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Martin Growald’s architectural wizardry
By Ann Gilliland |

IT’S JUST A hoot and a holler from a Manhattan penthouse to a tacky old farmhouse in Crowley, Texas, where architect Martin Growald serves as apprentice cowboy and resident comedian. The century-old house is plopped in the middle of a 300-acre cattle ranch south of Fort Worth. With nary a cow to call his own, Growald and his wife, Laurie Rose, lease only the house. While somebody else corrals the cattle, Growald scuffs around in dirty sneakers listening to Wagner, Beethoven and Loretta Lynn. The house ain’t much, but it’s home. He is as comfortable here as he was in New York City hustling multimillion-dollar clients.

Architecturally, Crowley is light-years away from New York, but between the two cities Growald has left an impressive trail of architectural designs. As the darling of Dallas developer Trammell Crow, Growald brought Hollywood to Las Col-inas with his award-winning Dallas Communications Complex and is now assisting Crow in his quest to design the 3-million-square-foot Infomart a la London’s former Crystal Palace (some Britishers are in a flap over the similarities of the two buildings).

Trammell S. Crow says, “I think his forte is that he can come up with the really big one. He comes up with great ideas that are very overpowering, ideas that become the underlying theme for megastructures.” Growald also designed David Rockefeller’s uptown New York office and, commissioned by the U.S. Government, drew up the Pennsylvania Avenue master plan from the nation’s Capitol to the White House.

Twenty miles north of his Crowley farmhouse in downtown Fort Worth, Growald works in a creaky-floored office in the vintage T&P Warehouse Building. In the early days of Cowtown, this is where the action was; it was the end of the line for cattle shipped on the Texas and Pacific. Cattle barons drank whiskey straight-up and traded lies while flamboyant floozies entertained temporarily rich cowboys in Hell’s Half-Acre of sin. From this woolly beginning sprouted Fort Worth’s glass-sheathed garden of skyscrapers.

As a designer partly responsible for Fort Worth’s splash of avant-garde architecture downtown, Growald calls the wave toward post-modernism embarrassing- “an elitist’s kind of fun and games with history. Modern architecture stinks,” he says, “and I have produced quite a bit of it myself.”

“The mistake we made was in not understanding that buildings should please people. It’s the fundamental thing. People should see a building, step back and say, ’My God, that’s a beautiful building.’

“The Greeks and Romans built buildings calculated to please the people. Contemporary architects – all they care about is newspapers, the critics, architectural magazines. The results are… that contemporary architecture is acceptable to a small, elite portion of the people…not the guy who drives the Peterbilt trucks.”

At 52, Growald is complex. Equally at ease at the River Crest Country Club or in a Crowley outhouse, he is often humorous, always egotistical. “Someday, I’ll be a very famous architect,” he says. “When I die, they’ll write a glowing obit. I have an insatiable feeling of superiority.” He pauses. “Basically, I’m insecure and full of self-doubts.”

Part of his ambivalence stems from his hankering to turn architectural sows’ ears into Gardens of Eden. A friend once told him, “Growald, you re so stupidly altruistic that if we were back in the days of the crusades, you’d grab the first nag and ride off in search of the Holy Grail. I’d stay in Germany and make munitions, and I’d blow your head off.” But Crow says that although Growald is a dreamer, he’s also a businessman. “He has grandiose ideas, but he’s also extremely pragmatic.”

From his corner of Growald Architects, the firm where he is lord of some 20 employees, Growald snaps commands to a junior associate, grumbles and says with wry humor, “I try desperately to intimidate people.” Apparently, he succeeds. According to one of his old school buddies, “They say he’s a tyrant up there in his office when he gets on a tear.”

Fred Fernandez, one of the firm’s architects, calls Growald a “very colorful individual,” a demanding taskmaster who expects excellence of himself and others. “I do have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Fernandez says. “I have to admire him for his accomplishments. He is dedicated to his work-sometimes excessively so-but that’s his life.”

Intimidating or not, Growald calls first-time visitors “pal.” He chews on his glasses, sticks a straw boater on his head and spends $10 words like pennies. “I was a product of the Bauhaus,” he says. “In modern architecture, the premier exponents-the crescendo that brought it all together – was in Germany… I’ll tell you what I am. I’m one of the top five architects in the U.S. I’m just really lucky. Like some guys have big triceps, I have good ideas. All I am is a designer. I love to design buildings. I’m like an itinerant peddler who repairs pots and pans. Your pot’s got a leak in it. Here comes this old boy. He fixes it. You give him a nickel and he moves on.”

