Why We Must Save Our Best Postwar Buildings from Their Worst Enemy-Us

A LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR AGO I VISITED THE BERGER House, built on a fabulous cliff site overlooking Turtle-Creek. One of the best, most poetic houses by the great Texas architect, O’Neil Ford, it was completed in 1950 for landscape architects Arthur and Marie Berger, who collaborated with Ford on the choice of site, the positioning of the house, and its spaces and materials. The esteemed California architectWilliam Wurster was a consultant for the interiors.

Although it was built for a modest budget, like many of the best 20th-century houses, the Berger House was important enough to have been given by its owner to the Dallas Museum of Art, possibly to serve as the director’s residence. Unfortunately, the museum, always more in need of money than real estate, sold the house soon after its acquisition. Though there were no deed restrictions, the next owners cared for it for more than 20 years.

When I saw that the Berger House was for sale last year. I dropped by and was met with a warm welcome by the owner, who hat! just sold it. I asked permission to return ana photograph the house without the furniture. When I returned with my camera several weeks later, I was stunned to see that the house had been destroyed.

Here was an important house by a major architect in the prime of his career. And while we worried about the Dr Pepper building, the Berger House was demolished without even a whimper from the architectural community of Dallas.

Dallas has never been very careful about its architectural heritage, mostly because it has always believed firmly that it doesn’t have one. “Real” architecture is in Rome, Paris, New York, Chicago, or, for regional sophisticates, Mexico. And we’ve always thought Dallas has been too nouveau riche, too much in a hurry, and too gauche to build truly important architecture (until the Meyerson, of course). What we too often fail to see is that most of the best architecture in the city dates not from the 19th and early 20th centuries, although there is a good deal of that to evaluate and preserve, hut from the years after World War II.

The years 1945 to 1970 brought nationally known architects to work in Dallas. We have major buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright ( whose most daring and wonderful project for Dallas, die Rogers Lacy Hotel, was never built), Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph, Harrison and Abramowitz, and Edward Durrell Stone. Yet, as the fate of the Berger I louse made-clear, the best work of Texas and Dallas architects also needs to be recognized and preserved. Major buildings by O’Neil Ford, Howard Meyer, Enslie “Bud” Oglesby, Arch Swank, Frank Welch, Harwood K. Smith, and Tames Pratt need to be pried from their current anonymity and praise J as the important works of architecture they are.

Whether a classic modernist freeway office block like the Meadows Building on Central Expressway, or the series of apartment complexes from the ’50s and ’60s scattered throughout Oak Lawn, these works are not overwhelming and spectacular. Instead, they were designed to be simple, clean, structurally honest, and easily maintained. They were built following a great war and an equally great Depression by a people less interested in architectural excess than in good value and good sense. Ironically, their very simplicity and spartan scale mate it difficult for us to like them. Today we can easily get Brazilian marble and Italian tiles, so why bother with the local bricks, the single-pane glass walls, the efficient low ceilings, and the like? Tear it down. No one will notice. No one will care.

The most private of buildings, houses, are the most difficult to protect . Homeowners never want to be encumbered with deed restrictions or historical designations (unless they come with tax abatements or other forms of economic incentive). Yet, when major architects design homes for major clients, the results are often of such importance that they deserve to be treated as part of the collective as well as the personal environment To ensure that these homes are preserved, the city should work out customized strategies with the full participation of their current owners. Considering both “private” and public modern architecture, we might start with this pantheon of major works:

The Bruno Graf House

IN THE MID-1950S, EDWARD DURRELL STONE, architect of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was commissioned to design the most important house of his career. The Bruno Graf House was completed in 1957. At once chaste and sumptuous, it sits on its Preston Hollow lot with real élan.

Entering around a beautifully carved wooden grill, the visitor steps over small marble squares that float- like the large circular “dining area” they bypass-over a large, shallow pool filling more than a quarter of the immense living space at the center of the house. (There are the predictable sto-ries of tipsy guests falling into the pool dining dinner.) With wonderful cabinetry and a sort of seraglio of pierced screens and outdoor patios, the Graf House is among the most serene and evocative works of modernist domestic architecture built anywhere in the world in the 1950s.

