O’Neil Ford’s ‘Caring Campus’

If you blur your eyes slightly it is easy to imagine the Trinity University campus in San Antonio as an inherited relic of marching time – a sensitive, piecemeal aggregation of buildings and spaces collected over several centuries by a rich, culturally eclectic city.

Clearing our vision, this almost plausible myth is dispelled by brickwork that is all too crisp to have weathered two centuries or by sophisticated mechanical systems integrated with other building elements much too conveniently to have been the product of retrofitting. The campus is, of course, not old at all. It is, in fact, quite new, having been built from scratch in various phases from 1951 to 1976.

But the phenomenon of the Trinity campus lies precisely in its ability to elude the restrictions of time – its capacity to incorporate multifarious architectural forms, techniques, issues, and approaches into a rich, vital, satisfying expression.

Trinity is not pure, clear, or singular. It is not polemical or didactic. It eschews the restrictive single-mindedness of its era in favor of a responsive catholicism. It is, like the life that inhabits it, a diverse polyglot assemblage of events, woven together by threads of circumstance. It is charming, endearing, meaningful, and clearly treasured by its inhabitants. One gets the feeling it will endure.

In these regards Trinity distinguishes itself strikingly from its contemporaries – the spate of new campuses that sprouted across the country in the 1950s and ’60s. It has none of the “instant campus” feeling that is so common among those campuses. It is, in fact, even more successful in avoiding a placeless homogeneity than many campuses whose administrations reacted in the 1970s by compulsively hiring many different architects to avoid an “all cut from the same cloth” image.

Trinity bespeaks not so much the ‘interests of its own era as a collective memory of all eras. It ranges backward and forward in time spinning a web of discrete allusions that seldom rise to open quotation. It is, in sum, a rich urban place of the sort we are accustomed to cherishing – old and new, cohesive and diverse, monumental and intimate, common and idiosyncratic.

The Trinity campus is also distinctive because it is the work of a single design team. Forty-six separate building projects constructed over a quarter of a century were all directed by a joint venture between two local San Antonio firms – the office of O’Neil Ford (O’Neil Ford & Associates for the first 17 years; later Ford, Powell & Carson) and the office of Bartlett Cocke.

The story of this long-lived, though often rocky architect/architect/client relationship began in the summer of 1944 when Cocke was hired by the Trinity University building committee to assess the feasibility of constructing a new campus on an abandoned limestone quarry that the university was considering for purchase. Cocke’s report was less than glowing. He noted that the very irregular shape of the property as well as the 70-foot slope difference between low and high points did not lend themselves to the formal arrangement of buildings that the committee seemed to have in mind.

Cocke did not, however, advocate rejection of the site. Instead, he suggested a reassessment of the notion that the campus would be composed of conventional buildings grouped in a formal pattern. If the quarry property was to be used, he recommended that “the arrangement of buildings should be informal, irregular in shape, designed to fit the site.”

But the committee, and especially a single outspoken prospective donor on the committee, had in mind the popular colonial campus model that had been recently employed in other prominent church-related schools in Texas – Baylor, Southern Methodist, and Texas Christian universities. It seemed the appropriate style.

Cocke was hired in 1945, along with Harvey P. Smith a local historian, to do a preliminary scheme for the campus on the quarry site in a “general colonial type of architecture.” The Boston firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, well-known ‘at the time for its work at Harvard and for the reconstruction of Williamsburg, was brought in as consulting architect. The resulting scheme was an odd blend of East Coast academic colonial and early Texas Greek revival. It located a chapel at the high point of the site with academic buildings linking a triangular (trinity?) open space below. Fundraising was begun based on the scheme and by 1947 resources were available to begin construction.

But in the ensuing two years some fundamental shifts of perspective had occurred on the Trinity board of trustees. Frank Murchison, a prominent Dallas businessman, had recently moved to San Antonio, joined the board, and become chairman of the building committee. His colleague on the board, Tom Slick, a young inventor and entrepreneur, had begun to advocate “functional buildings to be in keeping with modern … thinking in designing school and college campuses.” Aware that the previous design work for the campus had created expectations of a more traditional and elaborate style of architecture than they had in mind, Slick and Murchison made the point that a more functional design would make “limited funds go just as far as possible.”

Enter O’Neil Ford. Ford was a relative newcomer to San Antonio in the late-’40s with a reputation of being bright but something of a firebrand. He had first worked in San Antonio in 1939 when he did the restoration plan for La Villita. More recently, he had done mammoth houses there for both Frank Murchison and his brother, John, which incorporated a distinctive blend of Texas tradition and modernism. He was young, outspoken, energetic, and full of ideas, but he had done no significant commercial or large-scale work.

Ford fed ideas to Slick and Murchison who, in turn, conveyed them to the Trinity board. By late-1948 the university decided to realign its architectural team, placing the risky O’Neil Ford as joint architect with the more proven Bartlett Cocke and enlisting the services of William Wurster, then dean at MIT, as consultant.

The stage was set for a far more innovative and imaginative design approach than had been previously envisioned – one that would be, in Ford’s words, “in harmony with the site, preserving its beauty, utilizing its unique topography – not altering it except where absolutely necessary.”

