Lost & Found: The Magnolia Lounge
The Magnolia Lounge: Dallas Showcases the International Style
“Be Our Guest and Rest, at Magnolia Lounge.” (April 26, 1936) – The Dallas Morning News advertisement touted the soon-to-open Texas Centennial Exposition in April 1936. Promising cool, luxurious lounge space with “continuous entertainment” for 100, the Magnolia Lounge competed with eight other major oil industry pavilions for the attention of fairgoers seeking entertainment, education, or just a place to sit down and cool off.
MAGNOLIA LOUNGE AND THE TEXAS CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION
While the Continental Oil Co. offered a “House of Hospitality” within its Colonial-style pavilion and the Sinclair Refining Co. offered a mechanical dinosaur battling two “monsters,” the Magnolia Oil Co. offered a modern pavilion by an international architect. Making an architectural impact was not new to Magnolia. The company’s headquarters, built in 1922, was the tallest building in Dallas for 20 years, and its iconic Pegasus sign, mounted to the roof of the building in 1934, left a lasting mark on Dallas’ image.
Fred Lege Jr., vice president of the marketing division of Magnolia Petroleum, sought the advice of his friend and Dallas tastemaker Stanley Marcus, Hon. AIA on selecting an architect to design the company’s pavilion for the exposition. Consistent with his well-known comment “I have the simplest taste. I am always satisfied with the best,” Marcus, a self-described modernist, went straight to the top, meeting with three of the nine architects featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition on modern architecture.
In his 1974 memoir Minding the Store, the Neiman Marcus retailer said he interviewed architects “Lescaze in New York, considered Neutra in California, and finally ended up visiting the great Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin,” before he decided in late 1934 on Wright to design his home. Architectural historian Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA, wrote that Marcus “was dispatched to New York City by Dallas-based Magnolia Petroleum to find the most up-to-date architect of the United States for their Centennial pavilion.” However this recommendation came about, William Lescaze was selected in 1935 as the architect for the Magnolia Lounge.
INTRODUCTION TO LESCAZE AND THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE
1932 MOMA EXHIBITION
Lescaze was one of the nine architects featured in the 1932 “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the then 2-year-old Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) organized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. The Modern Architecture catalog accompanied the show, and a later publication, The International Style, expanded upon the catalog and canonized the style. The book described one of the underlying principles of the new style as resulting from a skeleton-like structural system that permitted volume of space as opposed to mass, freeing facades from the constraints of a loadbearing role and enabling the architect to bring an “inherent aesthetic possibilities” to the design.
The catalog noted the influence of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe and of the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The Paris Exposition presented a new modern style — Style Moderne — for architecture and the decorative arts, which in the United States initially became known as Art Deco, named after Arts Décoratifs. This modern style was later classified in America under the umbrella of the Modern movement with the nomenclature International Style, Art Deco, and Moderne. The Texas Centennial Exposition is most commonly referred to as Art Deco, but it can also be classified as Moderne, although the permanent buildings also display characteristics of Art Deco. George Dahl, the chief architect responsible for the exposition’s design, referred to the architecture as Classic Modern. Semantics aside, there was a clear intention to produce something both timeless (traditional) and modern in Dahl’s approach. It was decidedly different from Hitchcock’s and Johnson’s International Style, which was meant to leave tradition behind in favor of a new way of thinking about architecture.
Lescaze immigrated to the U.S. from his native Switzerland in 1920 looking for an opportunity to build what he called “the monumental,” or larger scale projects of prominence. He established a partnership with George Howe in 1929, and the firm gained instant notice with the completion of the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building in 1932, considered the first high-rise designed in the International Style, and with its inclusion in the MOMA exhibition. Opposing stylistic labels, Lescaze questioned the validity of the terms “International Style,” “functionalism,” and “organic architecture” as a means to explain architecture, preferring just the “architecture” in On Being an Architect, published in 1942. His least favorite label was “Modernistic” because, to him, that meant design was dependent on prevailing fads. However, he was not opposed to using the term “modern” and said of the firm’s 1929 Oak Lane Country Day School in Philadelphia: “That was the first work of modern architecture in the United States.” His own home and studio at 211 E. 48th St., completed in 1934 and considered the first International Style townhouse in New York City, remains a unique example of design for a narrow city lot for the way the street and rear facades expressed freedom from structural constraints. The partnership with Howe ended in 1935, and in January 1936, Lescaze had already presented his design for the Magnolia Lounge. Would the Magnolia Lounge become another first?
MAGNOLIA LOUNGE DESIGN
Lescaze’s first design for the Magnolia Lounge was not accepted with open arms by the Centennial Exposition or the Dallas Park Board, which referred to it as “extremely modernistic.” In turn, Lescaze sought the support of a local architect to whom he wrote: “I need not say that I am surprised that such a decision should have been reached. I would be less surprised if I had not assumed that since there were architects on the Centennial board, I could expect them to use their influence to convince these gentlemen that what they mistook for ‘modernistic’ is really simply good modern architecture.”
According to architectural historian Jay Henry, Lescaze’s original scheme was more provocative than the executed design: “It would have provided a raised block supported on slender round piers, approached by an entrance ramp — an obvious reference to the work of Le Corbusier. As completed, the building bears certain traces of streamlined commercial, such as the porthole fenestration on the doors and the curving wall of glass block. These features are also found in European functionalism around 1930, however, and may have been derived independently.”