Growald doesn’t deal in nickels. He’s had relatively few clients, and he calls it extraordinary luck that he “fixes pots” for clients such as Aristotle Onassis, David Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Clint and John Murchison, the Crows and Bass Brothers Enterprises, a company that has poured millions of dollars into the restoration of downtown Fort Worth. He’s a peddler who runs with high rollers and who calls moguls like Robert Bass “Bobby.”

Bass says that Growald approaches his work with passionate energy. “He loves architecture,” Bass says. “He loves Fort Worth. He has so much creative enthusiasm, I think it sometimes needs to be restrained.” Bass, who hired Growald to design a model for the restoration of Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth, says that city officials searched for months for the auditorium’s original plans. “Growald knew where the plans had been sent, but the city couldn’t find them. Finally, he put on his grubbies, went out and dug through all the old records, Because of Growald’s resourcefulness and energy, the city now has the original linen drawings of the auditorium and tower.”

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Growald grew up romping on the South Side streets with his buddies Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Marty McAllister and Jim Rich; most of the time, he successfully avoided the Berry Street Gang. “They were the phantom bad guys,” he says. “As I understood it, they’d kill you.” The Berry Street gang, also called the Cue Racks, Were purported to be a group of post-high school thugs who hung around pool halls on Hemphill Street, says Elston Brooks, a former South Side kid and now a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They terrorized the neighborhood,” Brooks says. “You wanted to steer clear of them. When you were walking down Hemphill, you hoped they wouldn’t notice you.”

While the infamous Cue Racks beleaguered Hemphill Street, Growald and his gang hung out at the Nip and Sip on Magnolia, playing pool. Rich, a local home builder, says that Growald was a blockbuster. “Growald was the kind of guy who did everything like a bull in a china closet. You know, the kind that would play pool and rip the pool top with the cue. He was a character. He’s just like he was when he was a kid. He likes to joke,” Rich says.

Growald’s father, Henry (who, Growald says, had the good sense to get his family out of Germany in 1925), spoke nine languages, was chief designer of a series of different planes and bombers built at General Dynamics and sometimes had the guys over to play poker at the Growalds’ three-story Victorian-style house on Lipscomb Street.

McAllister, who is a Fort Worth contractor, says they used to wheel their weird old Hudson around town; on one occasion, they followed a car full of sorority girls back from Eagle Mountain Lake. “We came up in back of them at a red light. Those old-timey cars had big bumpers. Of course, the girls were screaming and hollering, and we were laughing. Martin nudged up behind them and the bumpers locked. Back then, Martin wasn’t very big, but he was tremendously strong. That car must have had 10 girls in it. He got out and lifted it off the ground.”

Growald’s muscle gained him a starting position on the 1947 Paschal High School football team. He says, “The proudest moment of my life was when we played the North Side team.” After North Side whipped up on Paschal in a game, a rival high school reporter wrote, “If Paschal was 60 points behind, Growald would never quit.”

His football talents won him a scholarship to Kilgore Junior College, but he later hitchhiked to the University of Virginia where he terrorized the campus for two years. “I was essentially a gorilla until I was about 19 or 20. All I cared about was girls and football.” He was billeted to Monticello, played football, joined a fraternity and was flunking out when he was summoned to the dean’s office. The dean said, “Growald, you are a college tramp,” and suggested that he remove himself from the halls of academe. Growald turned on his heels, marched into the architectural department and declared his intent to become an architect. In an absolute turnaround, he did something that’s never been done since. He took 36 hours a semester, completing five years’ work in three. He won every honor possible and was first in his class. Graduate school at Harvard was a rerun of Virginia.

In a desperate attempt to avoid the Army, he took a one-year teaching post at North Carolina State until he was requested to join basic training at Fort Bliss. Four weeks into basic, he was commissioned by Major Gen. Robert J. Wood, who had searched the computer bank for the right architect to design and remodel his Virginia farmhouse. Wood became Buck Pvt. Growald’s first major client. “Of course, from that time on, my stay in the Army was sheer nirvana… I was absolutely bulletproof.”

In 1958, Growald drove his beat-up Volkswagen to New York to begin his new job with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. As Harvard’s foremost architectural graduate student, he viewed his newly won associate partnership with the prestigious architectural firm “like a junior priest going to the Vatican City.”

