Architect O’Neil Ford championed regional design, craftsmanship, and the simplicity of lasting materials
By Gene Fowler
Exciting, eccentric, and paradoxical, San Antonio and O’Neil Ford were a good match.” So observed art-and-architecture historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George in her 1992 book, O’Neil Ford, Architect. Ford moved to the Alamo City from Dallas in 1939 to restore the historic neighborhood of La Villita, and his architectural footprint in that city—and many others in Texas—remains strong. In 1974, National Council on the Arts officials proclaimed O’Neil Ford (1905-1982) himself a National Historic Landmark.
Ford achieved that distinction partly by creating architecture inspired by the vernacular structures of 19th-Century Texas. “O’Neil’s philosophy was simple,” explains architect and Ford colleague Carolyn Peterson. “He believed in designing buildings to take advantage of the natural setting and orienting them in a way that made the most of shade and breeze.”
“And for all his love of simple, straightforward, native materials,” adds colleague Roy Lowey-Ball, “O’Neil was also a modernist.”
Born Otha Neil Ford in Pink Hill in 1905, Ford moved with his parents, Bert and Belle Ford, to nearby Sherman around 1908; a younger brother and sister soon joined the family. After Bert died in 1917, Belle moved the family to Denton, where she operated a boardinghouse. Otha went to school and worked odd jobs, and he dreamed of becoming an architect, inspired by area barns and the Romanesque Denton County Courthouse. In 1923, a year before his high school graduation, Otha visited Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Piedras Negras, San Antonio, Castroville, and other towns on a camping trek with his uncle. As architectural historian David Dillon observed in his 1999 book, The Architecture of O’Neil Ford—Celebrating Place, the pair viewed “a body of native architecture that few Texas architects had ever seen, much less appreciated.”
Though Otha managed two years at North Texas State Teachers College—where his name morphed into the jauntier O’Neil—family finances limited his formal architectural education to a course from the International Correspondence Schools.
In 1926, Ford moved to Dallas to work for architect David Williams, who shared his interest in vernacular architecture. Williams’ apartment, dubbed “the Studio,” hosted an art crowd that included painter Jerry Bywaters and other members of “the Dallas Nine.” During their six-year partnership, Williams and Ford made more architectural pilgrimages to the Hill Country and the border. David Dillon wrote that a home Ford designed for Frank Murchison of San Antonio in 1937 was Ford’s “first serious attempt at combining modernism and the Texas vernacular,” exemplified, for instance, in the “wide breezeway adapted from the traditional Texas dogtrot.”
In 1938, Ford and partner Arch Swank achieved recognition
with the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods at Texas Woman’s University in Denton,
which they modeled after an 1850s church in New Mexi-co. Ford projects were
often family affairs: In 1938, he also built a home on San
Decades later Ford observed that, when Mayor Maury Maverick Sr. brought him to San Antonio to revive La Villita, the project and the city “changed the whole direction of my life.”
In 1940, Ford married dancer Wanda Graham, and her family home, Willow Way, served for a time as his firm’s offices. Ford’s many projects in San Antonio and South Texas—including restoration of San Antonio’s 1749 San Fernando Cathedral and preservation work on the city’s chain of Spanish missions—enlarged the Ford mystique.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Ford’s designs gave the campus of Trinity University its linear, modern look. When the architect showed up an hour late for a meeting with a $600,000 donor for the university’s theater building, the in-sulted philanthropist decided to withdraw the gift—until Ford uncorked a spellbinding monologue about the planned temple of performance. Enchanted, the donor wrote a check for $1.5 million.
In the last decade or so of his life, Ford became such a colorful fixture of the Alamo City cultural scene that the Beauregard Café offered an O’Neil Ford Special, a burger on a wheat bun, served with a Shiner beer. Those who knew him say his sense of humor remained intact even as his celebrity grew. When he received the National Historic Landmark designation in 1974, Ford quipped, “Does this mean I can never be altered?”
The architect died in 1982 following a coronary bypass procedure. The Happy Jazz Band, a River Walk stalwart, played at his funeral. Tributes and honors have continued in the years since, often with a strong shot of honesty about his prickly brilliance. “He was affable, irascible, and he never lacked for words,” says Roy Lowey-Ball. “He was larger-than life, yet he was a humanist through-and through.”
From the December 2010 issue.