In Place — Thoughts on a (North) Texas Vernacular

The size of Texas and its ecological, geological, and social diversity are obvious — as is its youth, in any real cultural terms. At not quite 200 years of post-indigenous settlement, it remains to be seen whether one can say that there is a “Texas” architectural vernacular. To the extent that there exists a signature formal or tectonic language, or a material palette tied specifically to the state, one might say that it resides in the white limestone work with standing seam metal roofs and cedar porches which seems to immediately refer to the Hill Country or Spanish-influenced South Texas. Yet, for much of north Central and West Texas, darker stone is prevalent, and other influences argue for a different language and imagery. The use of sandstone is ubiquitous in much of this state, particularly “web-faced” usage, and it is seldom noted architecturally as a prominent residential typology. 

With a few known exceptions such as Buried City along Wolf Creek in the Panhandle (perhaps due to its lithic origins as a prehistoric site for Alibates flint and related trade), native occupants of the Texas landscape built in a transient manner — with materials and techniques related more to weaving than to ceramics. Grasses and brush formed arbors and single-room structures of which little remains other than early photographs that caught the end of such occupation. 

The early peoples such as the Jumanos and Suma along the Pecos and Rio Grande, or later Kiowa, Wichita, Waco, Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, and Caddo along the Red River, Trinity, and Brazos, might occupy stone overhangs or caves as expedient shelter, but “built” little other than arboreal frames with plant or skin sheathing. They did, however, generally live in villages, as opposed to the migrant Comanche, who occupied north central Texas and plains to the west and northwest.

It is interesting to note that the Pueblo to the west of Texas were known — as commented on by Cosmos Mindeleff and later by J.B. Jackson — for their lack of such building skills as would enable their work to endure without constant care. They built without foundation work and “puddled” adobe before the Spanish introduced the idea of adobe in the form of blocks, casually placing materials found “at hand” and with a logic predicated upon single rooms. One might read in this that, perhaps from religious or other sensibilities, they considered man’s occupation an affront to nature and the landscape, and felt that all actions taken toward residence were ephemeral acts. This sense of time and place, as described also by Jackson in the mid-1950s, might account for the lighter structures of the early peoples of Texas as well. 

Beginning in 1519, the Spanish arrived and mapped the Texas coastline. De Vaca explored in 1528 after wrecking his ship near Galveston. Coronado passed through the Panhandle in 1541, leaving evidence recently found at the Owens site near Floydada. The Spanish led some 20 expeditions through the state. The French arrived when La Salle, looking for the mouth of the Mississippi, accidentally landed on the Texas coast. He founded Fort St. Louis on February 16, 1685. Four years later, Spanish General Alonso de Leon located the remains of the fort and began exploration northward. He named the Trinity River, which La Salle had called the “River of Canoes,” in 1690 and established missions in East Texas toward Spanish occupation and ownership. These first Spanish religious structures were stone and spoke of the power of the church through their scale and detail and, by corollary, endurance and tradition.

These early arrivals to Texas by the Spanish and French led to attempts by the French to make their way north on the Trinity to settle in competition with the Spanish. In 1818, Charles Lallemand, a General under Napolean, decided with his brother and a group of Bonapartist separatists to attempt to found a French outpost named Champ d’Asile (“field of asylum”) northeast of present-day Houston near Liberty. The group of about 150 persons planned wood fort structures and housing, but their lack of agricultural skills and the threats of the Spanish terminated the venture in barely six months. No actual site has been found to date due, in part, to their use of wood for the constructions.

This endeavor was strongly and romantically received by the people of France, and several texts were written accounting for the effort. A second attempt at settlement, this time by French, Swiss, and Belgian intellectuals enamored of the socialist ideas of Fourier and Marx and organized under Victor Considerant, arrived in Houston in 1855 and walked to Dallas not realizing the limited navigability of the Trinity River. The group had acquired acreage three miles west of present-day Dallas, roughly between the intersections of Hampton Road and Westmoreland with Interstate 30. Situated on an escarpment south of the Trinity River rich with limestone, their built efforts utilized cement and some of them endured until the mid-20th century. Again suffering from lack of agricultural skills, but also severe weather and the financial mismanagement of Considerant, the settlement was abandoned after only two years. 

