The legacy is in the details

LAST week I went back to Midland, my home town, for a reunion of the Black Sheep, the 11 grandchildren of W.A. Black, an oilman who went to Texas in the late 20s and drilled the first gusher in Ector County. I’ve been to Midland frequently over the last 10 years since it has the closest commercial airport to my camp in the Big Bend. Everyone hates their hometown in some way, and Midland has the most forbidding geography in the country. Utterly flat, dry and hot. Pinkie Black, when she first came there, said that if you look to the end of any street you can see the curvature of the earth.

The town got its start, like many did, as a railway stop. Oil was discovered in the early 20s, and ever since it has been going through a series of booms and busts. Any rational person, once they struck it rich, would have moved at least as far as other oil towns like Roswell and San Angelo, which have hills and rivers and trees. But more stayed in Midland, where by the 50s the lifestyle was getting less raw, friendship was real,  and the business climate (e.g. toleration for failure) was excellent. As long as you’d didn’t stray far from the nearly Puritanical moral code, you could have a good time in Midland.

One family that liked it was the George H. W. Bushes. Forty-one came in 1948 to learn the oil business. My family was about two families away. My mother was good friends with Mary Pannill, whose husband was a successful petroleum lawyer. The Pannills were friends of the Liedtkes. Hugh Liedtke and his brother Bill became H. W.’s partners, and they did pretty well. In those days in Midland, you never let on how much money you had.

The Bush House on Ohio Ave., Midland, Texas
Black Sheep cousins at the “Childhood Home,” October 2011.

George W., Forty-three,  grew up in what today seems a modest house on Ohio Ave., but a comfortable one, eight blocks from my parents’s house on Kansas. They’ve made it into a museum, not to celebrate the lifestyle of the H. W.’s family so much as George W.’s “Childhood Home.” They did a great job restoring it to 1950s style, with a knotty-pine dining room and a Lucille Ball kitchen. Paul St. Hilaire, the director of the museum, showed the cousins around, and there was a collective flashback, at least for those of us who grew up in the town, about what life was like then. One bedroom had a baseball exhibit, since W. played the game at Yale and owned a piece of the Rangers at the time his dad was President.

In another bedroom there is a little history of Midland, told, like the baseball displays, with a series of square panels. You can see the fine old Scharbauer Hotel—with its barber shop, coffee shop and, uh, drug store, foolishly torn down in the 70s to make an ugly Hilton, and other landmarks and personalities. I think someone had mentioned it when the museum opened, but I was delighted to find another panel about my father, architect J. J. Black (1900-1983). On his letterhead, “Architect” was first.

The plaque about J. J. Black in the Bush museum Midland room
The plaque in the history exhibit.

The caption reads:

Architect J. J. Black designed the Midland Commercial Bank and Trust Building in 1955. Opening his practice in 1934, J. J. Black lived and worked in Midland for thirty years. The building reflects the influence of Bruce Goff, an artistic free spirit who promoted organic architecture. Architectural historian Frank Welch describes Black’s results as “well managed with coherence and unity.” Other J. J. Black projects in Midland include the Warren House (1950), the Woods House (1952), the Oliver House (1955), and the Scharbauer House (1959).

There is picture of his Commercial Bank building, torn down to make room for a larger parking lot for a Walgreen’s. Whatever good things you might say about Midlanders, they have zero sense of architectural preservation.

Exterior of the Commercial Bank building
The Commercial Bank & Trust, c. 1957.

The Commercial Bank was a small bank, the third bank in town after the First National, which went bust in the 80s despite its $1 billion in deposits, and the Midland National, which is now a Wells Fargo branch. It was the first to be located away from downtown, in the new Village Shopping Center next to Grammar Murphy, a department store with a logo imitating Neiman Marcus.

My dad worked from an office at home from 1938 to 1965. At any given time he had one or two designers in the office, and a secretary (the formidable Dorothy Newberry, still living). The designer in 1957, when they built this bank, was Bob Dennis. The design was crisply modern, football-shaped in plan with curved sides, accordion glass panels meeting in a point. There was a Wrightian zig-zag detail, a kind of cornice, on the edge of the roof. And the football shape was echoed inside.

The retail banking floor of the Commercial Bank in Midland.
The interior of the bank. Ignore the flowers and plants.

Joe was a fanatic about details. This building was published in architecture magazines and at least one international book. But it’s hard to see in photographs the feeling it gave a customer when he or she walked in. Just like it’s hard to judge a web site by a screen grab. There was a pointed-oval motif throughout. And while the materials were not traditional (I remember a solid yellow linoleum floor), the finish was perfect, and while the facade was impressive, you are left remembering the details.

During the Black Sheep reunion, Mark Wellen, who’d designed Camp Cinco in the Big Bend of Texas (where I’m writing this post), led the cousins in a tour of Joe Black’s houses in Midland. He built more than a hundred of them in 30 years and some were mansions for oilmen. Mark took us to the Scharbauer house. They were among the first settlers in West Texas, and bought a vast territory for cattle ranching, all of which had oil under it. Big ranchers liked to build hotels in the town near them, and Clarence Scharbauer built the largest hotel in West Texas. His son’s house is the largest in town, and he is still living there 50 years later. The house has been well maintained, but it was built to last. All-masonry exterior, a tile roof that looks like shingles, steel frame, concrete foundations sitting on rock that had to be dynamited for the basement. It’s 30,000 square feet, with a separate wing for the four kids, who had a big playroom, a separate entrance and a porte-cochere.

