How Frank Welch shaped modern Dallas, and put the Texas in Texas Architecture
When I first met Frank Welch, who died in June at the age of 90, I had no idea of his special place in the culture of Texas architecture, that he was the essential link to the pioneers of a distinctive modern tradition of which he had become a principal exemplar.
This was just five years ago, though it seems a much longer time than that. I had come to Dallas then not to assume the job of architecture critic at this paper, but to visit the work of Philip Johnson, subject of a forthcoming biography. That is how I initially discovered Welch; not as an architect, but as the author of a fine book on Johnson’s work in Texas.
Philip Johnson & Texas book by Frank D. Welch.(Paul Hester / Digital file)
I had the book in my queue but had not read it before that trip. I will admit I had been skeptical of it, figuring it would be the hagiographical treatment of a Johnson acolyte. When I read it, I discovered that I was very much mistaken. Though it was written with the generosity and charm that I would come to know as defining Welch characteristics, it was by no means fawning. It was astute in its analysis of Johnson’s work, and it remains one of the most thoroughly researched social histories of postwar architecture in Texas.
Yet when I asked him if he had any advice for me in my own writing on Johnson — whose work and behavior were not always salutary, to say the least — he told me he wished he had been harder on him.
That just wasn’t in Welch. He was a gentleman through and through, a product of North Texas — he was born in Paris and raised in Sherman — with that easy sense of good manners and hospitality that defines the region.
Those same attributes — generosity, openness, a sense of place — also define his architecture, or so I would learn.
It was only after I moved to Dallas, in 2013, that I began to appreciate Welch as an architect. In a self-directed crash-course on Texas architecture, I learned that he had been the protégé of O’Neil Ford, who had in turn been mentored by David R. Williams, the grandfather of Texas regionalism. To look at the Highland Park house Williams designed on McFarlin Avenue for Ebert Williams, with its steeply pitched roof, projecting chimney and shaded balcony, is to see the roots of Welch’s commodious aesthetic.
Welch began working for Ford almost by accident. The two met in Houston in 1956 at a party thrown by a pair of bohemian sisters and found an immediate rapport over a long, wine-fueled night at which they outlasted their hosts. Welch, then, was a bright young architect just returned from a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship. Ford had a booming practice, based in San Antonio, in which he had taken Williams’ embrace of vernacular tradition and married it to a modernism in tune with the postwar era. The timing was fortuitous. Ford needed a steady hand to manage an important new project in North Dallas, an experimental industrial building for Texas Instruments.
It was and remains a landmark, with a parabolic roof suspended from tensioned cables, and a floor with a concrete “tetrapod” space-frame to accommodate the company’s advanced mechanical systems.
With Ford’s consent, Welch began moonlighting as a residential architect and was soon drawn to West Texas, where he found a clientele flush from the oil boom but unpretentious and open to a modern architecture that reflected its leisurely postwar lifestyle. He began a practice in the basement of a Midland clothing store and stayed for 25 years, though he soon found more appealing quarters.
It was during those years that he made a name for himself and designed the project for which he will forever be most recognized, a viewing platform on a ranch in rural Sterling County. The commission came from one of his Midland clients, who had purchased the land and wanted nothing more than a simple structure with a fireplace and room for sleeping bags.
That is what he gave them, an open room that framed the view, but set up above the ground (to protect from snakes) and constructed of abandoned timber and stone found on the site. It was both archaic and modern, and seemed like it had been there forever, like the small stone monuments, built by Mexican herders who occupied the ranch and lent the structure its name. Ranchers called the rock piles “birthdays” and so the house was christened The Birthday.
The Birthday, Sterling County, Texas. Architect: Frank Welch(Ezra Stoller / Esto)
It was his greatest achievement, but it became his greatest disappointment. When the ranch was sold, a new owner disregarded protests from preservationists, and attached an uninspired house to the structure, turning it into a glorified porch. For Welch it was ruined, and he vowed never to step into it again, a promise he kept.
