Texas architectural legend O’Neil Ford has been called the most famous architect nobody knows about. For a member of an infamously egotistical profession, that may have stung. But Ford, as would surprise few who knew him, was too brash and too busy to care.
Known for both his charming demeanor and his cutting retorts (sick of the the “voluminous spewing of writing about architecture,” he detested clever and trivial modern design), Ford was an early modernist with a humble respect for craftsmanship and the handmade. Coming up as the taste for Arts and Crafts style transitioned to a hunger for the International Style, he favored streamlined shapes but craved natural materials, which he called “old-age insurance for buildings.” For him, true inspiration came by reflecting the simple Texas landscape, and the naturalistic work of Alvar Aalto; Frank Lloyd Wright was simply an “egomaniac … always trying to be exotic.”
Ford’s outspokenness was earned, though: His work gave him ample claim to the title of Texas’s godfather of modern design. So obsessed with historic preservation—especially the beauty of San Antonio’s Spanish architecture—that he was actually declared a National Historic Landmark himself by the National Council on the Arts (still the only person with such an honor), he embraced modernism not only as a way to abandon the past, but to refine it. Like Mies van der Rohe, Ford was a modernist who built things by hand, and it showed in his work.
“The beauty of brick is that you can hold one in the palm of your hand,” he once told an interviewer. “You have to lay brick by hand, so that when you’ve finished, you know how a wall is built because you can feel it.”
For an architect who was celebrated for his designs for Texas universities, Ford definitely had an unorthodox education. Born in the tiny town of Pink Hill, Texas, Otha Neil Ford grew up in the cotton patches of North Texas and started learning at a progressive school espousing the Arts and Crafts movement, until his father died in a railroad accident when he was 12.
Ford quickly became the breadwinner and, due to financial constraints, the only formal architectural education he had was earning an “architectural certificate” via a Pennsylvania correspondence school (he picked up the pamphlet from a traveling salesman at the hamburger stand where he worked, and convinced his mother to spend the last $19 in her savings account on the class).
It wasn’t much, but along with Ford’s personality, it was enough to get him started in the office of Dallas architect David R. Williams, an equally flamboyant character. After Williams closed his office in the early ’30s, Ford found intermittent work until starting a partnership with Arch Swank in 1936.
For the next five years, the collaboration would give Ford a chance to refine his own modern style in both Dallas and San Antonio. A series of early residential commissions, including one on St. Joseph's Island for oil magnate Sid Richardson, and the low-slung, rectangular Murchison home in San Antonio, showcased the influence of Richard Neutra and Irving Gill.
From the ’40s onward, Ford would maintain a shifting set of partnerships, working on an array of institutions' projects, including university commissions and work for the Texas Instruments corporate campus. In the midst of this work, he would find time to lend his name and energy to preservation campaigns, including successful efforts on behalf of La Villita, a historic San Antonio village.
Buildings to know
Considered one of the highlights of Ford’s career and one of the best buildings in the state, the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods at Texas Woman’s University in Denton sees Ford creating a sublime, meditative space. Built as an interdenominational prayer space, it’s a sly application of modern sensibilities to a traditional form, built around a series of parabolic arches, with student-designed stained glass wrapping the walls with scenes of women ministering to human needs including nursing, teaching, speech, literature, dance, and music.
Ford’s work at Trinity University as a whole stands as one of his greatest achievements. He would go on to design other campuses—including the University of Texas-San Antonio—built with a bold, muscular series of concrete blocks and contemporary lines. But Trinity, where he and his firm worked for decades, shows his genius for flattering and accentuating the landscape. He originally called the campus a “dismal and antagonistic jungle,” but while strolling its grounds, noticed that limestone escarpment that bisects the campus and laid out buildings with respect to that natural division.
The result is a campus in tune with its topography, rather than one that forces the layout to abide by a grid. The modernist buildings, in trademark “Trinity red” brick selected specifically to reflect the glow of the Texas sun, fan out like a modern take on an Italian village, with Murchison Tower standing guard at the campus center. Architectural Forum praised the smooth, horizontal modern structures and their expressive glass-curtain walls.
Legacy and reputation today
Ford’s greatest gift to modernism was to practice it with the soul of a preservationist. His approach elevated the handmade and revered the lessons of the past, and treated the landscape and local materials as indispensable elements of great design. He’s been called the dean of Texas architecture and, through decades of running a large firm, amassed quite a list of architects who would call him a mentor, including architects David Lake and Ted Flato of Lake|Flato, as well as Frank Welch.