Outside the Box
Dallas residential architecture is among the best in the world.
When Frank Lloyd Wright came to visit Dallas in the late 1950s right after his design for the Dallas Theater Center was completed – our city fathers proudly showed off two spanking new skyscrapers, gleaming on the horizon. At 42 and 38 stories respectively, the Southland Life Building and the adjoining Sheraton Dallas Hotel were two of the tallest and most modern-looking buildings in Texas. Wright was not impressed.
“The big one looks like the box that the little one came in,” Wright is reported to have said. Unfortunately, Wright’s assessment was an omen of similar opinions to come. Dallas architecture? What architecture? In Highland Park, Lakewood, Oak Cliff, and other inner-city neighborhoods, we level our grand old Tudors, colonials, and prairie-style houses in favor of sprawling, badly designed McMansions. And I am speechless when it comes to the preferred architecture of some of our newer, outlying suburbs.
But before you think I’m about to lecture you on how bad the architecture has become in Dallas, think again. Dallas has some of the finest residential architecture in the world. It is a veritable who’s who of almost every seminal architect of the 20th century. And I am just talking about non-native architects; our own regional talents have been oft discussed. But I can’t think of any other city that can boast such a diverse group of great houses.
I grew up around great architecture without realizing it. The first house that Howard Meyer ever built was, coincidentally, my grandparents first home. But as it’s a Natchez Colonial (they wanted David Williams and O’Neil Ford, but Meyer was a friend), it is atypical of Meyer’s work. My parent’s house is a classic old Highland Park Tudor with plenty of windows and was decorated over the years by my mother for supreme comfort. To my child’s eye, well-proportioned rooms, graceful staircases, and high ceilings were the norm.
My surroundings must have influenced an early appreciation for architecture, although I didn’t know a thing about it as a child. I vividly remember being mesmerized by the Frank Lloyd Wright house on Rockbrook before I even knew who Wright was. With its sweeping triangulated rooflines that make it look like some sort of giant raven and its matching styled triangulated mailbox, I never got tired of driving by it. My childhood friend Kalita Beck grew up in the Philip Johnson house on Strait Lane, designed for her parents. This is one of the most glamorous houses ever built, with its seemingly windowless street façade of sweeping white arches, while the private rear is clad entirely in glass. Its future was in doubt until it found courageous new owners, who are undertaking a grueling restoration with the help of the design and architecture firm Bodron + Fruit.
The Graff house built by Edward Durrell Stone on Park Lane, with interior architecture and furniture by the great mid-century designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, was famous for a dining room that was surrounded by water. This was certainly much more interesting than my friend’s conventional backyard pool across the street, where we used to swim. Edward Larabee Barnes built two houses here, both verging on his signature “brutalist” style, which would usually be employed for public buildings like the DMA.
Richard Meier’s dazzling white temple, built for art collector Howard Rachofsky, and the Antoine Predock-designed black glass-and-steel residence, built by Rusty and Deedie Rose, are both as much works of art as the extraordinary art collections they both house. And in the heart of Highland Park, a massive Palladian-style house is being built by England’s John Quinlan Terry, one of the best traditional architects working today. Across the pond – literally – from the Rachofsky house, we have a direct counterpoint with a Baronial-style house for the Barons (pun intended), built in Georgian red brick by Robert A.M. Stern, one of the chief proponents of postmodernism.
But still, why Dallas? My grandmother once told me that the only reason Dallas even existed was just “pure stubbornness,” and she may have been correct. And I also know that I will despair every time a fine Dallas house is torn down. There was a wonderful red brick Georgian-style house that perched regally on the corner of Bordeaux and Armstrong in Highland Park. I passed that house countless times as I grew up just a few blocks away. So when it was bulldozed and replaced with a frankly pedestrian-looking contemporary house, I was stricken with grief and dismay. Modern houses are popping up all over the Park Cities, some good, such as the Cook house on Miramar, but far too many are not. Modern actually seems to be the “new” French, reminding me of the building boom of the 1980s, when limestone chateaux sprung up faster than new money. McModerns anyone? Great architects typically consider the site and how the proposed house will relate to its neighbors in suitability. The worst thing about these new dwellings is that most of them are devoid of any visual empathy with their surroundings.
New homebuilders can learn a lot by examining these glorious residences that were once at the cutting edge of domestic architecture’s capabilities. I hope that people will think twice before knocking down another treasure in order to gain a grandiose bathroom or an updated kitchen, which is unfortunately what it often comes down to. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, who saw beyond the glitz of those glass boxes he derided back in the 1950s, foresight is everything.