Architect Frank Welch was a prince of Dallas architecture, a prince of a friend and of the community. Thinking of Frank is thinking about the impact he had on so many in so many people in so many ways, whether it was personally, by his reputation, or his work.
Designing homes, schools, sacred spaces and commercial buildings, Frank Welch propelled Texas modern architecture in a profound way. Frank Welch, FAIA, continued defining Texas Modern architecture as the starting point for modern architecture in Dallas and as a current modern architecture in Dallas. He made Texas Modern architecture as relevant in the 21st century as David Williams, FAIA, did when he originated a Texas Modern Style in the early 1930s to be as modern as European modernism while reflecting the indigenous qualities of Texas.
O’Neil Ford designed the Haggerty/Hanley home in 1957. The Haggerty house was renovated by Tim and Nancy Hanley making it Texas Modern architecture for Texas art. The influence of O’Neil Ford on Frank Welch’s subsequent work is readily apparent.
O’Neil Ford hired Frank Welch in the 1950s, early in Frank’s career. Frank Welch became the architectural flame by which succeeding generations of architects could light their architectural torches and bring forth their own compelling work. These succeeding architects were influenced by Frank Welch’s sense of life, aesthetics, grace and integrity.
Joe Simnacher, a talented and important Dallas Morning News obituary writer, referenced in the obituary he wrote about Frank Welch that Lamplighter School is one of the architectural contributions of Frank Welch. This was a poignant choice of work by Frank Welch to highlight. The design of the Lamplighter School reflects the arc and influence of Erik Jonsson, Eugene McDermott and the Texas Instruments semi-conductor building Frank was deeply involved in designing when he was first hired by O’Neil Ford. This project demonstrates the passion Frank had for good architecture and how it affects people and, in this case, young students. The Lamplighter School also shows how Frank Welch enjoyed extending the spirit of the architect O’Neil Ford who designed the original building at Lamplighter School.
Frank Welch comments on Erik Jonsson, O’Neil Ford, the architecture of Lamplighter and its students.
A few minutes into his comments on Lamplighter and its architecture, the impulse to pull out an iPhone and video some of his comments became too great. When an architect can make students happy by being in a school he designed, you know his homes make his clients happy.
People of all ages loved being around Frank Welch. He moved as gracefully in high society as he did with his colleagues, students, professionals and craftsmen.
Frank Welch was a natural teacher and he expressed himself in a number of ways – as a photographer, author, lecturer, panelist, speaker, author, in interviews, in salons, public conversations, private conversations. He would subtly inform his clients on design and materials, regale his architect friends with stories that would inspire. Frank would point out something that he had learned or saw and it was only later one might realize he was teaching and sharing insights dear to him. Frank Welch was incredibly complimentary of other architects’ work, especially those he competed with for commissions. Yet how much fun it was to be with him and other award-wining architects at Avila’s Mexican Restaurant as they competed to identify the worst designed residence in Dallas.
My first meaningful conversation with Frank Welch was nearly 25 years ago, when we went to lunch at Dream Café to discuss his work and the Texas Modern home he designed in Bluffview that was identified as one of Dallas’s 50 Significant Homes. At lunch I found it interesting that while I asked him only about architecture, and architecture is what we predominantly talked about, he brought up his two daughters Liz and Woo in different contexts, always with a great story, great pride and some amusement. In some ways I feel like that lunch not only formed a friendship but my baseline of modern Dallas architectural knowledge.
In 1998, Arch Swank, FAIA, was honored at the AIA 50 Significant Homes reception in honor of the AIA Dallas Chapter’s 50th anniversary. The presidents of Dallas’s major museums and cultural organizations who made up the 50 Significant Homes selection committee quickly thought that Frank Welch should be the one to speak about Arch Swank. They knew his generosity and insight was perfect for the occasion.
Whether it was a gala dinner or a private dinner, people loved having Frank Welch as their guest. A favorite dinner might include Frank and one of his dear friends such as Margaret McDermott. When the two of them were together they would discuss the current state of affairs and on occasion they recounted their overlapping friends, architects, and artists from early in Frank’s career. As they conversed, one felt one was right in the midst of this glorious era in Dallas they were discussing.
It is hard to think of Frank Welch without thinking about his great friends, the architects Max Levy, FAIA, and Mark Gunderson, FAIA, who revered him and who so admired him and who he so admired. Ron Wommack, FAIA, who early on had worked with Frank, was also at this black tie pre-party cocktail reception (see above image) at Frank’s home in Northern Heights, as well as celebrated and cerebral landscape architect Kevin Sloan. In the room there was genuine collegiality among competitors that could only have been developed from the absolute respect and admiration each architect had for one another. There are other architects, like Marc McCollom, who are doing great work who trained with Frank Welch, and other architects who never formally worked with Frank Welch but have been influenced by him.
