PaperCity Magazine

April 2015 - Houston

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Page 37 of 67

F rank Welch's beautifully told memoir, On Becoming an Architect ($45, Texas A&M Press), chronicles his path to becoming one of the Southwest's most important architects. Along the way, it illuminates the birth of regionalist modern architecture and provides fascinating glimpses into the personalities and lives of his high-profile and wealthy clients during the '50s, '60s and '70s. We're also treated to some good yarns about legendary architect O'Neil Ford, who became Welch's mentor. Welch, 88, spent seven years pounding out his life story on the computer, rewriting and refining. He enjoyed every minute of it. "It was effortless, so easy to do," he said by phone from his offices in the historic Brewery near downtown Dallas. "I love writing. I love literature. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a writer." Instead, he studied architecture at Texas A&M, a discipline that had fascinated him since he was 17. Taught by MIT- and Harvard-trained professors, Welch, who grew up in Sherman, found the college to be surprisingly erudite, "an outpost of modernism — the first architecture school in the region to adopt the bare-bones modernism developed at the Bauhaus in prewar Weimar, Germany," he writes in the book. While at college, Welch took an elective on great books that made him realize the importance of creating architecture that was representative of its time, the way the prose of Fitzgerald and Hemingway had evoked their eras. We also learn that Welch was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study architecture in Paris; and was offered a job by the most famous Texas architect of the time, O'Neil Ford, after a long night of drinking. About Ford, Welch writes: "He was in his late forties, but had the energy of a twenty-year-old, full of opinions, anecdotes, and blarney: totally engaging." That night, Ford confided in Welch that he was haunted by the fact that he'd never finished college. In fact, his only formal education had been a "correspondence course in drafting." Welch went on to design numerous buildings with Ford, including supervising the construction of Texas Instruments' complex Semiconductor Building in Dallas. Made of marble, aluminum, glass and concrete, its revolutionary design drew architects from around the globe to visit the site. Welch opened his own firm during the 1950s in Midland, and it was in "the isolated oil town's fast-paced social world of party drinking, bird hunting, and tennis playing" that he designed some of his first modernist residences. Welch's vivid and often hilarious detailed accounts of his clients — many of them Ivy League- educated and wealthy — paint a portrait of the area as sophisticated and eccentric. In one passage, he tells the story of a client in Odessa who went bust, politely sending word that he couldn't afford to pay for Welch's services via a handwritten note on "a very stiff ecru Tiffany card." Welch went on to design schools, office buildings, churches and museums, populating the West Texas desert with some of the best architecture in the region. Many still stand. But it was a simple stone-and-wood shelter, built for a rancher in the mid-1960s in Sterling County, that catapulted Welch into recognition. Bestowed with numerous AIA awards and featured in Architectural Digest, The Birthday, as the structure was called, remains one of his most iconic projects. The Birthday was virtually destroyed decades later, he discloses, when the land's new owners built their house around it. "That's when I began to realize that nothing does endure," he writes. But that's not entirely true. While Welch's structures are subject to whim, weather and the wrecking ball, his legacy lives on — certainly in Dallas and Houston, where he went on to design dozens of residences, private schools and country clubs. Welch, whose eyesight is failing, continues to design and build, assisted these days by architect Scott Marek at his Dallas-based firm, Frank Welch & Associates. LEGENDARY MODERNIST — AND ONE OF TEXAS' MOST ENDURING AND BELOVED ARCHITECTS — FRANK WELCH'S NEW MEMOIR HOMES IN ON THE BUCCANEERING EARLY DAYS WITH O'NEIL FORD AND HIS ECCENTRIC OIL-BOOM CLIENTELE. BY REBECCA SHERMAN. frank The Birthday shelter, Sterling County, 1966 Sarofim Pool House, Houston, 1979 Welsh House (altered), Houston, 1972 Architect Frank Welch Hunt House (altered), Dallas, 1973 Pittman House, Houston, 1982 © HESTER + HARDAWAY PHOTOGRAPHERS FRANK D. WELCH COLLECTION FRANK D. WELCH COLLECTION FRANK D. WELCH COLLECTION FRANK D. WELCH COLLECTION NAN COULTER

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