Dallas Modern: A Perspective on the Modern Movement in Dallas by Stephen Fox

As an architectural historian, I am always frustrated to read or hear that Dallas has no reason for being. This myth must have originated as a humorous acknowledgement of the extent to which human will and political intervention—especially regarding the routing of the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1872—accounted for Dallas’s startling emergence as Texas’s biggest city in the late 1880s. Yet it attests to an abiding problem that Texans (perhaps one can even generalize by saying Americans) have in discerning historical significance in the places where we live, and then knowing what to do with it. This is one reason that I admire Preservation Dallas’s fall modern architecture tour. It implicitly asserts that history is not just about the past or things that look old, but that invention, imagination, and the new are important components of Dallas’s historical identity. The tour puts modernism into historical perspective spatially by enabling Dallas-ites to inhabit, if only briefly, buildings and sites that have contributed to Dallas’s cultural formation. This fall’s tour is important because of the number of houses that are essential constituents of Dallas’ modern identity. I want to suggest how these houses fit into the larger perspective of American architecture, and what they represent about Dallas as a center of cultural creativity.

Given Dallas’s reputation for political conservatism, it is always a surprise to realize that it was the site of an ambitious, if famously unsuccessful, experiment in radical utopian living, the socialist colony of La Réunion of 1855-56, located in what is now Oak Cliff. As James Pratt has shown, the Parisian architect and critic César Daly, a leading voice in the discourse on what might constitute a modern architecture in mid-nineteenth century France, briefly touched down at La Réunion. As with economic development and trade, Dallas’s connections to centers of modernization in architecture were symbolized by railroads, the most potent force of cultural modernization in nineteenth-century Texas. Such important public buildings as the Dallas County Courthouse of 1892 by the Little Rock architects Orlopp & Kusener asserted Dallas’ contemporaneity with the mainstream of American architecture by the end of the nineteenth century. More so than the courthouse, the Kingman-Texas Implement Company Building of 1905 in the West End Historic District displays its designer’s awareness of the architectural progressiveness of wholesale warehouses built in Chicago’s West End. William Cronon, in his book about Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, details the webs of influence that extended from Chicago into its far-flung hinterlands. Chicago was the metropolitan center that, thanks to its trade and railroad connections, defined cultural modernity for Dallas at the beginning of the twentieth century.

By the turn of the century, James E. Flanders, who established his architectural practice in Dallas in 1876, deployed the ornamental language developed by the Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan in detailing Trinity Methodist Church of 1903-04. Masonic Hall of 1910 in downtown Bryan, Texas, demonstrates Flanders’s skill in working in the Chicago modern style. Masonic Hall also indicates how Dallas, like Chicago, served as a regional center for exporting style and professional expertise to its commercial hinterlands. Chicago architects directly affected Dallas. The Chicago firm responsible for much of the early twentieth-century development of the University of Chicago, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, were brought to Dallas in 1911 by Robert S. Hyer, founding president of Southern Methodist University, to design SMU’s Dallas Hall, completed in 1915. Its Georgian-Jeffersonian resonance indicates that Chicago architecture could be conservatively coded as well as modern. It was, however, the industrial modernity of Chicago’s commercial enterprise, embodied in the massive Montgomery, Ward & Company distribution warehouse of 1908 on the north branch of the Chicago River, that struck the most responsive chord in Dallas. When Montgomery-Ward’s rival, Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Company, built its huge Texas warehouse and accompanying employee clubhouse of 1914 on South Lamar, it employed the structural system of stacked slabs of reinforced concrete, finished with curtain walls of brick and lit by tiers of horizontally aligned windows visible on the Montgomery-Ward warehouse. Instead of using a Chicago architect, Sears retained Dallas’s foremost commercial architects, Lang & Witchell. This reinforced Chicago’s impact on Dallas conceptions of architectural modernity indirectly because Lang & Witchell’s chief designer from 1907 to 1917 was Charles Erwin Barglebaugh. Barglebaugh did his architectural apprenticeship in Chicago. From 1901 to 1903 he worked in the Oak Park studio of Frank Lloyd Wright and from 1903 to 1904 he worked for Wright’s former chief draftsman Walter Burley Griffin. Barglebaugh brought the progressive modernism of Chicago to Dallas not as a struggling young architect but as the chief designer for one of the two most prolific architectural practices in north central Texas.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who after the professional decline of his mentor Louis H. Sullivan in the first decade of the twentieth century became the leading figure of what at the time began to be called the Chicago school of modern architecture, had a tangential link to Texas. Wright designed a two-story school for the new town of Crosbyton, forty-five miles east of Lubbock, surveyed in 1908 by the Coonley-Bassett Livestock Company on its Crosby County ranch lands. Avery Coonley of Chicago, who in 1907-09 built Wright’s grandest Prairie style house in the Chicago suburb of Riverside, was a partner in the Coonley-Bassett Livestock Company. Coonley and his brothers were not unusual among Chicago’s business elite in investing in Texas. The XIT Ranch, the largest ranch in Texas, was owned by a syndicate organized by the Chicago entrepreneurs and civic leaders J. V. and Charles Farwell. Wright’s school was not built. Historians of Dallas architecture were well aware of the impact of Chicago progressivism on early twentieth-century buildings even before Ann Q. Wilson unearthed an entry in an obscure professional directory of the early 1920s that outlined Barglebaugh’s Chicago connections. A comparison of Louis Sullivan’s retail masterpiece, the Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street in the Chicago Loop of 1903, and Lang & Witchell’s eight-story Sanger Brothers Dry Goods Store Building of 1910 (rehabilitated in 1967 by the Oglesby Group as El Centro College) makes the extent of Barglebaugh’s knowledge of current Chicago modernism evident.

