For most people, this is a story about Texas, for some, a story about architecture. And to a few who know about both Texas and architecture (I am thinking here of the late “Texas Ranger” John Hejduk), it is a sort of myth: an intersection of human beings with place, grounded as much in our imagination as in reality. It is also a coming of age story: the story of my first job and my first project.
As most stories do, this story has an ending, and the ending is so strange that I will break with convention and reveal it now: They buried her in a martini shaker … and a Dixie-cup.
. . .
Not so long ago, young and ambitious graduates of Texas architecture schools had few choices other than joining one of the corporate firms of Houston or getting out of the state — far out of the state. There were not many firms with large architectural or artistic ambitions, and even fewer with both. But there were a few such firms and one of them, the firm of Frank Welch, was in Midland, which is, as you might expect, in the middle of nowhere.
Midway between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland, in the 1970s, was peculiar even by Texas standards. The land that it rests upon had once been an ancient seabed and had long ago been lifted up to become the Texas High Plains. It is a land full of tumbleweeds, high winds and dust storms. If you are unlucky enough to be outside during a storm, you will feel the dust sweep its way in-between your teeth, even as it covers the street curbs in gritty, brown drifts. This part of west Texas is also a land that once was full of oil; lots of oil, now mostly gone.
Midland was a small city of 60,000 then, but it ranked as the fourth wealthiest city in the United States. It had more millionaires per capita than any other city; it had more private planes per capita (used for business and shopping junkets to Dallas), more Rolls Royces per capita, etc, etc. It also had a lot of roughnecks and real cowboys. How George W. Bush got away with calling it the heartland is a mystery.
Like others in the 1950s, Frank Welch had found his way to Midland as part of a phalanx of Texans and Northeasterners (like George H.W. Bush and his young family) who traveled to the flatness and the heat of West Texas to find success. Frank had been a merchant marine in the Second World War; afterward he photographed Paris on a Fulbright (in an impressive imitation of Cartier-Bresson). He was handsome and talented, and he was married to a kind and gracious banker’s daughter. Welch was a well-admired architect in Texas, and his work, like that of his mentor and the granddaddy of Texas architecture, O'Neil Ford, was a version of critical regionalism well before Kenneth Frampton wrote his famous essay.
A good architect and a bon vivant: one could do a lot worse in Texas. Frank was exactly the kind of person I wanted to work for...
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Image by Cherie Benoit, licensed under Creative Commons.