Forgotten Mid-Century Modern Masterpieces in Spotlight at Dallas Center for Architecture

If you’ve never heard of Ju-Nel Homes you’re not alone. Christine Rogers, who wrote this piece for D Home that is featured in the Dallas Center for Architecture’s exhibition about the mid-century architects, hadn’t either until she bought one. Architects Lyle Rowley and Jack Wilson led a quiet career designing boutique homes that are primarily in eastern Dallas – Eastwood Estates, Casa Linda, Old Lake Highlands, and Lake Highlands.

The homes’ anonymity speaks to their appeal. Ju-Nel’s designs are elegant, simple, and understated. Many of the angles, sightlines, and materials are common to mid-century design. The houses blend into the surrounding landscape, match a variety of materials – wood, stonework, bricks, metals, plastics – and feature walls of windows that flood spaces with light and blur the distinction between outside and in. Their elegance has attracted some high-profile owners over the years: Stan Richards of the Richards Group, Kim Dawson of Kim Dawson Modeling Agency, and former Dallas Symphony conductor Walter Hendl.

The exhibit at the Dallas Center for Architecture tells the story of Ju-Nel Homes through photographs, original sketches, period advertisements, and text. There’s an advertisement in the exhibition that reveals what set the architects apart – both in style and their approach to building. As part of a marketing move for the 1964 World’s Fair, three homes in Dallas were commissioned to feature new plastic vinyl materials that were advertised as cheaper, longer lasting alternatives to wood and plaster. Jack Wilson agreed to participate, but his use of the materials was qualified, insisting on working the new material in with higher quality older materials. As a result, in this experiment in cookie-cutter building, the Ju-Nel home manages to possess a character and individuality that the other commissioned homes don’t have. This attention to detail and uncompromising set of standards was rare at a time when mainstream builders were primarily focused on filling the suburbs.

In the drawings in the exhibition you can see traces of this care. Each tree is meticulously plotted. The homes were built into and around their environment, with foliage jutting up through inner courtyards and outdoor foyers. The Japanese influence on the Ju-Nel style is hard to miss. Wood appears throughout the homes, not only in beams and walls, but also in accents, such as a wooden screen / room divider that is included in the exhibit. A letter from Jack Wilson’s military days place the architect in Japan as a young man right after the war, and the insinuation is that the experience rubbed off on his tastes. That influence also put the homes ahead of their time in terms of their concern for energy efficiency, including breezeways, home alignment, and other low tech efficiencies.

Though they completed some signature projects, the architects created homes for families at a variety of price levels (recent listings of Ju-Nel show a home for $350 thousand and another for $180 thousand). It is evidence that good design doesn’t have to be economically exclusive and that architects with the energy to do so can buck building trends.

Photos by Danny Plassick for D Home.