The scale of retail trade in early twentieth-century Dallas was matched by the scale of its wholesale and manufacturing trade, as a comparison of the Sanger Brothers store and the Higginbotham-Bailey-Logan Building of 1914, also by Lang & Witchell, attests. Although best-known for their commercial and institutional buildings, Lang & Witchell also designed houses. In 1913 Barglebaugh designed R. W. Higginbotham’s expansive house on Swiss Avenue in Munger Place. Dwayne Jones called my attention to Barglebaugh’s virtual reproduction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Heath House in Buffalo, New York, of 1904 for the grandest Prairie house built in Texas. In contrast to Wright’s better-known Robie House in Chicago of 1906-09, the Higginbotham House stands out because of its departures from the refinements characteristic of Wright. Its proportions are different because of taller floor-to-ceiling heights (Wright preferred compressed spaces that emphasized horizontal extension). It has sash windows instead of casement windows, and they are painted white—as they always have been—rather than the dark tone preferred by Wright. The somber colored brick of the Higginbotham House sets it apart from the livelier coloration of the Robie House. Although Lang & Witchell’s construction drawings—which Douglas Newby kindly sent me copies of—specify that the horizontal mortar joints between brick courses were to be raked, creating incised shadow lines to emphasize horizontality (a Wright technique), the Higginbotham House does not float above its site as the Robie House seems to do. These observations notwithstanding, the Higginbotham House was remarkable because it demonstrated that among Dallas’s elite there was a constituency for modern architecture. Barglebaugh designed at least one other Prairie house in Munger Place. Another alumnus of Wright’s Oak Park studio, George Willis, collaborated with J. Edward Overbeck on the expansive J. T. Trezevant House along Turtle Creek of 1907, endowing Dallas with the two most imposing Prairie houses in Texas. Additional, if somewhat more obscure, houses testify to the appeal of innovation and experimentation in Dallas in the 1910s. The no-longer extant Miller House at 6221 Preston Road by Ernest E. McAnelly (who died in 1915, the year after this photograph was published in The Western Architect) was an all-concrete house, as is the Joseph Kovandovitch House of 1914 in Oak Cliff, which Duncan Fulton has documented.