This house is traditional (a gigantic English cottage, actually). Joe studied Beaux Arts styles at Columbia, and won a bronze from l’École des Beaux-Arts for a neo-classical harbor design, called, “The Watergate.” Then Mark took us into another house, 1959, home of another oilman, Jim Mascho, and his extraordinary wife Loyce, who I think of as the Madame Butterfly of Midland. She wanted modern, and Joe might argue with the clients but ultimately he wanted to build the house that was right for the people who would live there. He designed the Mascho house in a modernist style with Arts & Crafts craftsmanship, like those of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built it around Loyce’s Japanese art collection. She even brought in a gate from Kyoto for the entrance to the rock garden.

From the outside, both houses were modest, everything considered. Midlanders in those days did not want to make “a statement.” But inside the materials are astonishingly rich. The Scharbauers have what seems like an acre of Italian terrazzo tiles with big smooth marble stones in the family room, and there’s a trophy room with an African mahogany helical staircase carved to look like stacked airplane propeller models.

The Mascho house has stone masonry work with ledge stone inside and out. A fireplace is the center of one stone wall. Another leads to an outside fountain, separated from the room by a mullion-free glass panel. Few walls go all the way to the ceiling. Few ceilings are flat. Few rooms have a rectangular plan. Amazingly, the kitchen, still with its mid-century appliances looks competely up-to-date. Missing in the house now are the warm colors of the wood and stone. The dining room ceiling was a pattern made of mahogany molding.  (The twin bathrooms in the master suite still have the pink lavatories.)

You look at the angles of the glass corners and the way the rock meets the plaster walls, and wonder if you could get ever get this built today. The original program for these houses has changed. The Scharbauer kids converted the playroom to a living room, and then went off to school and on to adult life. (They never occupied the apartments built for them on the second floor.) Jim Mascho died 10 years after the house was finished, and is remembered mainly for the giant Fuhrman Mascho oil field, still in production after 75 years.

And the Commercial Bank is gone, too. When I started working on publications, my dad couldn’t understand it. “You work a short time on pieces of paper that will be duplicated by the thousands and then thrown away.” he said. “I work a long time on one project that will last forever.” God knows what he would think of web sites.

Sadly, architecture doesn’t always last, either, although 50 years is pretty good run in this country today. And making formats and algorithms (like the rules in the Treesaver edition for Sporting News), can give publication design a little more longevity than just some type specifications.

I know Joe was saddened by the demolition of the Center and the Ziegfeld theaters in New York, where in his 20s he was a designer for, respectively, Raymond Hood and Joseph Urban. But the Brooklyn Telephone building (for Ralph Walker) is still there, now the Bel Tel condos.

In Midland, his radical Unitarian Church was demolished after 10 years to make way for an office park.  The Midland Air Terminal, was first horribly remodeled, then torn down. The house I grew up in (so modern in 1938 it was called the “crazy house”—although Joe toned it down as much he could), was gutted after a fire and all the details—the paneling and the cabinetry, the glass block office wall, and the graceful side entrance—removed.

The details stay in the mind even when the design is obliterated, as Lloyd Ziff said about magazine formats,  like an ancient Saharan city in the sand dunes. I’ll always remember how Joe put the windows low, so you could see out while sitting. (He would hang pictures at seated eye-level, too.) The corners in his buildings always met in a decisive way, sometimes not at right angles. The roofs always had wide overhangs, so that the windows would be shaded from the sun, or windblown rain against which gutters were useless.

Sometimes the details of a publication last a long time. The Jensonian typeface that Jim Parkinson designed for Rolling Stone in mid-70s, is still there, and it still looks like Rolling Stone. Time has the same logo we did in the 90s; Fast Company still has the funny little A and O, although they misplaced them for a while. The LA Times keeps its superb David Berlow Kis. The Houston Chronicle holds onto its typography, with Christian Schwartz’s great text font.

And I was sad when the good designs were discarded. My Reader’s Digest has been replaced (twice) by magazines that don’t look like the Reader’s Digest.  The red stripe I put on Newsweek pages so they would pass “the gutter test”—you’d know a clipping was from Newsweek—is gone, along with the red-stripe logo. Although in both cases there is no satisfaction that the magazines are read by a fraction of the people they once attracted. And the whole Newsweek company, after discarding the red bars, was sold for a dollar.

They’re gone, but the details live on, in readers and users’ memories, and in the culture. Joe, as have I, based his work on the accumulation of human creative work—visual, verbal, and scientific. Sometimes he was too early on the scene, and he never played to the critics or the professional associations, but to the people who used his buildings. Some of his work looks commonplace now, but it wasn’t then. That just shows that he was moving in the direction of history.

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