With its flattering filters and highly curated content, Instagram’s performative display can conjure feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, at least for me. But during the pandemic, I’ve come to see it more as a collective of vulnerable humans coping and trying to make the most of several awful situations converging at once. While self-isolating at home, I’ve actually been heartened by my Instagram feed. One account in particular has been a balm—and, no, it doesn’t involve photos of homemade loaves of crusty sourdough.
Called ModTexas, the page is a crowdsourced effort to document our state’s many examples of mid-century modern architecture—a style that emerged after World War II that’s often defined by neat lines and minimalist, functionality-forward design. The account features stunners dreamed up by giants of Texas modernism, including O’Neil Ford’s Tower of the Americas, built for the 1968 World’s Fair, in San Antonio, and the campus buildings at Texas Southern University, in Houston, designed by John S. Chase, Texas’s first licensed black architect. The posts that knock me out, though, display seemingly ordinary structures with extraordinary details: a wave-patterned brise-soleil shielding an Amarillo municipal building from the Texas sun. The charming diamond-mosaic tile pattern lining the exterior of a defunct office supply store in Wichita Falls. A striking sloped roof jutting out over the mid-sixties Corpus Christi Electric Company building.
Helmed by Amy Walton, a Dallas resident who’s spent many years working in the nonprofit sector, ModTexas serves as a collaborative trove of modern architecture, but it also aims to heighten preservation efforts. An avid collector of eclectic mid-century tchotchkes, including erotic kitsch and dental items, Walton started the ModTexas page in 2018, after attending a modernism event—replete with a home tour, lectures, and a swap meet—in Oklahoma City. “I came back and said, ‘Well, who’s doing this in Texas?’ ” she says. “I had too much fun and felt like there were equally as many interesting treasures around Texas as there were in Oklahoma.”
Walton connected with local preservation and architectural groups in North Texas, gathering information on mid-century marvels as well as photographing and posting them. A modestly sized but active community of about 6,200 followers has grown in tandem with the page; Walton’s post of an abandoned movie theater in Kingsville, for instance, prompted internet gumshoes to track down the building’s historical details and commenters to share their memories of going there. Walton hopes the project ultimately spurs people to pause and acknowledge those places within their own communities. “Any average person who loves the little dry cleaner in their neighborhood with a zigzag roof? We want them to take a picture so everybody can take a moment and appreciate it,” she says. “All you need is a phone and an Instagram account and the willingness to pull over and take a photograph.”
Through Instagram, Walton has also connected with architects like Ben Koush, a member of the Texas Historical Commission State Board of Review and a cofounder of Houston Mod, a group that focuses on preserving and appreciating modern architecture in the city. Koush, who restored an East End home that became Houston’s first protected modernist landmark, in 2005, often chronicles his travels through architecture via his own Instagram posts. “There’s all this wonderful modern architecture [in Texas], and it just makes you wonder, ‘Why aren’t these places like Palm Springs? Why aren’t they meccas of modern architecture?’ ” he says.
Meanwhile in Texas...
In 2013 Dallas resident Gary Isett installed a seven-foot-tall statue of mid-century figure Big Boy, from the burger chain, in his yard, at the corner of Abrams and Trammel. Since March, Big Boy has worn a mask, just like the rest of us during the pandemic.
ModTexas also calls attention to noteworthy buildings in danger of being torn down. It acutely captures how the passage of time and shifting ways of life have rendered certain structures obsolete, such as a spectacular round bank off Interstate 35 in Bellmead, near Waco. Opened in 1979, the American Bank building is slated for demolition this summer. “The bank still owns it, but they’re going to tear it down because no one goes to the bank anymore,” Koush says. “They’re building a building that’s much smaller to replace it.”
Modern architecture is still in its nascent preservation stages, given that buildings are not eligible for historic designation until fifty years after their construction. “We feel there’s a sense of urgency to protect these buildings because, one, they’re just on the cusp of being considered historic, and, two, since there was so much experimentation in form and materials back then, they can be more susceptible to time and the elements,” Walton says.
As I started going further down the ModTexas rabbit hole, I realized that we don’t always see what’s around us all that clearly. Because of the pandemic, many of us are staying put in our own neighborhoods, so we have more opportunities to notice details we might not have otherwise. On a recent walk, I started picking up on instances of modern design everywhere, like a cherry-red carport tucked into a cul-de-sac and A-frame houses stretching toward the heavens. And while running an errand in North Austin, I took a detour down Burnet Road just so I could drive by the cheery, multicolored sign at Top Notch Hamburgers, a fast-food institution, complete with carhop service, that’s been around since 1971.
During the months I’ve spent sheltering in place, ModTexas has become, well, not a substitute for travel, exactly, but a new way to channel that desire to go somewhere else. It acts as a portal both to places in Texas I’ve never visited and to familiar sites, like the Jung Center, in my hometown of Houston. I’d only ever seen the place while driving by, so I was struck by how beautiful the building’s arches were up close in the Instagram photo.
Much like our world right now, the ModTexas photos aren’t devoid of loneliness. In fact, since people are rarely depicted amid these facades, the images evoke a sense of emptiness. Still, it’s a small comfort to remember that these buildings have weathered much over the years. Surely we can get through this moment too.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Modern Love.” Subscribe today.