Instead, the final design retains the idea of the entire front facade on piloti, but tempered by the placement of the front doors and screen walls on the north and south ends that, with four Lally columns, define a facade of void rather than solid (like the other buildings of the exposition) with a terrace on the ground level and a canvas-covered deck above it. In addition to design changes, Dahl explicitly objected to the color of the building — white — preferring instead that the predominant color assigned to all the exhibition buildings, Centennial Tan, be used. Lescaze refused, utilizing a “bright white” for the stucco walls, dark gray for windows and secondary doors, and aluminum flake paint for the Lally columns.
The plan was designed around the primary “lounge” space, a wedge-shaped room where “talking” motion pictures of Texas and the Southwest were presented. The three red entrance doors led directly into a lobby, lit by a curved wall of glass block, a product just introduced the year before. Neiman Marcus provided the interior decoration and furnishings. The interior finishes, examined in 2001 by Matthew Mosca, historic paint specialist, indicate that Lescaze maintained a strong hand in the overall interior color scheme, where the same “extra white” and dark gray of the exterior were used in combination with two additional tones of gray.
The architectural plans, dated March 23, 1936, were issued just two and a half months before the exposition opened, with two revisions after that. As the Dallas architect in charge of the work for Lescaze, Robert O. Koenig had the unenviable job of getting this project built. The project was completed on time, exhibited, and included in Hitchcock’s “Thirteen Years of Fair Building” at MOMA and in Architectural Record magazine in July 1936. The entire pavilion cost $75,000.
Magnolia Lounge at Fair Park / Photo: Michael Cagle
OTHER INTERNATIONAL STYLE BUILDINGS IN DALLAS
Lescaze’s Magnolia Lounge is often identified as the first International Style building in Dallas and, occasionally, in Texas. Without taking on the statewide claim, it appears to have been the first commercial building in Dallas of that style and certainly the first in Texas by an architect directly tied to the MOMA exhibit. But there was other residential work in Dallas that was contemporary with the Magnolia Lounge. The most obvious example was the Contemporary House by DeWitt and Washburn Architects, one of four model homes on display at the exposition. Marcus was also most likely influential in the selection of the architect for this project, having selected Roscoe DeWitt for his own house in 1935 after deciding not to build Wright’s design. Neiman Marcus would also provide the interior decorating for the Contemporary House.
In writing about the house, DeWitt & Washburn said the design was rooted in the climate of North Texas, not by any association with the “so-called modernists.” Despite this, the influence of the International Style is obvious in the non-materiality of the facades, especially the south, or rear, facade, and the use of smooth white stucco walls, flat roofs, and a cantilevered exterior stair. For many years, the house at 6851 Gaston Ave., also completed in 1936, was thought to be the Contemporary House, moved to that location after the exposition. The similarities are obvious; however, the authors of Fair Park Deco documented that the house was designed by another architect, Reynolds Fischer, and that the Contemporary House was demolished in 1947. A recently discovered photograph of the front facade confirms that not even a portion of this house came from the exposition.
The house on Gaston Avenue is one of 14 other modern-style houses built by the Mayflower Investment Co. in 1936, and the company had plans to build 25 more. This house is distinguished from other International Style houses by the use of brick, painted white, instead of stucco as the primary material. Another brick version of the style is at 4593 Belford and has been attributed to Luther Sadler.
Sadler is the architect of 6843 Lorna Lane, built in 1936 and just a block from the Gaston Avenue house. Sadler was responsible for many Moderne and International Style houses in Dallas and the Park Cities. Most of those houses have been demolished; however, four smaller examples, recently verified as Sadler’s work by Willis Winters, survive in Cochran Heights. These houses, bordering on Moderne, were built in 1936 and 1937.
Jay C. Henry’s Architecture in Texas 1895-1945 notes that Sadler’s Highlander Apartments, remodeled beyond recognition, was his “modernistic masterpiece.” Also, Howard Meyer designed a few International Style-inspired houses in the late 1930s, including the Sanger House at 3216 Jacotte Circle. Meyer worked in Lescaze’s office in 1926 while a student at Columbia University before moving to Dallas in 1935. Finally, a well-known International Style house that was in the early phases of design in October 1935 — before Lescaze’s rendering of the Magnolia Lounge was published in January 1936 — was DeWitt’s design for the Marcus House at 10 Nonesuch Road, completed in 1938. The Cedar Springs Place housing project, the first Works Progress Administration construction in Texas, was completed in 1937 and designed by Walter C. Sharp and the Dallas Housing Associates, of which DeWitt was a part.
Gaston Ave Residence designed by Reynolds Fischer / Photo: Michael Cagle
The International Style appears to have arrived to Dallas around 1936 and to have flourished briefly during the late 1930s and early 1940s. But by the time of the war, there were other priorities. Postwar modernism carried many of the principles but also took on other attributes, leaving Magnolia Lounge as a rare example of the early International Style. Today, the building is the longtime home of the Friends of Fair Park, where you can still be a guest and rest.
Nancy McCoy, FAIA, FAPT is principal at McCoy Collaborative Preservation Architecture.