In spite of its high-profile owner, who has worked hard to preserve the house, it too could easily be destroyed if sold. Stone, while famous during his lifetime (in addition to the first building of the MOMA in W\v York, he designed the Kennedy (’enter in Washington and the spectacular American Embassy in India), has slipped off the charts of American architecture; the Graf House has no plaque, no official reputation, and plays very little role in the architectural tours of “important” Dallas homes, largely because it is unfashionably out-of-date. Its current owners purchased the house after it had been on the market for several years, and have been respectful in almost every way in their meticulous restoration. Their only addition is a clerestory roof over what was an outdoor patio on the second floor, To the purist, this seriously compromises the architectural integrity of the house, Fortunately, this “pill-box hat” addition can be removed in the future.

The Gillin House

THE MOST OBVIOUS OF OUR MODERNIST MASTERPIECES IS AN IMPORTANT late house by America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Commissioned in 1950, begun in 1954, and finished a year before the architect’s death in 1958, the Gillin House is one of Wright’s largest and finest houses. It also represented a rare and extensive collaboration between the great architect and a client he admired enormously, Texas oilman James A. Gillin. Although Gillin started with a $100,000 budget (large for the 1950s), this was soon jettisoned as the two men worked to create a total work of art that hugs a natural creek in North Dallas. With extensive built-in furniture, superb stonework, elaborate bathrooms, and an almost mythic “modern” kitchen (one could roast a wild boar, chill martinis, and grill shrimp for 100 guests simultaneously), the house embodied post-war domestic fantasies at their most elaborate. Looking at its then-fashionable carport, one can easily imagine a fleet of immense, befinned, and ornamented 1950s gas guzzlers out front. The Gillin House remains in near-pristine condition today. Its current owners love it (though, like all inhabitants of Wright’s houses, they are frustrated by it), but should they decide to sell, there is nothing to ensure that this great house, the single finest 1950s dwelling in Dallas, will not be ruined by alteration or even destroyed.

The Kalita Humphreys Theater

AND THIS ES NOT THE ONLY SUCH EXAMPLE. IN 1954, WRIGHT WAS commissioned to design the Kalita Humphreys Theater, which remains to this day the home of the Dallas Theater Center. The ” realistic” budget of this nonprofit collided somewhat with the immense dreams of both the architect and his clients. Still, they managed to design and construct the most important theater building completed in Wright’s Long career.

Unlike many major 20th-century architects, Wright had been involved with the theater throughout his life. His apprenticeship with Louis Sullivan began just as that great architect completed his most important building, The Auditorium Theater in Chicago, and Wright designed and worked in theaters in both public and private settings throughout his life. Wright himself was a quintessential “performer,” and the rituals of his private life were centered in theaters, where performances in various mediums took place. Yet, of all the large, public theaters that he planned in his life, only the Kalita Humphreys Theater was built. This, together with the tact that the Dallas building was completed while Wright’s late masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum, was m the final stages of completion, ensures that it is worthy of preservation.

Fortunately, the Dallas Theater Center has been both too careful and too poor to alter its signature building in any major way, However, time and the practicalities of contemporary theater production have not been kind to the building. Inferior and ugly alterations have been made using Wright’s Own successor firm, Taliesen Associates-changes that, taken in total, amount to architectural desecration. The wonderful “drive-through’’ entrance has been glassed in to become a low, sprawling addition to what was an intimate lobby, and the addition of spaces above the entrance has undercut Wright’s carefully calibrated exterior volumes, each of which mirrored the rhythms of the nearby limestone cliffs. In addition, the entire pitch and seating density of die theater itself has been changed (these will be restored sometime this year), and the interior is now painted a very dark blue, far from the pale cream color of Wright’s intention.

