A Texas Architect: The life and work of O’Neil Ford
The blend of modernism and Texas traditionalism evident in some of Denton’s most iconic buildings can be attributed to the singular style of O’Neil Ford, a longtime Denton resident who was one of the most renowned and prominent architects in the U.S. In his lifetime, Ford was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson and remains the only human to ever be given the title of National Historic Landmark.
June 15, 2012
Ashley Grant / Senior Staff Writer
Ford, who died in 1982, is behind the distinguished design of the Little Chapel in the Woods at Texas Woman’s University, the gazebo that still stands on UNT campus near the Language building, renovations at the Emily Fowler Public Library and many other buildings in the city.
Born in Pink Hill, Texas, Ford moved to Denton in 1917. His Texas roots heavily influenced his architectural design style, said Peggy Riddle, director of the Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum.
“Because Texas is known for its heat, most of his structures would have porches or covered verandas attached,” she said. “You know it’s a Ford building because of those additions.”
Ford graduated from Denton High School and briefly studied at North Texas State Teachers College, now UNT, said Kathy Strauss, special collections librarian at the Emily Fowler Central Library.
When asked about his architectural influences in later years, Ford would tell people he used to stand in front of the Courthouse-on-the-Square as a little boy and marvel at how it ever got up, said Mike Cochran, a local historian and former city councilman.
Ford received very little technical training, and obtained his architectural certificate by mail.
Strauss said Ford and a friend took odd jobs around the city, including picking up bricks for Acme Brick for a penny each. Ford would hang out around construction sites to learn construction techniques.
The first house Ford ever designed, located at 1819 N. Bell Ave., is now owned and maintained by TWU. Ford went on to produce more significant architecture in Denton and San Antonio.
One of Denton’s finest architectural gems designed by Ford, The Little Chapel in the Woods at TWU, has received several accolades and was named “One of the 10 Best Buildings in Texas” by Texas Monthly magazine.
Deborah Gillespie, coordinator of conference services at UNT, said Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the chapel’s dedication, ending with the words, “May the use of this chapel be a blessing to you all.”
Gillespie said art students also helped with the construction of the chapel in 1938 and worked on the colorful stained glass windows.
“They must have known that this would be something passed down for generations,” she said.
In 2009, a Texas historical marker in Ford’s honor was dedicated at the Emily Fowler Public Library.
The unclear fate of the building that once housed the Fairhaven Retirement Home – there is debate as to whether or not Ford was involved in its design – complicates the future of historic buildings in Denton, including those designed by Ford.
A private group of investors is seeking a zoning change for the property the building is on, drawing the opposition of Denton’s Historical Landmark Commission and others.
“They’re trying to take away his credit for participating in that because he didn’t sign the architectural seal,” Cochran said. “They want to tear it down, but don’t want to admit it so they’re trying to conjure up this false controversy.”
City council members and Denton historians are currently assessing buildings that may have historical significance.
Riddle said she is planning on creating a team to help document all of Ford’s buildings in Denton County and implement some type of registry for them.
“It’s important to keep these structures around because once they go away, all we will have are photographs to document their existence instead of the actual building,” Riddle said.