MY FATHER Joseph Jefferson Black was born 122 years ago today. Dec. 12, 1900. He liked to say, “On the 12th day of the 12th month of the 12th year, I was 12 years old.” He was an architect, and he never quite understood why I was a graphic designer. At the risk of repeating the quote, he said: “You work a short time on pieces of paper that will be duplicated by the thousands and then thrown away. I work a long time on one project that will last forever.”
I laughed, and it didn’t bother me at all. The first goal of my work is that first impression—which I hope is strong enough to turn a viewer to turn into a reader.
Joe lived long enough to see many of his buildings torn down. Architecture had become almost as ephemeral as the media. And digital design is gone faster than those printed newspapers that lined the bottoms of bird cages.
Perhaps Joe’s best (and most published) building was the Commercial Bank & Trust in Midland Texas, built in 1955. The bank moved on to larger quarters, and the managers of the neighboring Walgreens, more like a box store than a drug store, tore down the landmark building. Now, that store has faded with the Village Shopping Center, Midland’s first. A taco restaurant stands where the bank used to be. And the Walgreen’s managers, once they reach Hell, will be assigned to a parking lot for the rest of eternity.
Most of his buildings were smaller, and had a streak of Arts & Crafts, which architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff—and J. J. Black—took as the basis of their own, American modernism. Because of its traditional and vernacular roots, Arts & Crafts architecture looks just as good today, while the Bauhaus modernism seems quaintly dated, a period of style, like Victorian.
The front of the Brady Library in 2008.
One of my favorite JJB buildings is the Brady Library, built in 1955 in a town right in the geographical center of Texas. A tall gable shingle roof was its main feature. A wooden pergola was attached on the front—the long east side—shading the entrance and running past the building to frame a garden area with outdoor seating. The other side of facade was windowless ledge stone wall extending past the building, screening the windows on the side, and adding to the horizontal line. Square brick columns were turned at a 45-degree angle, and glass butted the masonry without mullions. The details were beautiful, and the masonry first rate.
Brady was a central Texas ranch market town, settled in the 1870s. The formal name of the county library was the F. M. Buck Richards Memorial Library, given by the widow of a prominent rancher. Soon after it opened, the town’s population peaked at around 6,000. The Santa Fe railroad pulled out, and the world moved on, leaving the library building largely undisturbed for 60 years, despite the slow fade of the neighborhood.
Visiting in 2008, I was delighted to see the library in relatively good shape. I wrote a Facebook post. Of course, people kept donating books. A dull addition was added on the north side, taking out the garden. Bookshelves were placed in front of the vertical windows in the reading room. The pergola was weathered. An AC unit and new breaker boxes had been rudely put on the corner of the south side.
But last month, driving from Midland to Austin, I passed through Brady and almost did not stop, imagining nothing would have changed in that town. I turned off the highway, and the building was intact . . . yet it had been turned into a thrift store! The rotting beams of the pergola had been ripped out. A cheap air conditioner had replaced a louvered vent in the brick wall of the south side with the nice vertical windows.
The county had built a bland new building and moved out of Joe’s library. I am sure they had run out of room, and the functions of libraries have changed in 60 years. They didn’t tear it down but found an “adaptive reuse.”
I wish that Brady and Texas thought it was a good idea to preserve important parts of their built environment. And at least the building was not torn down Brady needs someone like El Paso’s Paul Foster and Midland’s Tim Leach to undertake a careful restoration. The building could get a more sensitive re-use: as a small research center or a local law firm. But Brady doesn’t have the size or money.
There is hope that the building will be saved and restored. The biggest residence he built in Midland, the Scharbauer house, is finishing a beautiful exterior restoration, where every ceramic shingle in the roof was resealed, and all damages fixed. The styles of some of my publication designs (Washington Post and Scientific American) have survived. Others have been messed up, but, like J. J. Black’s Brady Library, they still exist.
As Joe would say, rien n’est éternel.
_ _ _ _ _
Related post: The legacy is in the details
FB post: Brady Library, 2008