For reasons that remain elusive, the progressive impulse in American architecture lost momentum in the 1910s. When, in the interwar period, the newly-organized firm of Barglebaugh & Whitson designed the Medical Arts Building of 1923 (briefly the tallest reinforced concrete-framed skyscraper in the US and the first skyscraper office building designed exclusively for medical practices), they and their designer R. C. Dale applied historical décor, although sparingly. Whitson & Dale’s multi-block Santa Fe Building of 1926 is an extraordinary complex that integrates skyscraper office and warehouse construction and rail transportation in the heart of the city. Programmatically, it is the epitome of modernity. Yet discrete classical detail was thought necessary to give it a civilizing touch. So thoroughly was architectural progressivism of the 1910s submerged in the 1920s that one can discern little connection between it and Dallas’s second excursion into modernism in the 1930s. The impetus for this second excursion is curious because it grew out of an anti-modernist discourse. The Dallas architect David R. Williams launched his rhetorical appeal for what he first called “indigenous” architecture—“regionalism” became the preferred term—in 1928. Prior to the late 1920s Williams had had a successful career designing houses in a range of historical styles, such as the Lawler House of 1926, that were pleasant but unremarkable. After an aspiring architect from Denton, O’Neil Ford, joined his staff in 1926, the caliber of Williams’s design improved markedly. The W. C. Stroube House in Corsicana of 1927 possesses an assured individuality lacking in Williams’s prior work. Williams’s awareness of and interest in nineteenth-century Texas vernacular buildings in San Antonio and Castroville, the Río Grande border, and the Hill Country predated Ford’s arrival in his office according to Muriel McCarthy. But not until the end of the 1920s did Williams promote the possibility of using these Texas vernacular buildings as models for new architecture. His Dallas masterpiece—the Elbert Williams House in University Park of 1932—was his most ambitious synthesis of various Texas historical models. Williams carried this passion for historical regional models to its logical conclusion in his imaginative cartoon map of the United States of 1934, illustrating pertinent models for all regions of the country.

It was O’Neil Ford, who launched his own practice in Dallas in 1932, who edged Williams’s anti-modernist regionalism toward modernism. Yet Ford’s initial ambivalence about the rationalist architecture of the European Modern Movement—what in the U.S. came to be called the International Style—is apparent not just from such early houses as the Stephen Kahn House of 1932 (clearly in the Williams mold) but in the formal equivalence that Ford drew in an essay in The Southwest Review, the principal organ of the Dallas Regionalist movement, between three versions of one house dressed in regional, traditional, or modern styles. This ambivalence about the modernism-traditionalism debate permeated Dallas architecture in the 1930s. The monumental scale and axial grandeur of the Hall of State at the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 was the work of a young contemporary of O’Neil Ford’s, the Galveston-born architect Donald Barthelme, trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the French classicist Paul Philippe Cret, which is why George L. Dahl added Barthelme to the architectural team that produced the exposition buildings. The Centennial Exposition also resulted in the construction of the first example of Modern Movement architecture in Texas, the Magnolia Lounge of 1936, designed by the Swiss-born New York architect William Lescaze. Lescaze was recommended for the exposition job by the young Dallas merchant Stanley Marcus. In 1935, Marcus commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for them on a small estate on Nonesuch Road. Wright’s house, although compact spatially, was extraordinarily expansive in its relation to site and climate. Wright devised a modern architecture that grew out of the rolling topography of the site and treated the need for insect screening as his point of departure for the cantilevered steel outriggers that would have enveloped the thrusting terraces in a veil of mosquito netting. As Anthony Alofsin has observed, Wright’s Marcus House, which was not built, aspired to dramatize its setting as forcefully as Wright was to do for the Pittsburgh retail merchant, Edgar J. Kaufmann, who built Wright’s Fallingwater at this same time.