I had learned this history when I next met Welch, at a gathering that had been organized for my benefit at the home of architect Bill Booziotis. The idea was to introduce the new architecture critic in town to the older generation of men (and it was all men, unfortunately) who had shaped the city of Dallas, or tried to.
It is only four years later, but many of those gentlemen are no longer with us. Booziotis, also a beloved figure, died last year. He was 80. David Braden, who had partnered with George Dahl — the prolific architect and chief designer of Fair Park — died in 2015. He was 90. Pat Spillman, founding partner of Fisher and Spillman, died in 2016. He had been an instrumental member of mayor J. Erik Jonsson’s Goals for Dallas team, and the author of its prescriptions for urban design. He was 91.
Earlier this year, the city lost another member of this generation in E. G. Hamilton, the founder of the firm Omniplan and the chief architect of NorthPark Center. He was 98.
JOGGERS ON CHAMPS DE MARS, PARIS (1978) (Frank Welch / The Dallas Morning News Archives )
Of all these figures, it was with Welch — Frank — that I developed a special bond. Perhaps it was because he reminded me of my own grandfather, with whom I was close, and because we had several things in common: the practice of photography; our books on Philip Johnson; poor eyesight. As his degenerated, he found ways to adjust — he got a kick out of my curly corona of hair, and identified me by touching it. Because he was so adored, there was always someone to drive him to an opening or a dinner or a film screening. He loved the movies, even when they were just a blur. One of his recent favorites was Fifty Shades of Grey. Women, of course, adored him, but who didn’t?
Sometimes it felt like I was stalking him. When I knew he was going to be at an event, I tried to be there. My wife and I had trouble agreeing on a house, but we both fell for a Welch townhouse in Oak Lawn. We lost it to a cash bidder. On Monday evenings, he could reliably be found with a dry martini at Momo’s, the Italian restaurant in the Quadrangle, the Uptown shopping center where he had a standing date with a rotating group of architect friends. I joined as often as my schedule allowed, and regret that it wasn’t often enough.
Architect Frank Welch with Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster on Feb. 16, 2016.(Mark Lamster / Courtesy of Mark Lamster )
The talk often turned to the state of Dallas architecture, their various aspirations for it and what they saw as the city’s failings. The Quadrangle itself represented both ends of this spectrum. The design was by the firm co-founded by Philip Henderson, a regular of the Momo’s group, and had been modeled on the piazzas of Italy, with the idea being that it could be an urbane oasis within the city.
It never fully lived up to that dream, and the original vision of the space has eroded, though it can still be a pleasant place to sit. Frank liked to be there, to be out and about, to be with company. He enjoyed other people and liked to make them feel good. That was what his architecture did, and why he was successful.
He never quit the profession. In part, I suspect, he enjoyed my company because he considered me a conduit to what was new, to the latest developments in the field. He kept up as best he could, and he had strong opinions, even if he didn’t advertise them.
Although he had closed his office and sold off his library (the proceeds went to an architectural charity), he continued to practice. Even while he was ailing, in recent months, he had maintained a collaboration with Max Levy, an architect of a younger generation, on a commission for a house. He was quite pleased with how it was progressing, and it took the wind out of his sails when the client pulled out and it fell through.
Now he is gone, but it is our good fortune that he is survived by his architecture, a gift to this city and his profession, and a manifestation of his sense of decorous humanity that will last as long as we are wise enough to cherish it.
Editor’s note: Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.
A memorial gathering honoring Frank’s life will be held Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St.
Shot July 19, 1988, architect Frank Welch at his Maple Terrace apartment in Dallas(Nuri Vallbona/Staff Photographer)
Frank Welch: Reflections from those who knew him best
No Texas architect was more beloved or respected than Frank Welch. We asked a few of his friends, colleagues, clients, and admirers to weigh in on his life and legacy.
