A New Era of Living: Mid-Century Modern in Dallas

A New Era of Living: Mid-Century Modern in Dallas

Edward Avila
Contributed by:
Edward Avila

A New Era of Living: Mid-Century Modern In Dallas

By the turn of the 20th century, progress in technological methods and materials began to broaden the verse and form of architecture, offering new and exciting opportunities in the built environment. Dallas began to flourish during this time, which laid the bedrock for some of the most historically significant neighborhoods of the era, some of which included Kessler Park (1923), Greenway Parks (1927) and the Swiss Avenue District (1905), one of Dallas' oldest and most established historic districts. These neighborhoods not only carry the distinction of housing some of Dallas' architectural gems, but they also provide the historical context to illustrate the development and growth of architecture in the Dallas area.

The 20th century brought to the fore a veracious desire to supplant the old and embrace new and exciting ideas, causing a break from the previous model and context found in design. In turn, new materials increased the freedom of architecture and architectural design. This welcomed into the view of the architect a new splendor of form, brought forth by the developments in the application of concrete, glass, and steel.

By 1945, Dallas was a city that had adapted the revolutionary sense resulting from the ideology and the thrust of the 20th century. With the help of the accomplished city planner Harland Bartholomew, Dallas began a calculated ascent to building a strong and diverse metropolis. His visionary foresight awakened the forgotten ideas of the past and pushed forth the development of a new and modern Dallas.

In the push to keep up with the migration of companies to Dallas, a boom in residential architecture began to evolve. Many architects—David Braden, George Dahl, Herschel Fisher, Grayson Gill, E.G. Hamilton, Howard Meyer, Arch Swank, Jack Wilson, Lyle Rowley, and countless others—provided the design of modern homes during this period, developing neighborhoods surrounding downtown Dallas. With a respect for the local environment, these architects developed designs that utilized honest building techniques and materials to create site-specific homes.

Foundations of Prominent Architecture

Many architects, such as the ones noted above, reacted against proposed standing styles that included Ranch, Colonial and Tudor Revivals, Neo-classical, and Spanish Eclectic. They eschewed these styles to build a distinct form of architecture that shifted to mirror the radical technological innovations that had preceded it.

Practitioners of architecture in Dallas began developing new technological and aesthetic methodologies, creating a colloquial style of adaptive architecture that favored details such as flat- and low-angled, sloped roofs, open space plans, horizontal volumes and curtains of glass producing a harmonious built form defined and bound to its landscape.

Uncritical in its technical interpretation, these features allowed architects to adopt practicality, economy, and functionality in their designs across the country to create a distinctive form of vernacular architecture known as Mid-Century Modern.

Creating a Chemistry Between Homes and Surroundings

Through the development of the mid-century style, architects began exploring the relationship of material and landscape. In concert, these two distinctive elements became key in planning a space that logically fit into its pre-arranged landscape. This natural creation was fundamental in formalizing an aesthetic that articulated a design's specificity to a site.

Arguably, the embodiment of Mid-Century Modern was the architect Howard Meyer, who opposed views of the past while producing standardization in built form. From Dallas-area architecture specifically to the local mid-century movement, his styles embodied all that was modern. He created notable homes—such as the Edmund J. and Louise Kahn house (1947) and the Mr. and Mrs. Ben Lipshey house (1951)—both located in the community of Greenway Parks. His solutions contained all the prescribed materials and elements of modern design. Both homes allowed for an interplay and balance of the interior and exterior elements. The specificity to the site and expressive horizontal forms created a permeating resonance that marks the distinctive form of Mid-Century Modern design.

A production that influenced many other architects of the time was an extraordinary home known to many as Capri Court, designed by John Barthel. Located on a Northeast Dallas cul-de-sac, Capri Court left the area undisturbed; Barthel created a playful and poetic form of architecture that is beautifully placed and specific to the site that anchors it. Expressionistic from every angle, the dynamism of the built object propels the angular planes of the roof, creating dramatic interior forms of volume and space. The architectural harmony of Barthel's home, which he lived in until his death, contains the fervent embrace of the modern age fueled by the dramatic change of the time.

A Refined Style of Building

As architecture in the commerce and civic sectors of Dallas pushed the progress of the city forward, young architects such as Lyle Rowley and Jack Wilson engaged the forefront of architecture to create a style of building that combined the current theme of architecture while imbuing a sensibility learned under the guise of Howard Meyer.

Rowley and Wilson, operating under the name Ju-Nel, created a brand of architecture that synthesized the ideology of the midcentury movement even while adapting to suit the style of family life. Their designs amassed all the elements in the movement, but found new and distinct ways of using those ideas in ways that served young families. Although economy was core to their design principles, the pair created distinctive homes that exploited the landscape, adhered to the local climate, and used local materials.

Two great examples of this are found in the design of Silverock (1961) and Woodgrove (1965). Both distinct in nature, they allow us to see the pure and simple architecture that translated into a meticulous style of final form. The pair's time with Meyer allowed them to embrace contemporary and modern achievements. Ju-Nel explored efficiency, practicality, and functionality to create a vernacular all their own, ultimately developing a style that remained true to the mid-century movement.

The historical framework of Mid-Century Modern has left the city with elegant architecture speckled throughout Dallas' neighborhoods in which one wrong turn can you lead you into the past. Prized and eagerly sought, designs of Mid-Century Modern homes can be found tucked in cul-de-sacs and side streets. With so many gems dotting our landscape it would be difficult to note every deserving structure.

Edward Avila is a project designer at Brian Gream Design-Build.