In every case, the decisions to alter Wright’s building were made after considerable thought on the part of the staff and trustees. Yet, the sad truth is that the integrity of Wright’s masterfui design always played a secondary role in their thinking-subservient to the functional demands of the artistic director of the theater, (We can only wonder what will happen to the interior of I.M. Pei’s Meyerson Symphony Center if the same principles are applied to it in the next 30 years.)

The Beck House

THE THIRD TRULY WORLD-CLASS HOUSE IN DALLAS IS THE BECK House, designed in the early 1960s and completed in 1965 by America’s most famous architect and architectural taste-maker, Philip Johnson. It occupies a large and spectacular creek site on prestigious Strait Lane and has been on the market for several years. Kept intact and in superb condition by its original owners, this is among the largest, best realized, and most ambitious of Johnson’s “classical” modernist houses of the 1960s. Indeed, the architect’s most important buildings of that decade are all museums-the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb. and the Anion Carter Museum in Fort Worth are the closest examples-and the only house that can compete with it in quality, the David Lloyd Kreeger House in Washington D.C., is now also a museum.

The Beck House is absolutely the equal of those buildings and probably the best of the group. Yet it has no national reputation and no regional champions. If it is bought as a “tear-down,” as other comparably priced dwellings on its street have been, it will be a tragic loss both to Dallas and to world architecture. And, if one of the current strategies for its sale-to break up the property into several lots-is realized, one of Johnson’s best sited and most successfully integrated architectural landscapes will be forever changed. This would never happen if it was a museum, a foundation, or a university study center. The Republic National Bank Tower

WHAT OTHER WORLD-CLASS WORKS OF ARCHITECTURE AWAIT SIMILAR fates? The most obvious-because it is the largest-is the Republic National Bank Tower at Bryan and Ervay, designed by the New York firm of Harrison and Abramowitz and completed in 1954 (the second tower on the south part of the block was completed 10 years later). Few members of the informed public know the names of Harrison or Abramowitz, who formed the first truly significant modernist architectural firm in New York. Their work with the great French architect, Le Corbusier, resulted in a brilliantly cool and wonderfully detailed complex of buildings for the United Nations, and their skyscrapers of the early 1950s-the high point of their career-include the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh (a curtain-wall masterpiece included in every summary text on modern architecture) as well as the Republic Bank Tower. They were also the planners of New York’s Lincoln Center.

With its powerful thrust, its bold, windowless facade, its immense and optimistic “hood” ornament, and its subtly patterned metal and glass skin, the Republic Bank Tower takes its place proudly among the top 15 skyscrapers built in America in the first half of the 1950s. Sadly, with the virtual demise of the bank itself and the removal of the offices to a jazzy 1980s building, it has become an almost empty, class B office building.

Although its new owners assure everyone that they love the building and fully intend to restore it, the chat I hear around town suggests that no one will much mind if it is destroyed or completely “updated.” “It’s full of asbestos,” one important developer told me. Another laments the low ceilings and substandard electrical and telecommunications systems. Few talk about the value of the building as the single most important architectural symbol of 1950s Texas. We know that it mattered in 1954, but we have too short a collective attention span to tune out of the 1990s and come to terms with the building’s rich meanings. Like a dinner guest who won’t leave after dessert, the Republic Bank Tower has become a symbol of failure-of the Texas banks, of the Dallas power elite, and of gas-guzzling, arrogant deal-makers, whose lives we find fascinating, but whose finest architectural achievements we denigrate. Its destruction would be symptomatic of our desire to forget-as if the excessive ’80s were embodied from the very beginning in its sporty and economically efficient metal skin and its space-age architectural symbolism.

