Upward Nobility

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

July 1975By Comments

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, advisor to Woodrow Wilson) in 1891, he was working in a mode which had flourished in New England and was in full bloom in California. The upper, and sometimes the lower, stories of this style of house have a uniform shingle covering. Occasionally the ground-floor stories are covered with fieldstone, or random rubble, or coursed stone. The windows are often tiny and arranged in horizontal rows. Occasionally a lonely Palladian window (a three-part window with a round-arched center section) may appear to interrupt the monotony.

Spanish Colonial Mission

Because of their considerable age, the largely eighteenth-century Spanish missions of Texas have close ties to the Baroque architectural masterpieces of Spain and Mexico. The buildings that the Franciscan fathers’ Indian converts constructed are democratic in their combination of Old World and Native American motifs. Given the limitations of unskilled labor and different building materials, these missions sometimes bear a striking resemblance in form to the cathedrals in the then more civilized parts of the world. The fantastic façade carved in the front of Mission San Jose in San Antonio is pure Rococo, but the building is spare in other respects. San Jose also contains a sacristy and part of a granary with flying buttresses which are considered some of the oldest permanent structures still standing in the state.

Texas Stone Vernacular

Beginning mainly in the 1840s, German immigrants (and to some extent Poles, Alsatians, Czechs, and others) made their ways from ports on the Gulf of Mexico to Central Texas. Their houses and stores are usually almost square, often two rooms deep, and have very high roof gables. Breeze-catching verandahs are a feature incorporated from Anglo houses. The Sunday house, a type almost unique to Fredericksburg, is a tiny townhouse where a German farm family would live during the weekend while shopping and attending church in town. Fachwerk, or half-timbering, is a method of wall construction much used in German communities. The combination of stones and boards make it easy to spot, unless it has been stuccoed. These colonial buildings represent a solely Texan architectural style. With the available materials (usually field limestone), the available labor (provided by the people themselves) fashioned a utilitarian, yet stylish, genre of houses, churches, stores, mills, barns, and fences which exist nowhere else.

Log Cabin

The styles and sophistication of early wood structures have long been unappreciated. Most people think of them in terms of Log Cabin Syrup—can cuteness or as old corn cribs. Actually, many settlers put their buildings together very carefully, notching and fitting the timbers much like the skeleton of a boat. The most common type in Texas is the single-room cabin. It commonly has side gables, a chimney at one end, and a door in the middle. The other common type is the dog-trot or dog-run cabin, actually two cabins with a wide porch or “trot” between them. One roof covers both rooms and the trot, where work was done during the hot summers. Each cabin has a separate door and usually its own fireplace.

Italian Villa Style

Sometimes called Texas Italianate, this unlikely mode can be understood as a kind of counterpart to Texas Stone Vernacular, since it was spawned in the hardscrabble Italian countryside. Simply described, it has a square tower, very off-center, usually a verandah or loggia, and grouped doors and windows. Expensive versions had hoodmolds over the windows. It is not unusual to find bay windows, or balconies with balustrades. The eaves may project quite a bit and are often supported by brackets. Wall surfaces are usually smooth rather than rusticated. The style was much ballyhooed in the 1840s and 1850s as at once picturesque and practical.

Richardson Romanesque

This style is the distinctive product of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), noted for his use of the Roman round arch. Weight and massiveness, plus broad roofs, arches, and lintels constructed of a different stone than the walls, all suggest links with the past, as if a complicated — yet sensible — way of building had been lost. The gloomy appearance of Richardsonian Romanesque overshadows a rich, civilized punch. In Texas many courthouses and commercial buildings adopted this style, making Richardson, not Frank Llloyd Wright or Louis Sullivan, the best-represented member of the Big Three of American architects. Richardson’s work was widely imitated and his death was said not only to have ended rivalry but also to have abolished envy.

Georgian

This popular brick colonialism — seen mostly in churches, schools, and ladies’ club buildings — derives from James Gibbs’ Saint Martin in the Fields Church in London, built 1722-1726. SMU’s Perkins Chapel is a fair, if diminutive, example of Georgian Revival, modestly handled. Unhappily, the rest of the SMU campus is a kinky conglomerate of architectural mistakes, a lesson about why it’s not smart to plug Georgian detail into twentieth-century buildings. Usually of red brick with white trim, this style can be spotted by its upper-story railings or balustrades, overall symmetry, fanlights above the doorways, and classical cornices. In secular buildings, rectangular, double-hung window sashes predominate.

Chateauesque

Galveston’s well-known Bishop’s Palace or Gresham House (1888-1892) was designed by Nicholas Clayton, a genius unsung except in architectural circles. During his prolific career he gave Texas a priceless collection of grandiose structures, many of them in Galveston. The Chateauesque or Francis I style is a tricky mixing of Renaissance and Gothic elements — a happy, asymmetrical collage of high gables, turrets with candle-snuffer roofs, wall dormers, basket-handle arches, and fanciful chimneys. Usually reserved for the Vanderbilts, real Texas Chateauesque is a rare type, yet the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas is a first-rate example of this pinnacle of the mansion style.

Neo-Classical Revival

Simpler than Beaux-Arts Classicism, generally larger and more elaborate than nineteenth-century Greek Revival, the Neo-Classical was a proud attempt to design American buildings without having to look back and bow to anyone across the Atlantic. New York’s celebrated Pennsylvania Station has been wiped out, but the country, including Texas, has many early twentieth-century banks, libraries, and post offices which are carefully wrought and impressive, even though often small. Preservationists are frequently biased in favor of them, but earlier public buildings may have more architectural interest.