Early one morning, Growald was on his hands and knees, working on a model office for super-client David Rockefeller. “I looked over and saw the damnedest pair of expensive shiny shoes like I’d never seen before. I looked up like I was looking at Gulliver. This man said, ’What are you doing down there, son?’ I told him, ’I’m fixing this thing for Mr. Rockefeller.’ He said, ’I’m Mr. Rockefeller,’ and he got down on his hands and knees. We had a lot of fun. My boss, Gordon Bunschaft, walked in and said, ’Mr. Rockefeller, I see you’re here for our morning meeting.’ Rockefeller said, ’Oh, Growald and I got it all figured out. He knows exactly what I want. I ’ve got to go… See you later. ’Gordon was so mad. That just broke him. But I was so good at what I did. I mean, I outworked everybody, so I automatically was assigned to every important client.”

For Onassis, Growald designed Olympic Tower at 51st and Fifth Avenue, next door to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Of course, his wife was very concerned,” Growald says. “She didn’t want Olympic Tower to offend St. Patrick’s, and we had Rockefeller Center right across the street. So we had a hell of a job.” Onassis used to attend meetings and whisper in Growald’s ear, “Martin, if I come in from Paris in the middle of the night, who turns down the bed and makes tea?” According to Growald, “None of us had the courage to say to Mr. Onassis, ’Just because you paid a quarter of a million bucks for a condo in New York doesn’t mean you have a maid.’ ” Onassis was also concerned about the color of the window glass. He and Growald would walk down Park Avenue looking at windows, followed by a fat Cadillac and a mess of staring people.

Growald’s architectural expertise grew, as did his pocketbook. He moved from his cola-water brownstone to a penthouse on 86th and Madison. “It was like having a little country house in the middle of the city,” he says. “The only bad thing was the soot. Then old Gus Levy, the giant of Wall Street, took Mount Sinai Hospital and Medical School under his wing, and I did that.” He also did Dallas’ One Main Plaza complex and was a designer for the Wynd-ham Hotel. He was on a roll.

One day in 1971, he was driving a rental car headed for the Tulsa airport to board a plane to New York. “I remember I was going through a little neighborhood, just a bunch of little Fox and Jacobs houses,” he says. “It was the lawns that got me. There was this green grass. I knew that in a couple of hours I would be landing at La Guardia, getting into a filthy taxicab with pencils stuck in the dashboard and gum on the floor. When I got home, I’d go upstairs to my penthouse and there’d be soot all over and I’d have to hose it down. I looked at that grass, and the next day I walked in and retired.”

He moved back to Fort Worth with virtually no contacts; but with the help of his partner/friend Jack Schutts, he began to meet the movers and the shakers, the titans of the town-among whom, at that time, were Charles and Anne Tandy. “Here I was a little punk architect, and the king and queen asked me to design the Tandy Center,” Growald says. “The Tandy Center was an extraordinary moment in my life. There was nothing like it around here; it was a hell of a deal.” It was also an architectural feat that won Growald two major awards.

Growald loves his clients -“I’m sure the Egyptians loved the Pharaoh”-and he loved Tandy. “He [Tandy] loved what I loved,” Growald says. “He loved originality, bold strength. He loved people. It’s a testimony to a real guy.”

In the summer of 1978, after the Tandy Center was finished, Growald’s life began to fall apart. He wrecked his motorcycle and spent three weeks in Harris Hospital, he split with his wife, he moved out of his Westover Hills house and was erased from the social register. He did some work for Neiman-Marcus and a few other jobs and then one day appeared at Trammell Crow’s office. After a six-month dialogue, Crow hired Growald to design the Las Colinas Complex. He was back in business.

Last year, on the steps of the Palo Pinto Courthouse, he married Laurie Rose, a union painter he met on the 19th floor of the Tandy Center. “Life’s going good,” he says. “I really like what I do. I have a beautiful wife and a good job. I don’t know what more I could want.” Mostly, he holes up at the house with his books, music and Laurie Rose and visits with his children, Olaf, Chandler and Emma. Now and then his buddies pry him out of the house.

Socially, Growald says he is a recluse. Occasionally, Crow drags him off to Vail or Growald takes Crow to a museum opening. “I went on a vacation once,” Growald says. “We went to Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands. 1 laid around on the beach for a while and saw the pretty little fishes. I got bored.

“I’m not ready to relax. There’ll come atime when I drive my old Mercedes aroundtown and be a character. But I like the grit,the reality, the struggle. It seems like theonly thing that is important to me is tryingto design a good building … one that willmake everybody smile. That’s the onlypayoff. You know the Vince Lombardisaying? ’Winning is not everything. It’s theonly thing.’ Making ’em smile-it’s theonly thing.”

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