For a Gardener: In Memory of Ruth Carter Johnson Stevenson (1923-2013)
In memory of Ruth Carter Stevenson’s many contributions to Fort Worth and the state, Mark Gunderson, AIA, recalls her unique role in and contribution to matters of architecture and design, her friendship with Philip Johnson, and her love of gardening.
It is difficult to imagine a Fort Worth without Ruth Carter Stevenson. Her generosity and, perhaps more important, her voice in matters of public aspiration were unique. It is popular to speak of global cultural and humanitarian concerns being manifest locally, and Ruth was the embodiment of this idea.
She was born into a certain privilege in 1923 as the daughter of Amon G. Carter, the legendary publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — a man whose form of promotion for Fort Worth was generally aimed at pushing the city past any perceived accomplishments of nearby Dallas. Through her refined intuitions and convictions, Ruth furthered her father’s philanthropic efforts towards raising the city’s stature in national and international realms.
Her college roommate at Sarah Lawrence was Fort Worth-friend Cynthia Brants, who would become one of the group of artists known as the Fort Worth Circle. But it was Ruth’s first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago that transfixed her and set art high among her personal priorities. In 1949, at the age of 26, she became a member of the board of the Fort Worth Art Association. A few years later, and to her father’s chagrin, Ruth spent $25,000 on a Van Gogh.
With the death of her father in June 1955, Ruth (Johnson at the time) desired to build a house in the “backyard” of the family property on Broad Avenue. She was 31 years old with five children. Her familiarity with John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture magazine in California led her to hire renowned architect Harwell Hamilton Harris, who was serving as Dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas in Austin at that time. Thomas Church was hired as landscape architect.
Harris and his wife Jean left UT and Austin for this commission. The design carries forward Harris’ regard for Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘pinwheel’ plans and later Mayan influences. Once in Fort Worth, he discerned that his use of redwood on West Coast projects might not translate so well to Texas, and his material palette began to include local masonry. It was a pivotal house, no pun intended, and went on to receive the AIA Fort Worth 25-Year Award. It was a source of private joy for Ruth. She endowed the Harwell Hamilton Harris Regents Professorship at the UT School of Architecture in 1985.
In Houston, the Menil Foundation had been created in 1954, and the completion of the University of St. Thomas structures, designed by Philip Johnson and donated by the foundation, provided the opportunity for Ruth to meet him at a Menil dinner party. Caught in a vigorous debate with her father’s long-time secretary Katrine Deakins, Ruth took this moment to invite Johnson to come to Fort Worth and design a museum for the Amon Carter collection.
Johnson was quick to point out in later years that the structure was originally envisioned by Deakins to be a “memorial” and not a museum — it was, however, to include not only Carter’s Western pictures and correspondence, but a collection of Meissner porcelain and a reconstruction of his office, which Deakins had locked and preserved exactly in situ upon his passing. The sloping museum site provided a view to the east of the downtown skyline, and Johnson’s response — a five-bay shellstone “porch” — had the laconic clarity of the simplest urban gestures. Assisting Ruth, Johnson brought together Alfred Barr, Rene D’Harnoncourt, Richard F. Brown (who later became the first director of the adjacent Kimbell Art Museum), and others to constitute the founding board of the Amon Carter Museum, which opened in 1961. Barr was credited by Johnson as proposing that the museum focus on American art as opposed to strictly Western art.
Ruth founded the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County in 1963. She was the first woman to serve on the board of the National Gallery of Art and was its first female chair. She served almost 20 years on the board of the University of Texas System. In 1992 she endowed the Ruth Carter Stevenson Regents Chair in the Art of Architecture, currently held by architect Coleman Coker. By her request, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art has been free to the public since opening.
Ruth brought Johnson back to Fort Worth to design the Water Garden (the name was singular when it opened in 1974) as a gift of the Carter Foundation, and she was instrumental in bringing Lawrence Halprin to design Heritage Plaza. Both landscapes suffered in following years due to lack of maintenance by the city — a sad response to her generosity. But the Water Gardens has been restored, and Laurie Olin is working with funds provided by Ruth to re-open Heritage Plaza.
Gardening was a second true passion for Ruth, and when not participating in design-related meetings or planning hearings, she could be found working in her home garden and taking care of her property. Elements of her gardening life — seeds, cultivation, and pruning — all found their way into her singular understanding of civic contributions.
Other sources have cited biographical details with much more specificity, but this is the Ruth Carter Stevenson that I was privileged to know, respect, and now miss terribly.
Published in Texas Architect, March/April 2013.