Dallas has often struggled to find its own cultural voice — torn, as it seems to have always been, between historical indifference and appropriated aspiration. Throughout this city’s history, however, there have been a handful of artists who have seen and understood this place for what it is, and have made work that has managed to embrace and manifest the cultural identity and character of this city in its best light. Perhaps none were better at this than the architect Frank Welch. Sadly, Welch has passed away. He was 90.
Welch’s importance as an architect certainly outstretched his impact and relationship with Dallas. Considered the Dean of Texas Architecture, Welch, like his mentor O’Neil Ford, inherited and expanded upon a tradition for finding in Texas’ landscapes, materials, style, and character the opportunity for a unique brand of modernism
In Dallas, Welch’s work is best exemplified in the many residences he designed here that blend of warmth and sophistication. They are buildings that engage with the subtly of their environments, while also expressing style and understated panache in a meticulous attention detail, expressive choice of materials, and attention to a humane quality possible through spacial design.
“Frank developed a recipe to modernism that had a Texas accent,” architect Max Levy told me last year. “In Dallas, you think of Dallasites and Dallas culture as being filled with pomposity, self-importance and insecurity, but he tapped into a Texas quality. There’s a strata of wealthy Texans that are very sophisticated culturally and are very low-key. They don’t flaunt wealth and love fine things. Frank’s work connected with them in a big way.”
Welch’s greatest architectural achievement was a residential structure called “The Birthday.” Once-located on a bluff over the flat expanse of West Texas, the home, which has been renovated beyond recognition (the late-architect considered it destroyed), was constructed of stone quarried on site and wood salvaged from a nearby lumber yard. The stroke of genius came in the form of a massive, 20-foot railroad tie which Welch used as a structural beam that spanned the glassed-in shelter and supported an elevated split-level roof, lending the interior space a subtle, though operatic moment of drama. The Birthday exemplified Welch’s muted swagger and so perfectly balanced space and place that Welch’s long-time friend and fellow architect Mark Gunderson called it, “a view with a room.” The Birthday won a Texas Society of Architects’ 25-Year Ward in 1997, an honor shared that year with Louis Kahn’s seminal Kimbell Art Museum — the shared honor underscoring Welch’s towering importance to Texas architecture.
Welch was born in Sherman, attended Texas A&M, and worked for 30 years in Midland before moving to Dallas in 1985. His architectural sensibility was forged by his work with O’Neil Ford, as well as collegiate travels to visit with towering architectural figures like Philip Johnson and Ray and Charles Eames. A post-graduate fellowship in Paris greatly inspired Welch’s lifelong interest in the way light informs the experience of place, as well as a passion for photography.
In Dallas, Welch designed some of this most exquisite, considered, and elegant homes, including The Shamoon Residence near Turtle Creek and the Dillon House off the Katy Trail. Welch continued to work right up until the end, collaborating with Levy on several new designs and residential renovations.
Last year, I had the honor of spending time with Welch while working on this profile for D Home‘s architecture issue. This is who I met:
I find Welch in an office at the end of a narrow, book-lined hallway. He’s wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, propping himself up against a table for balance as he takes my hand. His smile is warm, with a taste of youthful mischievousness in it, and I believe I catch something sardonic in the glimmer in his eye. In this conversation, as well as another one the following week, I will find Welch to be a warm, gentle, forthcoming interview subject, who will nonetheless crack jokes about the idea of anyone writing about him, take a call from a friend in Paris while in the middle of answering a question, and evade most of my direct questions about his work and his own estimation of it. “I’ve never thought about that; that’s a good question,” is a typical response, along with, “You said it better than I could.”
He is equally evasive and self-deprecating about his health.
“My memory is fucked,” Welch says, candidly. “It is embarrassing as hell, but people forgive me.”
Still, Welch lights up when we talk about Paris; or boyhood stories of riding in the backseat of the family car with his mother and aunt, looking at Dallas homes; or recalling his collegiate travels. He talks about how impressive it was to meet Philip Johnson, an architect he greatly admires, and yet how unimpressive it was to see Johnson’s famous Glass House in person. But it is how he tells a story about visiting Ray and Charles Eames that sticks out. For Welch, what was most striking about going to the couple’s home—an icon of midcentury modern design—was not the building itself but the picnic they had prepared for him and his fellow students on their lawn overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
“There was a lesson there in a civilized architecture and how they felt about life,” he says. “It made a big impression. It extended to the interior. I remember Ray Eames’ dressing table had a little jewelry box, and it was so beautiful and so unique and so unusual in that modern house. It really struck me.”
That lesson in civility informed the way Welch made work and the way he lived his life. For the younger Texas architects who came to know him (many of whom drank martinis with Welch at a standing date on Monday evenings in the Quadrangle), the humor, warmth, and brilliance found in Welch’s work was simply the physical manifestation of the character of a man they loved, honored, and could call both a friend and a father figure.
The Dallas Morning News‘ architecture critic Mark Lamster posted news of Welch’s passing on Facebook. Lamster writes about Welch and his memoir, which was published in 2015, here.