Sullivanesque

The magnificent early skyscrapers of Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924) satisfied the classical demand that a work of art should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. He fabricated unique building ornaments, fusing the naturalistic and the abstract, yet as a whole his architecture is simple and clear-cut, the buildings topped with flat roofs and boldly projecting, good-looking cornices. El Paso’s superb Mills Building, by Henry and Gustav Trost, is basically a Sullivanesque structure. In 1910, when the Mills was completed, Texas could claim the world’s tallest reinforced concrete building. Architects today try to make skyscrapers interesting, even habitable, but they have somehow lost the Sullivan Touch.

Spanish Colonial Revival

Easily confused with the Mission Style (essentially a California phenomenon of the 1890s and not overabundant in Texas), Spanish Colonial Revival became a real craze in the Southwest in the Twenties. Hallmarks are plastered walls of various textures, low-pitched red tile roofs, elaborately carved or cast ornaments around doors and windows, grilles over windows, and cool arbored patios. The style seldom exceeds two stories. A reproduction of the front elevation of the Alamo, seen in one-story commercial buildings and occasionally in service stations, has been dubbed the Alamo Variant by architectural historians.

Bungaloid

The word bungalow comes from an English corruption of the Hindustani word meaning “of Bengal” and was used to describe a low dwelling, usually temporary, surrounded by a verandah. In America the bungalow style denotes a simple one-story frame house often with two broad gables facing the street. One of the gables frequently covers a porch. Brick or stone chimneys and matching columns or pedestals at the entrance are common features. Its heyday in Texas (1910-1930) resulted in part from the easy availability of $5 working drawings, which could be ordered from Los Angeles.

Modernistic Style

Common but hardly commonplace, this strictly American invention sometimes seems to represent the worst and the most uncomfortable of the recent past. It arose from feelings about style and ornament expressed in the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Long ignored or remodeled, it is now beginning to be cherished for its period charm and historically unprecedented detail. Ornaments — frets, chevrons, zigzags, fluting, reeding, polychrome effects given by glazed tile and gold leaf — all stress the vertical. Geometric curves are thrown in also. Modernistic buildings are an exercise in free style applied to new building requirements (such as setbacks on skyscrapers). The “modernity” is achieved largely by decorative means. Tall Modernistic buildings, like Houston’s Gulf Oil Building, look like telescopes set on end, or as if they had been whittled out of ice from the top down.

International Style

This pervasive style is a result of total lack of ornament and the desire to express pure volume. It is the Box as art, a skin-and-bones approach using the cantilevered beam and uniform, monotonous wall surfaces. Roofs are flat and windows a seeming continuation of walls. Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were perhaps the most famous practitioners of the International Style, which started in Europe in the Twenties. In Germany it originally developed as an improvement of industrial design and as a contribution to cleaner, safer working conditions. That is what it should have remained. Instead it has infiltrated all aspects of life: cartonlike office buildings, mobile homes, federal housing projects, beer coolers, radios, gas stoves, McDonald’s, even water beds. It is a clinical, rather than an emotional, solution to shelter, so widespread we may never be adequately rid of its influence.

New Formalism

The most prevalent style of the Sixties, it uses expensive-looking materials to redo old forms. The buildings are blockish, symmetrical, and flat on top. The arch is a ruling motif. The exterior ornamental grille is the most offensive aspect of the style. Architects Philip Johnson and Edward Stone have proliferated the mode in Texas. The former has gone cubist (and bananas) with Houston’s new Pennzoil Plaza, which compromises aesthetic sensibilities; the latter is responsible for Austin’s Westgate Tower, which encroaches upon the breathing space of the State Capitol grounds. The Lyndon B. Johnson Library is modified New Formalism, a kind of Egyptian shoebox or a piece of Neo-Classical nonsense by Gordon Bunshaft, based on his Rare Book Library at Yale. Always trying for a temple impression and seldom people-scaled, the New Formalism typifies two things which are wrong with Texas architecture: a yen for powerstruck individualism and the mystical.

Wrightian

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), whom many regard as the only American architect of first rank, was a cross between Walt Disney, Sam Houston, Michelangelo, and God. It is unfortunate that the best examples of his style are not in Texas. His style was horizontal and roof-oriented, with the interior form often echoed in the outside ornament and overall appearance. Smoothness and wholeness predominate. Playing with every geometric form, Wright personalized them, making up, among other things, the Prairie Style. He always promoted artistry, innovation, and intelligence with his work.

Neo-Expressionism

Expressionism is supposed to have had its start in Germany in 1910, but not much else happened until the Fifties, when a few churches and terminals started looking like Silly Putty. Stretching a point, Longhorn Caverns could be called Neo-Expressionistic. A freehander, the style is a little nuts, but flexible, stressing continuity, sweeping curves, convex-concave surfaces, leaning columns, movement, and outlandish sculptural effect. Often the structures are of sprayed plastic or concrete over metal frames. Not to be confused with the hippie-built conglomerate style or geodesic domes, honest Neo-Expressionism may have lost some if its “ooze” by now, but its appeal strikes deep in the hearts of those who disdain the Box.

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