George and I began our married life in a modest Frank Welch designed house in Midland. At the entrance was an atrium, an actual square carved in the foundation, that I filled with tropical plants. The skylight above the atrium lit the living room, the kitchen and the dining room — just like Frank lit up a room. Frank was a glamorous and elegant man. His distinguished yet comfortable designs left a mark on Texas architecture, and on me.
—Laura Bush, client and friend, Dallas
Dad inspired me every day. He taught me to always stretch myself in order to learn and to experience all that this world has to offer. He had an abundance of grace, elegance, a sense of others, spontaneity, joie de vivre, and vision in a very carefree, easy way — though it wasn’t. I called him “cricket” because he was always on the go. Family, friends, and the adventure of discovery were the most important things to him.
—Woo Caroland, daughter, Nashville
A friend of mine said that Frank Welch was a neat guy and coming to West Texas, and maybe you should meet him. Frank was one of those guys that made friends on contact. He redesigned our house in Midland, and about that time I bought a ranch in West Texas. We wanted a small house, a weekend retreat for our friends and family. I told him it has to be zero maintenance. That was the challenge we gave him, and we selected a location where we could look out over the ranch. We let imagination soar and The Birthday is what came out of it. It was wonderful. We’d leave, put our cots up, and walk away. Frank became a better friend day by day. If we made a home movie, and we made a lot, he was always the producer. He was a damn good architect.
—John Dorn, client and friend, Santa Fe
The work of architect Frank Welch provided direct evidence of the humble clarity which can give joy, amenity and meaning to our lives. Considered restraint, understatement, and even raw beauty lived in his calm arcades, water-filled and shaded courtyards and volumes suffused with rare forms of light. His was a voice of maturity, erudition and poetry for these decades in which we have been privileged to know him.
—Mark Gunderson, architect and friend, Fort Worth
Frank embodied all the best traits of a Texas modernist — he was a traveler, a storyteller, and a mentor who seamlessly merged his love for the Texas landscape with a modernist’s passion for simplicity.
—Kathryn Holliday, architectural historian, University of Texas at Arlington
Architecture today is celebrated for reflecting its surroundings, region and climate. Frank Welch pioneered that kind of design more than a generation ago, creating a unique language of modernism that drew on the materials, light and spirit of Texas. From his early stone, glass and wood houses in Midland to his urbane residences on Turtle Creek in Dallas, to his legendary design for The Birthday in West Texas, Welch’s architecture manifested a profound sensitivity to place. And clients loved him. He was charming and generous, and brought his deep knowledge, curiosity and wide interests in art, film, photography and literature to everything he touched.
— Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief, Architectural Record, New York
The cultural eyes of Texas are upon him, and having been upon him for so many years, they have become better eyes.
—Max Levy, architect and friend, Dallas
When I was a young architect, Frank Welch met once a year with four of us who were a generation younger and just beginning our careers. We shared work and talked about what we were doing in a weekend retreat. I was so impressed with Frank’s generosity, insight and genuine interest in what everyone else was thinking. Decades later, he and I would sit by each other every year at the fellows lunch at Texas Society of Architects’ convention. He still had that same curiosity, inquisitiveness and authentic pleasure in talking about architectural ideas. He was a tremendous humanist in every aspect of his life and work.
—Lawrence Speck, architect and historian, University of Texas at Austin
Frank was a wonderful and modest architect. He always seemed to give credit to his collaborators and was such a willing mentor to share his knowledge with young architects in spite of competitive relationships. He was such a wonderful person as well and loved by everyone that came in contact with him. He never gave up and lived a full life to the very end. I viewed him as a gentle O’Neil Ford.
—Thomas Taylor, structural engineer and friend, Dallas
As a young aspiring architect, my life was forever changed by the mentorship of Frank Welch, but I believe the impact of his transcendent work held the power to make a lasting impression on anyone who made the slightest effort to engage. For me, and many, Frank’s legacy is defined by the possibilities of a life enriched by immersion in the arts, and by his enduring quest for truth in architecture.
—Mark T. Wellen, architect, Midland. Welch office, 1977-1983