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The Architecture of O'Neil Ford

[ Architecture ]

The Architecture of O'Neil Ford

Celebrating Place

By David Dillon

The first critical study of O'Neil Ford's architecture in both its regional and national contexts.

1999

$29.95$20.07

33% website discount price

Hardcover

10 x 11 | 176 pp. | 62 color photos, 68 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-71602-5

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O'Neil Ford (1905-1982) was the most influential Texas architect of the twentieth century. A technological innovator who bridged Texas' rural past and urban future, he taught three generations of architects how to adapt vernacular forms and materials to modern conditions. Widely known for his many projects in San Antonio and Dallas, Ford also designed buildings from Laredo, Texas, to Saratoga Springs, New York, over the course of a sixty-year career.

In this book, David Dillon undertakes the first critical study of Ford's architecture in both its regional and national contexts. In particular, Dillon explores Ford's links to the regional and eclectic movements of the 1920s and 1930s, his use of postwar technology and materials (lift-slab, pre-stressed concrete shells, new metals), and his influence on other architects in Texas and the Southwest. Quotes from the author's wide-ranging interviews with O'Neil Ford in the last years of his life, as well as with his partners, relatives, friends, and critics, give the text firsthand vividness.

  • List of Major Buildings Discussed
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. The End and the Beginning
  • 2. The Hick from Pink Hill
  • 3. Discoveries at Home and Abroad
  • 4. Architecture in the Age of Optimism
  • 5. Citizen of the World
  • 6. The Legacy of O'Neil Ford
  • Notes
  • Selected List of Works Consulted
  • Index

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O'Neil Ford died July 20, 1982, and was buried three days later beside the San Antonio River, near Mission Espada, the smallest and simplest of the city's five missions. The setting was appropriate because for decades Ford had fought to save the river and the missions from predation and neglect. His own house, Willow Way, occupied a corner of the original San Jose farm, allowing him to live the continuity between past and present that his architecture tried to express.

Most of what was best in O'Neil Ford's work and life sprang from his passion for place. He was born on the frontier and be longed to the last generation of American architects with genuine ties to the land—an agrarian and a Jeffersonian who chose a T-square over a bull-tongue plow. His small-town roots made him pragmatic and healthily skeptical, and thereby saved his architecture from becoming decorative or self-indulgent. He traveled through life with the country boy's wariness of the city slicker and the self-educated man's suspicion of the college graduate. He bragged about learning his craft in the noise and dirt of the building site instead of the classroom, while apologizing in the same breath for never having gone to architecture school.

O'Neil Ford was no model of consistency on this or many other points. He was an Irish talker who charmed friends and clients with gusts of Whitmanesque eloquence. And he was an instinctive selfdramatizer, who played more character parts in his career than Barry Fitzgerald. His friend Bill Lacy once described him as "crazy, lovable, bombastic, gruff, colorful, fictitious O'Neil Ford, who reveled in his Texas heritage and in his self-proclaimed right to be a cantankerous S.O.B."

All true, and those who gathered in the Margarite B. Parker Chapel at Trinity University that humid July morning knew that they'd probably never encounter such an extraordinary concatenation of human qualities again. They probably did not know that Ford had orchestrated the final act of his autobiographical drama as deftly as he had all the preceding ones. Hired the band, handpicked the eulogists, even designed the set and written the program notes.

"I don't know how to say there must not be any great ceremony," they read. "No weeping. I have gone away for pretty long trips before. And besides, does anyone have any choice about dying? Why fear the inevitable? Why scorn the natural ending?"

It was vintage Ford, witty and also slightly self-conscious, as though he half-expected his high school speech teacher to rise from a pew to correct his diction. A bit of a con, too. Being Irish, he coveted the tears, would have ordered them if necessary.

The message appeared beneath a blackand-white photograph of the author seated at his beloved Wooten Patent Secretary—a gift from his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Orynski Graham—with a suit coat bunched up around him like a cloak, diary sprung open from a stuffing of clippings and notes that documented his quintessentially American wanderlust. Never more at home than when he was on the road, that was O'Neil Ford. The photograph was patriarchal, bankerish almost, the architect as mentor and public figure. It gave no hint of the turmoil within, especially during his last years when his firm had grown far larger than he'd ever imagined and his failing health made him uncharacteristically sour and cynical.