Somewhat shaken by his brush with genius, Stanley Marcus turned to Roscoe P. DeWitt of Dallas to design his house. The flat roofs, terrace decks, and horizontal ribbon windows of DeWitt & Washburn’s Marcus House of 1937 (and the screened porch) appeared like a regionalized version of the Rationalist architecture of the Los Angeles modernist Richard Neutra, who Marcus had also considered hiring for the job. DeWitt’s designer was Donald Barthelme, designer of the Hall of State. The ease with which young architects passed from what in Los Angeles, New York, or Paris would have been considered one antithetical extreme to another underscores the ambivalence of the Dallas architecture scene, where there seemed to be more interest in a synthesis between extremes than aligning with one side and against the other. Regionalism provided the via media for this synthesis. What emerged in the later 1930s was not so much the regionalism promoted by David Williams—what Peter Papademetriou characterized as a “formal regionalism,” based on adaptation of historical models—but what Papademetriou called “functional regionalism,” in which historically-sanctioned components, such as roof overhangs and screened porches, were incorporated to respond to prevailing conditions. Parallel to the development of a functional regionalism in Dallas architecture, and connected to it, was the formation of a Regionalist movement among young Dallas artists. Drawing from the American Scene work of such artists as Thomas Hart Benton (this is Benton’s Boom Town, depicting Kilgore during the East Texas oil boom of the early 1930s), the Dallas Regionalists, chief among them O’Neil Ford’s friend and client Jerry Bywaters (this is Bywaters’s Oil Field Girls of 1940), surveyed Depression-era Texas not with nostalgia but unsparing clarity and sly humor. The desire to achieve authenticity, a potent ambition of the modernist critique of traditionalism, propelled Dallas Regionalism toward modernism both in art and architecture.

The country house of Roberta Coke and Alex C. Camp on White Rock Lake of 1936-38, designed by the Houston architect John F. Staub, manages to balance formal regionalism (evident in its low-pitched gabled roofs which evoke the Alsatian-Texan houses of Castroville) with functional regionalism (denoted by its stepped massing, one-room-deep configuration, off-set plan, and awesome sliding steel sash windows). Working with Staub on the design was Donald Barthelme. The simplicity and grandeur of the Camp House contrast with the scenographic regionalism of its neighbor, the DeGolyer House of 1940 by the Beverly Hills architects Burton A. Scott and H. Denman Schutt. From the ethical perspective of Regionalism, authenticity inhered not in stylistic themes but in responding spatially to prevailing conditions. Registering the amelioration of these conditions architecturally was the most rigorous way to generate regionally responsive design. O’Neil Ford and his Dallas partner Arch B. Swank, Jr., followed these practices in their design of a country house for Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Bromberg of 1939, a commission they obtained after bids on John Staub’s design for the Bromberg’s house exceeded their budget. As the archival photo of the house on Preservation Dallas’s website announcement of the tour makes clear, this linear, one-room-deep house is all about the screened expansion of interior space, creating additional rooms out-of-doors. Ford and Swank did not dramatize insect screening with the flair of Frank Lloyd Wright. Indeed, they seem to have tried to make the Bromberg House as formally undemonstrative as possible. Plainness and simplicity were as important in guaranteeing regionalist authenticity as the low-pitched, metal-surfaced, Castroville-type roof, a last vestige of formal regionalism.

Howard R. Meyer’s architectural formation occurred in New York in the 1920s and ‘30s under circumstances very different from those affecting Ford and Swank. Yet Meyer also oscillated between unassertive modernism and sparing regionalism after he moved to Dallas in 1935. Meyer’s Eugene K. Sanger House of 1937 is as quiet in its modernism as was this house in Preston Hollow, published in 1940 (which looks like an expanded version of Ford’s early Kahn House across the street from the Sanger House) in its regionalism. In the expansive period after World War II, the varieties of modernism evident in Dallas coalesced to create not a formal consensus but a political consensus: modernism’s time had come. Drexel Turner’s research indicates that Frank Lloyd Wright’s unbuilt project for a phantasmagoric, glass-sheathed hotel in downtown Dallas for the Longview oilman Rogers Lacy was almost all fantasy. There was never a possibility it would be built. Yet it launched Dallas’s conservative business establishment into support of modern architecture as the representational style of mid-twentieth-century Dallas. The 36-story Republic National Bank Building of 1954 by the New York architects Harrison & Abramovitz represented a dramatic embrace of modernism, as did the 1,000-room Statler Hilton Hotel of 1955 by William B. Tabler of New York. Modernism still retained a provocative edge, as Dallas’s cultural elite discovered when the Dallas Public Library of 1955 by George L. Dahl was the target of right-wing extremism because it contained works by the “communist” artist Pablo Picasso.