On occasion I have hosted a conversation series where I invite an architect to speak at one of the homes he or she has designed once the construction is complete, with an audience of architecture lovers. These events are not ribbon cutting events or even a fully furnished home celebration. It is a meaningful conversation with an architect about the home he or she has just designed
As part of this series a few years ago, Frank Welch spoke at the
home he had just completed for Heidi and Bill Dillon. This home is such a good example of how Frank Welch envisions a site. Architect Mark Gunderson brilliantly called the famous Birthday House that Frank Welch designed in West Texas a view with a room. At 3822 Turtle Creek Drive Frank Welch created a lot for a home while others saw the site as just a mass of sloped stone and high weeds.
For his avant-garde modernist clients, Bill and Heidi Dillon, he designed a significant home on a site that didn’t appear to exist. Here was a remnant piece of land in Turtle Creek Park that was once an embankment of the railroad tracks before the Katy Trail was created. A rock outcropping and tall weeds dominated the narrow incline of land. Frank Welch visualized space for a home in plain sight, but submerged into the environment, incorporating the rock outcropping for the platform of a second-story swimming pool. On this site Frank captured the vertical and horizontal spaces, sunlight from many directions, clean spaces with materials that reflect the site, and windows and balconies that embrace nature.
The Birthday House shows how Frank Welch can site a home overlooking an endless piece of West Texas land. Homes he has designed on estate lots demonstrate his ability to work with a large canvas. The home on Turtle Creek Drive indicates his virtuosity of designing an ample home on a site that didn’t seem to exist.
Frank Welch had a way of sniffing out the best lots in unlikely neighborhoods. In 1979, the Bent Tree development was being filled with opulent traditional homes with designs popular in the 1970s. Here Frank Welch not only discovered a lot overlooking Preston Trails Golf Course on one side but also the lot had a massive greenbelt behind it. This site provided a setting for a very modern home of stacked white stucco cubes linked by terraces, balconies with vertical wire balustrade and verandas.
While Frank Welch is associated with repeating patterns and materials of Texas, he never let his ego or distinctive style get in the way of a home or site.
A few years ago clients of mine purchased a 2.5 acre lot on White Rock Lake. They called Frank Welch and asked if he would look at the lot to possibly design a new home for them. Frank looked at the lot and told the owners that the small modest yellow house that existed on the land and was on a hill was beautifully sited, and rather than build new they should consider renovating it and adding a secondary structure for a library and guest house, much like the studio O’Neil Ford added next to the home of artist Jerry Bywaters. The owners were surprised. Most architects are called about renovating architecturally significant homes and then the architect often suggests tearing it down for a new home. Here, Frank Welch suggested keeping a home that had no obvious architectural importance. The owners agreed to the vision of Frank Welch. The result was a sublime home that celebrates its site and creates much happiness for the homeowners.
This David Williams-designed home for the mayor of University Park is often cited as the start of the Texas Modern movement. For several years earlier David Williams had been designing homes with strong Texas Modern characteristics. However, the home across the street from the back of Highland Park Presbyterian Church most visibly summarized the architectural direction the homes he designed had taken.
The Bradfield home Frank Welch designed on White Rock lake was inspired by the home O’Neil Ford’s mentor, David Williams, designed on McFarlin Boulevard in University Park, alongside Turtle Creek.
At the Bradfield house Frank Welch captured the views of White Rock Lake and created a room for a magnificent organ and chamber concerts, a passion of the owners.
A Texas Modern home designed by Frank Welch brings warmth and intimacy to estate property.
In the Devonshire neighborhood on a large estate lot, Frank Welch designed a very large home that is open, expansive and defined by walls of windows. Yet, this substantial home has the same warmth and intimacy of his smaller projects. The prudent selection of materials and proportions creates a substantial home that invites versus overpowers.
Collaborating with architects Scott Marek and Max Levy, Frank Welch had exciting projects on the boards in the months leading up to his death. Just this summer a potential buyer was looking at a four-acre property at White Rock and when I asked who he would like to have design a new home for him on the site and he quickly answered Frank Welch.
Vibrant until the end, Frank Welch feels like he is still with us, with the memories he provides, the structures he has designed across Dallas and Texas, the friends who continue to revere and adore him, and those who never met him but associate him with the best of Dallas.