Arch Swank and the Price of Morality

Arch Swank and the Price of Morality

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Contributed by:
Marcel Quimby
FAIA

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Storytelling: Arch Swank and the Price of Morality

Arch Swank, FAIA (1913-1999) was one of Dallas' most influential architects. He began his architectural practice in Dallas in 1936 and the following year entered into a partnership with his friend and cousin, O'Neil Ford, FAIA. Their firm designed some of the most innovative projects of the time, such as the Little Chapel in the Woods in Denton and the Bromberg residence in Dallas. Their partnership ended in 1941 when Arch joined the Army Corps of Engineers. Following his return to Dallas after the war, Swank practiced with Roscoe DeWitt, FAIA (DeWitt and Swank) and the firm was responsible for many of Dallas' larger projects, like the Parkland Hospital on Harry Hines and the Neiman Marcus store at Varsity Village (now known as Preston Center), which was the company's' first suburban store in Dallas. In 1952, Swank opened his own firm, A.B. Swank and Associates, occasionally partnering with Ford until the 1960s. Their collaboration included projects such as the Texas Instruments semiconductor complex and Great Southwest Corporation's industrial park with its innovative hyperbolic paraboloid structures (with Felix Candela). Swank’s own practice was varied and included education, commercial, retail, planning, multi-family, the occasional residence and custom furniture design.

Swank's leadership in the Dallas community as a spokesman for the ethical value of architecture is legendary and a few examples relate to this issue of Columns by answering the question—does taking a moral stand come at a price?

Turtle Creek Boulevard, one of the few realized components in Kessler's plan for Dallas, was threatened by the City of Dallas in 1960 with plans to enlarge the roadway into a six-lane thoroughfare for faster access to downtown Dallas. This plan was opposed by Swank on several fronts: the destruction of the natural beauty, the potential impact on the character of the park, the removal of many mature trees along the route, the reduction of green space between the creek and the road, and the lack of public hearings prior to issuing the project for bid. Quoted in The Dallas Morning News as “declaring an esthetic war against City Hall,” Swank organized the Save the Turtle Creek Committee, which then led an effort to publicly oppose the widening plan[1]. This committee represented 16 organizations (including the AIA Dallas Chapter) and 36,000 of their members. Heated public meetings were held, lawsuits were filed, and extensive public discussion and media coverage ensued. Swank's organization and Oak Lawn residents battled Dallas City Hall and the downtown merchants who supported this plan. James Pratt said, “There was real blood drawn. It was all over the news.” Ultimately, Turtle Creek Boulevard, between Blackburn and Routh streets, was widened; but due to Swank’s involvement, the community participated in its planning, a wider median was provided and many of these mature trees were saved.

Dallas Organizations led by Arch Swank

  • Allied Arts of Dallas, President
  • Dallas Chapter American Institute of Architects, President (1951)
  • Dallas Charter League, Co-Founder
  • Fine Arts Commission, Chair
  • Dallas Jazz Society, President
  • Dallas Civic Playhouse, Director
  • Save the Turtle Creek Committee, Organizer
  • Jno E. Owens Memorial Foundation, Executive Committee Chair

Source: Arch. B. Swank Obituary, Dallas Morning News, January 16, 1999

Swank found that standing up for his convictions came with a price. His architectural practice was adversely impacted. Neiman Marcus is a case in point. Although the firm had previously hired Swank for several projects (and he and Stanley Marcus had known each other for decades) Marcus had publicly supported the widening plan, and Swank did not receive any further commissions from Neiman Marcus.

This was not Swank’s only time to uphold high moral standards. He often did so in both his own practice and for the profession. As the architect for the new Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1950s, he fought to eliminate the “colored-only” entrance, as well as to provide air conditioning for its charity ward. He denounced the Dallas Independent School District’s Board of Trustees for their outdated system of awarding public school design contracts and was not hired by the district for future schools. His moral standards were high, and it cost him numerous public commissions, but left a legacy for other architects to live on.[2]

Bill Booziotis, FAIA, in Arch Swank's obituary, summed up both Swank’s character and his commitment to high moral standards. He said, “Arch had the courage to speak up when nobody else would. He made life a lot easier for the rest of us.”

 

Marcel Quimby, FAIA is an architect with Gensler specializing in preservation.

References

[1] Arch Swank - He Fights City Hall, The Dallas Morning News, March 5, 1961; p 1, section 3.

[2] Excerpted from Arch. B. Swank Obituary, Dallas Morning News, January 16, 1999.