3525 Turtle Creek

THERE ARE, THANK GOD, SUCCESS STORIES IN THE ANNALS OF DALLAS preservation, among them the wonderful apartment tower at 3525 Turtle Creek designed by the great Dallas modernist, Howard Meyer. True, the graphics are horrible, the lobby is overfurnished, and the top of the building is both inappropriately enlarged and the wrong color. But thanks to its collective owners, the building’s residents, its pierced concrete grill, the wonderfully warm color of its cast concrete, and its superb siting and landscaping are lovingly preserved. To me, it joins Chicago’s 860 and 880 Lake Shore Drive by Mies van der Rohe among the handful of modernist apartment buildings constructed in the two decades after World War II that have stood the test of time. The single best view of this 1956 building is from the back (the parking lot of Pappadeaux’s will do) in the afternoon, when its pierced screen of concrete seems to cascade the entire length of the facade and shimmer in the warm, angled light. (Meyer’s other masterpiece, Temple Emanu-El on Hillcrest Avenue near Northwest Highway, is in very good hands and should be visited by every Dallasite interested in architecture.)

One Brookhaven Plaza

WANTED: A NEW OWNER-AND A NEW CHAMPION-FOR A MASTERPIECE of commercial architecture. Designed in 1966 by the great American architect, Paul Rudolph, and completed in 1969, this building, off Stemmons at the northeast corner of Mockingbird, has been empty for years. Its gardens and serpentine pool are completely in ruin, its parking lots overcome with weeds, its lobbies locked and empty, and its roof terraces denuded of the trees, vines, and greenery that Rudolph planned for them. There is no question that, with Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph was the best, most powerful, and most talented member of the group of architects who tried to inject an American emotional vitality into international modernist design. He was the dean of the Yale School of Architecture in the 1960s, and the architect of buildings that varied from low-budget social experiments like public bousing or urban parking garages to immense symbolic monuments like Boston s unfinished Health and Human Services Building. His most famous building, the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, served as the single most important monument of “the new Brutalism” in the United States. At the height of his powers, Rudolph was asked to design One Brookhaven Plaza.

The building was technologically important for Texas because, as Dallas Morning News architecture critic David Dillon has noted, it was the first all pre-cast concrete building in the Southwest. Rudolph also used the new technology of mirrored glass (rather than the pierced grills or brises soleils of 5525 Turtle Creek or the Salvation Army Building on Mockingbird and Harry Hines) to cut the glare of the Texas sun. Unlike its architecturally undistinguished neighbors (all of which are occupied), One Brookhaven Plaza has a fascinating surface composition, and an active presence in the city. And, it was the first of several major works by Rudolph in the Dallas area-a group that includes the architect’s greatest house, commissioned by Sid and Anne Bass for a Fort Worth site, as well as TCU’s Sid Richardson Building and the City Center Complex that started the revival of downtown Fort Worth. Why do so few of us care about Paul Rudolph’s most ambitious building for Dallas? What will happen to it?

The Kennedy Memorial

PERHAPS IT IS BEST TO END WITH THE JOHN F. KENNEDY Memorial, completed to the designs of Philip Johnson in 1970. This simple work of memorial architecture is visited by a majority of tourists to our city, but its current condition does not make one proud either of Kennedy or of our ability to embody in architecture our nation’s grief for him. The structure itself-a great roofless room built of concrete/marble aggregate-is serene and beautiful. Yet, its shoddy sidewalk approaches, its ineffective and dated light fixtures, its stained concrete “floor, ” and even its upkeep raise questions about our respect for Kennedy and for his friend, Philip Johnson. Fortunately, Johnson is very much alive and designing his latest major work here, the much-anticipated Cathedral of Hope. He is also actively reworking the entrances and perimeter walls for one of his masterpieces, the beautifully maintained and privately owned Thanksgiving Square across from the Republic Bank Tower. Could we not now make use of Johnson’s current ideas to both revivify and improve our monument to the memory of John F. Kennedy? If we did, we would involve the most vital American architect since Frank Lloyd Wright in the ” preser-vation” of his-and our-own monument.

PRESERVING THE BEST OF OUR PAST-WHETHER IN RESIDENTIAL, COMmercial, or institutional architecture-is a task for all citizens of Dallas, not just for the minority informed about modern architecture. Our collective environment will be richer and more challenging if we do what every great city has already done-protect our greatest urban assets, our best buildings. Although they belong to particular owners for discrete periods of time, all of us must remember that owners too are temporary and that the citizens own-in a very important sense-their city.


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