The Parker Chapel is a handsome Romanesque box, with massive brick walls and thick arches that spring across the nave. Old-fashioned and modern, difficult to classify, like its architect.

As mourners took their seats, the Happy Jazz Band, Ford cronies all, faded in and out with bluesy spirituals ("Come Sunday," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," a few bars of "Summertime") that had deep country roots. As producer-director, Ford had outdone himself this time, lying down between walls and windows of his own design, with his brother Lynn's light fixtures glowing overhead and their mother's hand-carved memorial cross blessing the proceedings. There was a symmetry to the moment that was not always visible in the life.

The minister, the Reverend Raymond Judd from Sherman, began with four readings from Scripture, each shrewdly selected to honor the maker of buildings and places, from "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . ." to "Establish the work of our hands. . . ." Good choices, because Ford was first of all a builder and a craftsman, almost quaint talents in this cosmetic, postmodern world. "We don't have designers in this office," he'd announce proudly to visitors. "We have only builders."

But Ford's memory would have been better served with a passage from one of the Old Testament prophets, a moralizing shouter such as Isaiah or Jeremiah. Anyone who'd heard his diatribes on "brick venereal" and "interior desecrators" knew that beneath the jaunty and irreverent exterior lurked the soul of a Puritan, who instinctively divided buildings and architects into good and evil, moral and immoral, and judged accordingly.

"We are gathered to thank God for O'Neil Ford," the Reverend Judd continued, "and to celebrate the electricity of his life." Another good word for Ford, "electricity." Shortly after losing a lung to cancer, he showed up at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) meeting in San Antonio sporting a heating pad with a dangling plug and a sign proclaiming "O'Neil Ford, The Electric Architect." That spark had brightened the lives of countless people, and shocked many as well. No one was neutral about O'Neil Ford. He was adored and denounced with equal fervor.

But Ford's pals were running the show this morning. Maury Maverick, Jr., son of the Maverick who had lured Ford to San Antonio in the 1930s to restore La Villita, and a cousin by marriage, solemnly quoted an anonymous Greek poet on mortality, followed by an equally dour borrowing from classical scholar Gilbert Murray to the effect that throughout his life O'Neil "had stood up to those who would make vulgar the tragedy."

The tragedy was never specified, but the "vulgarians" were easy to identify: bankers, developers, rich Republicans, a cadre of prickly antagonists whose alleged misdeeds justified, in Ford's mind at least, a lifetime of High Noon standoffs.

John Henry Faulk—a Texas humorist and radio commentator who had been blacklisted in the 1950s-followed Maverick by twanging Hamlet's soliloquy, "What a Piece of Work is Man." Ford got straight A's in Shakespeare in college and was no enemy of myth making. But one could almost hear him groaning from the coffin. "Gawd, John Henry, you're laying it on a bit thick, aren't you? Indulging in hyperbole."

Of course he was, hyperbole being the trope of Ford's entire generation. He and his friends lived by stories, laying them down like planks across a flood of personal misfortunes. Some have argued that Ford talked architecture better than he practiced it. But John Henry got it mostly right by placing him in the company of J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb. Four Texas originals, dirt men all, who studied and revered nature in the conviction that such knowledge makes a full man. In each lingered a memory of land that had not been despoiled, which in turn only nourished their contempt for those who would recklessly consume and dominate it.

Of the three eulogists, only historian Amy Freeman Lee from Incarnate Word College refused to go down the canonization path. Be brief and humorous, Ford had instructed her years before, and she was, telling five stories, one for each decade of their friendship. The best concerned Ford's love affair with a prewar Volkswagen Beetle, which he showed off to friends by ceremoniously slamming the doors and proclaiming "That's music." Amy smiled in disbelief. Yet Ford's love of cars and trains and industrial machinery was utterly American too. He owned a Rolls Royce when he was twenty and penniless, and kept several Bentleys in the yard at Willow Way when he didn't have enough money to fix the plumbing. He joked that the only reason he married Wanda was to get his hands on her 1938 MG Roadster.

"And he had guts," Amy concluded. "He lost commissions because he said what he thought. He made enemies. But he had a hundred friends for every enemy."