Ford and Cocke were an odd couple. Theirs was an “arranged marriage. Cocke soon found that “the way to get along with Ford was to let him have his way on design.” On the early buildings Ford’s office did all of the design; Cocke’s office did all of the working drawings and supervision. In later buildings Fords office took a larger share of documentation, but never relinquished control of design decisions. The result, in Cocke’s estimation, was “an awful lot of good design.”

In the early days economy was the controlling parameter in building design. Trinity University had built four different campuses in its 80-year history – all of them characterized by phased construction, temporary facilities, and limited budgets. The realignment of architectural direction had been largely precipitated by Slick’s argument that a “modern” approach would be more economical. Now it was up to the architects to prove his point.

The first Trinity buildings were elemental, almost prosaic essays in economy. The magic came in their siting, which was dramatic without overpowering the drama of the site itself. Simple rectilinear forms were nestled among trees, tucked up against a quarry ledge, or perched prominently along the crest of a ridge.

Trustee Slick donated the use of his patent and hydraulic Jacks to enable the early buildings to be erected by the innovative Youtz-Slick “lift-slab” method. Up to 165-ton floor slabs were poured one on top of the other on the ground, jacked to appropriate floor heights after curing, and welded into place on steel columns. Largely because of Slick’s subsidy, the method proved very economical, but also very nerve-racking for both architects and university officials.

Ford liked to tell the story of the morning the first slab was raised when then Trinity President Monroe G. Everett insisted the two of them rush to stand under the slab as soon as it got six feet up. “If this thing falls,” Monroe reasoned, “we’ll both be better off there.”

Technical innovations called much attention to the early Trinity buildings in the architectural press. Not only the structural technique but also its careful expression in architectural form won rave reviews. Structure, skin, and joints were immaculately detailed. Steel sash, for example, were hung on clips stud-bolted directly to the slabs above with no interrupting walls or columns in order to expose the slabs as clearly as possible. Architectural Forum noted in an early article on Trinity in August 1951, “There have been modern ‘horizontal’ buildings before, but none whose sheltering slabs sweep for such ‘miles’ without apparent support – at once so widely overhanging, so smoothly unencumbered by any sign of a beam, so saucily thin. There have been continuous glass walls but none being so expressively hung from above like a glass curtain – which this literally is.”

The clean, well crafted buildings acted as a counterpoint to the topography and vegetation. Their neat order gave discipline to the lacerating crags and gullies of the land. Under the guidance of landscape architects Arthur and Marie Berger, carefully preserved scrub oaks on the site were revived with the addition of soil and water. These were supplemented by other hardy indigenous trees donated by local ranches to reinforce the romance and appeal of the site. The rugged landscape became civilized, domesticated, but not violated.

By the early-’60s, with the new campus already established, Trinity found it somewhat easier to raise funds for new construction and began to be able to build more than “cheap, ugly” buildings as Ford was fond of referring to the first phase boxes. The Northrup Hall Addition (1963), Ruth Taylor Art Building (1963), the T. Frank Murchison Tower (1964), Chapman Graduate Center (1964), and Moody Engineering Building (1964) took the simple massing, evocative siting, and careful detail of their predecessors and amplified them with a new expressiveness.

The apex of this new expressiveness came in 1966 with the completion of the Margarite B. Parker Chapel at the physical as well as spiritual heart of the campus. Here Ford drew stylistic inspirations from such diverse sources as local Spanish missions, German expressionism, the work of Erik Bryggman, and postwar Presbyterian parsimony.

The chapel, along with the later Ruth Taylor Theatre (1966) and Laurie Auditorium (1971), are perhaps the best individual buildings on the campus. They are distinguished by their use of the ever-present slope, their interweaving to create pleasantly scaled, habitable outdoor spaces, and their exquisite use of warm, humane materials.

They are sometimes quiet, sometimes lively. They mix curved, angular, and orthogonal plan forms under flat, shed, and gabled roofs. Their variability and responsiveness is their great strength. They join copper, bronze, wood, concrete, stone, and ceramics with an ubiquitous glue of frosted “Bridgeport pink” bricks. The bricks themselves form piers, walls, towers, and skins. They make arches, occuli, grilles, buttresses, columns, curbs, and caps.

The power of environment in the shaping of an institution is nowhere more clear than at Trinity. Current President Ronald Calgaard attributes much of the character of the school currently to directions set in those embryonic years of new construction. The spirit of the campus and the spirit of the institution are inseparable. A relaxed, congenial attitude pervades both.

The Trinity curriculum emphasizes individuality and personal development. It seeks an intimate relationship between student and student and between student and mentor. This attitude is alive in the casual paths, the generous corridors, the inviting patios, the reflective courtyards of the campus. Learning here is a part of living – a collection, recognition, and celebration of everyday life.

President Calgaard praises Trinity’s architects, not so much for their formal acumen or for their abilities to get the job done on time and within the budget, but for their total involvement with the university. “This was more than a job they did,” he notes. “They had a feeling for the life of the institution.” And it shows.

There is a powerful caring evident in the building of Trinity University – caring about a rugged piece of land, caring about making the most of meager means in hard times, caring about the sensual pleasures available from sensitive use of light, texture, scale, and materials, and caring about the everyday  interactions of people inhabiting a place.