During the postwar period, Frank Lloyd Wright was at the peak of his influence in American architecture. The houses of Howard Meyer from this period—the lamented Morris B. Zale House of 1948 in Highland Park and the Ben Lipshy House of 1950 in Greenway Parks—attest to Wright’s impact. In the 1950s, Wright finally got three buildings constructed in Texas: a small house in Houston, the splendid John A. Gillin House of 1950-58 in Preston Hollow, and this building, the Kalita Humphreys Theater of the Dallas Theater Center of 1955-59, designed for director Paul Baker to stage vanguard dramatic productions. As with Mies van der Rohe’s simultaneous additions to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Dallas Theater Center represented a bold act of cultural patronage. It was the only theater designed by Wright to be put under construction during his lifetime. Howard Meyer’s work underwent change in the 1950s as he took on buildings of increased scale. Meyer’s masterpiece, Temple Emanu-El of 1956, designed in association with Max Sandfield and the San Francisco architect William W. Wurster, is so rigorous and austere that Meyer had the leeway to investigate the application of historical typological elements—the tall, cylindrical rooftop drum and saucer dome—that give the temple its presence in the landscape. Meyer was one of the rare Texan modern architects of the 1950s who got to build a high-rise building. The 3525 Turtle Creek Drive apartment building of 1957 is notable because of the distinctive profile that derives from its functionally-induced pin-wheel plan and the textural layering produced by its precast concrete solar screens. Here, the imperatives of functional regionalism were translated to the design of a large building without recourse to vestigial historical-regional references.

A new generation of modern architects entered the Dallas scene in the 1950s. Enslie Oglesby, Jr., and his associate James Wiley represented the fascination of this younger generation with the possibility of constructing transparency, of living in nature separated from it only by walls of glass and a thin roof plate held tensely in place by the slenderest of engineered elements. Their Bartram Kelley House of 1955 in Highland Park, bastion of stylistic conventionality, opens up without hesitation to its pastoral site, eliminating conventional room divisions for a pavilion-like performance space beneath the trees. The mid-century period was characterized by widespread enthusiasm for the modern, which was apparent in the appeal of the ranch-type house, introduced to Dallas as a Regionalist house type in the 1930s. The James W. Smith House of 1962 in Kessler Lake Estates in Oak Cliff, designed by an architect-builder as his own house, is an architecturally refined version of this popular house type, the symbol of mid-century suburban utopia. Despite the postmodern critique of modernism, which gained increasing vehemence in the 1970s, Dallas architects and clients continue to produce inventive modern designs. Oglesby/Greene’s pair of houses for Diane Cheatham at Abbott and Edgewater explores the application of new materials and the possibilities for urban housing in a suburban setting. Urbanism, rather than regionalism, is the place-based discipline that much of the most exciting new modern architecture in Dallas seeks to develop.

Dallas has a history, and modernism is an important constituent of that history. Modern architecture represents the ways in which successive generations of Dallas-ites have sought to negotiate spatially the conflicting claims of contemporaneity, the desire for continuity, and asserting a sense of place (I photographed Frank Welch’s homage to the Carlé House on Preservation Dallas’ 2002 tour). As an architectural historian, what I find so compelling about architecture in Dallas is the repeated effort to re-negotiate these cultural conditions, refusing to let them gravitate into antithetical poles, insisting instead on the spatial exploration of contradictions in the effort to construct new syntheses.

Special thanks to W. Dwayne Jones, executive director of Preservation Dallas, Cindy W. Hendricks, development coordinator, Katherine Seale, survey manager, and Sue Roebuck, administrative coordinator. Also to Larry Groebe, Crystal Prescott, and Douglas Newby.

Delivered at the Dallas Theater Center for Preservation Dallas’ Fall Architecture Tour and Symposium,11 October 2003

Stephen Fox is an architectural historian and a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas. He is also the most insightful and thoughtful architectural historian in Texas. I am always overwhelmed by his almost encyclopedic knowledge of every architect and their great projects in Texas and, my great interest, the architecturally significant homes in Dallas. Stephen Fox is generous and gifted; a true Texas giant in the field.

Douglas Newby