incorporated, although the masonry walls were brick rather than stone and the shutters were improved by mechanical operators.

The result of Williams’ scholarly reinterpretations is a warm, generous home beautifully sited on a low bluff above a creek, carefully tailored to the needs of its original family of seven. The Z-shaped floor plan provides cross-ventilation and access to deep rear porches from lower-floor living spaces. Bedrooms above are tucked under the broad eaves, creating lively vaulted ceilings.

The house was originally imbued with a rich range of regionally inspired craft and detail. A Lone Star motif permeated the house, being used in a cut-out frieze on the front porch, with a rhythm of swags in the dining room, and in a series of threes above the living room doors as well as elsewhere. Furniture, lighting fixtures, and even rugs were designed by Williams and made on the premises. Lynn Ford crafted most of the furniture. Bub Merrick made lighting fixtures of hammered copper, tin, lead, or wood. Williams’ regionalist cronies Jerry Bywaters and Thomas M. Stell created a mural above the living room fireplace depicting the history of Spanish missions in Texas. Native wildflowers were painted on the doors of the serving room and on other woodwork in the house.

Sadly stripped of most of its integral furniture and detail today, the house still retains its original warmth in the exposed brick and soft woods of its interiors. Clean lines, honest beamed ceilings, and generous proportions still bespeak the integrity and grace which Williams so admired in early Texas building and which he proudly extended to future generations. In the Elbert Williams House, David Williams clearly accomplished his goal of creating a “beautiful architecture which we could call our own.”