The ratio might have been off, but the sentiment was right. Ford's life was a succession of isometric exercises, in which he gained strength by pushing against immovable objects. Everyone in San Antonio remembered the bruising North Expressway fight of the 1960s and 1970s, which cost his firm all its public commissions. And the quasi-gladiatorial combat over the demolition of historic buildings at HemisFair, which ended with his getting sacked as its supervising architect. There were dozens more, high-minded and otherwise, that made Ford a lightning rod of controversy and a hero to the young designers who flocked to his office. He could be narrow and obstreperous, a bully about his pet causes and a pyromaniac when it came to burning bridges. Yet, like a bear in the middle of a path, he could not be ignored. In a profession that has grown increasingly abstract and remote from the concerns of ordinary people, he represented passionate, red-blooded populism. He was an advocate and a proselytizer who believed that practitioners of the most public art belonged at the barricades instead of hunched over their drafting tables.

The Happy Jazz Band, having sunk to mawkishness with "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," redeemed itself with "Amazing Grace," that simplest and most American of hymns, followed by a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." The clear, sharp notes ricocheted around the chapel, bringing back memories of O'Neil Ford the dervish, whooping it up at Cullum's Landing on the Riverwalk or—with only one lung—dancing all night in the ballroom of the Saint Anthony Hotel. Nobody wanted to remember him motionless and horizontal.

With mourners clapping to the music, Ford's casket was whisked up the aisle for the trip to the cemetery. Not the direct and efficient funeral director's ride this morning, but a meandering procession that retraced Ford's career in San Antonio: around La Villita, the job that brought him to the city in 1939 and that had changed his life; past his old office at 528 King William Street, now a pleasantly gentrified bungalow displaying no traces of its most famous occupant; then slowly across Main Plaza to San Fernando Cathedral, which this Irish agnostic had recycled from a "goddam jukebox"; and out the River Road past Mission Conception, another of his firm's redemptive acts, to the banks of the San Antonio River above Espada.

As the July heat draped itself over the landscape, family and friends clustered around a simple wood coffin covered with zinnias and marigolds, honest country flowers pulled from daughter Wandita's garden that morning and having the smell of earth still on them.

The Happy Jazz Band regrouped beneath a swelling pecan tree and once again played "Deep River" and "Come Sunday," spirituals that Ford would have known from his boyhood in Pink Hill and Sherman. The band played richly and from deep inside, as one should for a friend. The Reverend Mr. Judd read a few last prayers for "our friend O'Neil," which were lost in the hum of the cicadas and the slopping of water over a low rock dam. If it weren't for the minivans and the square of Astroturf framing the grave, the scene could have been Pink Hill, Texas, a hundred years earlier, a "premodern" gathering Ford might have called it. The band took up "Come Sunday" again. A few people stepped forward to sprinkle dirt on the casket. And that was that.

O'Neil Ford's career spanned a rich and volatile period in Texas history, when urban values overtook rural ones, yet in which the state's remoteness from the capitals of fashion sustained a softer, more indigenous modern architecture. Ford helped launch Texas architecture on a new path by showing that its roots were deep and often beautiful. He lived long enough to see some of his ideas embraced and others trivialized. Throughout his career he tried to be a steward of his place as well as a shaper of it, an architect who moved forward by fondly recalling the past. His death marked the end of an era in Texas architecture as surely as his rediscovery of early Texas buildings in the 1920s had marked the beginning of one. This book examines the remarkable career that happened in between.

David Dillon is the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News and the author of six previous books, including Dallas Architecture: 1936-1986 and The FDR Memorial. He currently divides his time between Dallas and Amherst, Massachusetts.

"This book describes the arrival of modernism, regionalism, and postwar twentieth-century technology in an unlikely messenger from Pink Hill, Texas. O'Neil Ford was an American original, and this book does eloquent justice to that originality."
—Bill Lacy, FAIA, author of 100 Contemporary Architects: Drawings and Sketches

"David Dillon has stirred the embers of the fire of personality, conscience, and, yes, genius, that was O'Neil Ford, the ranking Texas architect of the twentieth century. That fire warmed and danced among many of us for several generations, and Dillon's evocation of Ford's era is touching and stimulating: it made me remember what kind of architect I wanted to be."
—Frank D. Welch, FAIA

Publications Award
Conservation Society Of San Antonio