The timber constructions of Champ d’Asile and the limestone and cement work utilized 37 years later at La Reunion show with some clarity the manner in which available materials determined the architecture of these places. While both were extremely short-lived in architectural terms, the responses delineate the needs and requisite skill sets of the arriving occupants. Other examples exist throughout Texas, showing the specific architectural histories and technologies of Norwegians, Czechs, Germans, and others as manifest in the new landscape.

The availability of wood and stone, in conjunction with the harsh weather extremes in Texas, determine much. The Cross Timbers extending southward from Oklahoma into the Dallas and Fort Worth area toward Waco provided considerable oak and cedar for construction. To the east, pine was predominant and dense, as it is today. To the west of Fort Worth, however, wood was more difficult to obtain until the railroads arrived in the 1870s and introduced dimensioned framing lumber and trim. The extremes of weather take considerable toll on the use of wood in Texas, and few species will endure more than a few decades without serious maintenance — not even cedar. In far West Texas, the oil derived from the creosote plant will stay this decay for some time (as it does when it’s used in telephone poles), but decay is inevitable. Many architects who obtained work in Texas found their favorite material palette would not endure and were forced to address this. Think of Harwell Harris’ use of redwood in California and his need to reassess its use in his Texas work. The redwood he used in the residence for Ruth Carter Johnson in Fort Worth required replacement after about 40 years, even with immaculate care. 

This issue of ongoing care versus durability (“low maintenance” is the euphemism) is addressed in recent decades by the gradual migration of wood out of use in facades, where possible; replaced by composite materials but more interestingly by galvanized metals and assemblies obtained from industrial catalogs. This hybridization of residential and commercial elements, and in fact typologies, is well recognized in work such as that of Lake|Flato. 

If white limestone such as that found in the Florence, Burnet, and Llano area of Central Texas is the “signature” stone of a Texas vernacular recognized nationally, it should be observed that darker sandstones are at least as prevalent in the state, from the sandstones such as that found in Millsap to the much darker stones from which Fort Mason and Fort Davis were constructed. There are even darker limestones, such as are found northeast of Abilene in Lueders. These are subtly darker than the Hill Country whites and they hone to a fine surface. 

The rust- and straw-colored sandstones of Palo Pinto County, however, might be considered Texas’ stereotypical sandstones. There are likely thousands of residential and commercial structures in the state that are constructed of similar stone. 

The 1875 Leanna and George Jowell residence in Palo Pinto County (now relocated to the Ranching Heritage Center collection in Lubbock) is a fine example of those structures that settlers constructed following the lines of U.S. military forts, which moved the Indian engagement westward during the 1850s through 1870s. The two-story box is simply dressed and monochromatic in a “milkshake” range of coloration. 

Stone “grows” in horizontal layers and is ideally employed in construction in the same orientation. The standard coursings of stone in 2-to-12-in heights reflect this stratification and resistance to spalling, yet the use is time-consuming compared to flat-faced veneers known as “web-faced” or “quilted” stonework. Coverage of a built volume is much faster with such usage. More interesting is that over time this use became a craft of its own. Such structures are frequently “pictorial,” full of such imagery as Texas stars, and may include petrified wood, glass chunks, or even large fossils. Masons decorated facades in a free-form manner and juxtaposed concrete lintels, sills, and even brick with figural mortar work such as “grapevine” joints to enliven the building. The polychromy of these structures is remarkable and is found throughout Texas, although critical commentary is almost nonexistent on the type.

With enough time, no doubt, a vernacular language that acknowledges both limestone and sandstone, as well as other indigenous materials, will develop and give a more coherent reading of the diverse construction palette naturally found in such a large state. With time, a rich and true Texas architecture.

W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth. 

Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.