The loss of Frank D. Welch, FAIA at age 90 on June 22 in Dallas leaves a significant hole in the fabric of Texas architecture. His contributions and his achievements over the past six decades are likely never to be repeated. His legacy as the third architect in a ‘narrative’ of the creation of a Texas architecture, following David R. Williams and O’Neil Ford, is well-defined.
Welch was born in Sherman Texas in 1927, only a short distance from the Pink Hill birthplace of O’Neil Ford. They shared a directness and a kind of laconic ‘no nonsense’ problem-solving ethic in addition to a fondness for life, love, song and drink. Both married women (Wanda and Bittie) interested in preservation, antiques and history. Both saw the ancient and the modern as one thing; a continuity requiring intimate knowledge of both. The lessons derived from Welch and Ford’s ongoing dialogue regarding ‘appropriateness’ in architecture, were profound.
Ford and Welch (and Williams) were rooted initially in Dallas; and the north central Texas climate, material palette and vegetation were instrumental in their understanding of the role of an architecture. All would ‘see’ the light, weather, rivers, topography and the literal history of this place as the working materials of any such Texas ‘vernacular’. All wrote at length on exactly these topics, beginning with Williams and Ford writing in such journals as the Southwestern Review in the 1920s and 1930s. Their assessment of the indigenous structures and particularly Spanish stone works defined the roots of Texas architecture since. Williams died in 1962, Ford in 1982 and now Welch last week.
Frank Welch’s depth of understanding and his capacity for clarity in design were the product of his profound curiosity. His interests were many – photography, art, music, literature and especially film. Any or all could serve as inspiration or reference. He preferred directness and was not a fan of saccharine writing or expression. While this could seem a kind of opaque toughness, beneath lay a sweet and generous person who gave constantly of himself and was the source of a “collegiality” among peers which is highly unusual. He mentored many younger architects well-known today. In much the same way that Philip Johnson watched over ‘the boys’ (Stern, Eisenman, Graves, Cobb, et al) Welch advised and encouraged a group of architects in Texas who will always be grateful. The author included.
His library was extensive. His photography was and is represented by Ben Breard at the AfterImage in Dallas. His archive is established at the Alexander Architectural Archive at the University of Texas in Austin which also holds that of Ford (and Hedrick, Geren, Meyer and other regional architects). Cataloguing is underway there in order to allow scholarly access.
Welch’s only Fort Worth project is the Goggin residence on the east side of Sealands (about a half-block south of Cynthia Brants painting studio of 1950 which received an AIA Fort Worth 25-Year award). It is limestone with a standing seam ‘paint-grip’ galvanized roof with knife-edged edge details and dormers. Quiet and perfectly in place on its cul-de-sac it is a simple example of the kind of rapport his work has with its context. Completed in 1998 it is roughly symmetrical and fronts the street with a projected arboreal pergola; a kind of Texas porch held out as ‘colonnade’.
Welch served on several design awards juries for the Fort Worth chapter and spoke on several occasions here about his work. He told the author once privately that “if he had it to do over again he would live in Fort Worth”. He loved Angelos and the Original. He was terrified of Ruth Carter Stevenson whom he interviewed on several occasions for the Philip Johnson book, but they had a fine friendship and shared a similar sensibility. He knew Fort Worth history and buildings better than most Fort Worth architects. He and close friend Stephen Fox – architectural historian in Houston – were fond of margaritas and Sapphire Blue Bombay gin. He met on Monday nights in Dallas with past employees and peers (Wommack, Glazbrook, Henderson et al) for what came to be known as the ‘Bombay Club’. Friends talking weekly over drinks.
A small group of peers, beginning about twenty years ago, held a birthday lunch for Welch each January 28 at varying locations. Always congenial, even raucous, they were never-to-be-forgotten moments of shared respect and affection.
Two of the architects he employed and mentored – Mark Wellen and Jim Rhotenberry – work now from the two-story precast office building which was his office in Midland for part of his 25-year tenure there. They continue to look after his clients in the region and know deeply the responsibility this entails. Their work is suffused by their time in his office in the late 70s and 80s and their respect for him is lifelong.
In a state in which most buildings of late are considered seldom beyond financial and “development” concerns those of Frank D. Welch, FAIA are singular and exceptional. If a life’s work has a ‘voice’ then his is quiet and clear, and his words understated. Rare qualities in these days of arm-waiving, marketing, branding and self-promotion. His body of work from the beginning is a rare non-sequitur, rooted in the indigenous works of the place in which he lived and worked, and exuding a refinement and simple clarity which few can achieve. Or will.
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA