Upward Nobility

In architecture as in everything, it’s style that counts.

Among architects “style” was once considered a dirty word, a term that straightjacketed living ideas, lowering them to the status of mere labels. Not so today. The formerly offensive concept has become an invaluable aid for the building watcher instead of just a handy means of classification for the architectural historian. Style is a cultural concept on a higher level than a single building; it unites many individual cases into significant, recognizable wholes.

Texas, while lacking such unusual delights as the Egyptian Revival, is wonderfully replete with almost every style represented somewhere in the country; at least one style — Stone Vernacular — is peculiar to Texas. The Texas Historical Commission ( THC) has photographed and identified over 4300 of the state’s historic buildings and has placed 260 of the most outstanding on the National Register of Historic Places. This agency has assigned a precise stylistic description to most of the structures; the THC photographs and architectural data comprise a valuable repository of documentation on old buildings. The agency has canvassed most of the 254 counties in the state searching for historic structures and has completed an inventory of buildings in 69 of them.

Landmark or preservation ordinances with teeth in them have been passed in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. Other laws, not quite as strong, have begun to function in Galveston and Corpus Christi. Houston — zone-less — is deficient, but there exists in this major city a broad interest in historic preservation because of the fervor of heritage organizations and civic and architectural groups. But all is not well by any means, despite the ordinances, for priceless examples of architectural workmanship and first-class style specimens have been ruthlessly demolished in all of these cities, including in 1967 Colonel Edward M. House’s fine home in Austin (Shingle Style) and the incredible star-motif Hexagon House in Mineral Wells (Octagon Mode, a rarity) in 1958.

Even federally and state-designated treasures are in danger, since the tear-down-and-build-over spirit (which more often than not fails to breed the urban excitement its promoters intend) infects every Texas town and city. Any local historical group must arrive at a consensus of what is worth saving and then, of necessity, trade off with the demands of a growing city. This conflict is what Ms. Terry Morton, editor of publications for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls “the national preservation struggle.” Yet most citizens do not understand the reason behind this struggle: the conditions which gave birth to a particular building or style will never recur. If Texas does not save the architecture it already possesses, it will lose it entirely. In architecture, at least, one truly cannot go home again. What is past is irreplaceable.

Just as bird watching foments an interest in bird protection, building recognition leads to the preservation of buildings. When led down the architectural trail, the layman’s best tool is style recognition. A fair collection of styles can be found almost anywhere in the country, but Texas happens to have examples of very notable quality. Even though individual structures of a certain class may differ and styles can interbreed maddeningly, they still can be sorted in effective ways. The following primer on style descriptions and terms is based partially on Marcus Whiffen’s American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles published by MIT Press in 1969.

Greek Revival

This style is difficult to discuss because it is so widespread in Texas (and elsewhere) and therefore a little boring, like blue northers, oil, cactus, and cows. Less sophisticated than Jeffersonian Classicism, Greek Revival was the darling of the well-to-do. Many of the revered nineteenth-century homes and public buildings of Texas are based on models in the architectural pattern books of the time. The classical temple form often has a columned portico running across the front and a flat roof. A variation frequently seen in homes is a smaller portico with a pediment, and columns flanking the door. The hallmarks of the style are purity and simplicity. Abner Cook, a renowned master builder of Austin, constructed almost nothing but Greek Revival; the Governor’s Mansion (Cook’s creation, built in 1856) is one of the finest examples of the style. Greek Revival points up the predilection of the age to ignore function for adulation of the ancients.

Queen Anne Style

The watchwords of Queen Anne style are irregularity of plan and massing, and some variety in color, texture, and wall surfaces. There may be much half-timbering — board and stucco construction. Windows are of many different types, but they never come to a point. There are probably some bay windows and leaded glass in a Queen Anne building, and the roofs are crazy, tall, and multiple. They always meet at right angles, however, except for the roofs of the frequent round or polygonal turrets. Chimneys are very important and sometimes paneled or modeled in specially cut or molded brick. Detailing tends to be small in scale and classical in style. The Queen Anne mode was characterized by Montgomery Schuyler in 1883 as a kind of architectural Extreme Left, a “frantic and vociferous mob, who welcome the ‘new departure’ as the disestablishment of all standards … and as an emancipation from all restraints, even those of public decency.”

Eastlake Style

Texans, enamored of the Victorian style, delved into each of its shifts and varieties. One of these is the Eastlake, which is really the Stick Style given more loving care. (Stick Style buildings are tall, with steep roofs, usually of an irregular plan. Diagonal “stick-work,” an overlay of boards often painted a contrasting color, suggests the unseen skeletal structure of the house.) The ornamentation, rather than basic composition, makes the Eastlake Style unique, because the lathe and gouge were used instead of only the fanciful, two-dimensional gingerbread scroll saw. The style owes its name to Charles Lock Eastlake, an Englishman, who wrote Hints on Household Taste. The book was published in 1868 and its American editions were immensely popular.

Shingle Style

When Frank Freeman designed the now-demolished House House (home of Colonel Edward House,

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