frank welch and associates, dallas

Reflecting on his 50-year career, Frank D. Welch, FAIA, recalls the pivotal moment in the architectural journey as if it were yesterday. In 1954, fresh off a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris, the young Welch was invited to an informal dinner party in Houston given by two sisters who were artists. There he met O'Neil Ford, the charismatic Texas architect nationally known for well-crafted, vernacular-inspired architecture. Welch can't recall the details of their conversation. But after dinner, when everyone else had fallen asleep on the floor, the two men talked late into the night. “I really turned a corner in architecture when I fell under his spell,” Welch says. What impressed him most was Ford's unpretentious approach to architecture, which shunned artistic showmanship.

Now 80, Welch himself is a bright light in Texas architectural circles, having honed a brand of regional modernism that combines a contemporary feel for space and light with a strong sense of place and history. Welch has lived his entire life in Texas, coming of age just as Modernism began to merge with the regionalist movement there. Over the years, his small Dallas firm has designed schools, churches, commercial buildings, and the occasional cultural facility. But he is best known for helping to introduce a refined modernism that nevertheless appeals to a broad residential audience. His houses are confident, yet understated; they're crisp and sophisticated, yet they honor the spirit of something very old.

Danny Turner

Welch creates this effect over and over again. On a rock bluff in Sterling County, West Texas, surrounded by ranches dating to the 1880s, he designed The Birthday, a ranch shelter austere in its simplicity. His clients gave him carte blanche back in 1964, requesting only a place to stay overnight. Welch designed a single enclosed room with a fireplace, bracketed by wood decks and fitted with 20-foot rolling walls. The materials—stacked limestone piers, untreated cedar siding, and oil rig timber from an abandoned lumberyard—could have come right from the site. Welch was devastated when the structure was swallowed up in a house built by subsequent owners, but while it lasted, it created a domestic presence that melted almost invisibly into the bluff. “The West Texas land is quite beautiful when empty of extraneous elements,” he observes. In 1997 it won the Texas Society of Architects' 25-Year Award, an honor it shared that year with Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. For a more refined property in a mature North Dallas neighborhood, this year Welch designed a house whose simple volumes, elegant proportions, and plain exterior materials recall rural farm buildings. It sits on a ravine among oaks and elms, and an open porch overlooks a pond. To showcase the owners' modern art and bonsai collections, Welch created a central core as its focus. The long public space unfolds under a tentlike ceiling clad in closely spaced oak “sticks” and inset with skylights. With its high peaked ceiling and pristine interior, the effect is as serene as a chapel in the woods. “A house has to have an organized floor plan that's easy to understand,” he explains. “I refer to it as a plan with legibility.” Welch trademarks include the use of galleries and connecting spines, large window walls and skylights, and quiet, unfussy interiors. “I'm sort of a Puritan that way,” he says of his monochromatic schemes.

artistic exposure Light is a key element in Welch's buildings; it's a quality he became keenly aware of at an early age. One of his oldest memories is of the photography studio in his hometown of Sherman, 60 miles north of Dallas, where he went to have his picture taken every couple of years. The studio was up a flight of stairs, and clients were photographed beneath a skylight. “Sitting there under that skylight was a great experience, and it affected me for life,” Welch remembers. Since then, “I learned about balanced light and what light does to an interior.”

His appreciation for architecture developed slowly, in snippets. As a child he liked to draw and was encouraged to become an artist. “I don't know if architecture was mentioned at home,” he says, “but I was certainly aware that buildings were important, even in a small town like Sherman.” The local post office—a handsome three-story Spanish Revival—was one of the first buildings he noticed, though he wasn't old enough to recognize architecture as an art form. And on frequent trips to Dallas, his family would drive through Highland Park, a tony suburb just north of downtown Dallas. “My parents would remark about this or that house, so residences were important to them,” he says.

When the time came to attend Texas A&M University, Welch—leery of his ability to master technical courses—majored in liberal arts. But after his freshman year, time off for military service helped him find his inner architect. He spent time with the Merchant Marine on Catalina Island, Calif., and then with the Army stationed near Williamsburg, Va., soaking up the architecture wherever he went. While in the Army he visited the Sir Christopher Wren Building at The College of William and Mary. On another trip, arriving at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, he immediately hailed a cab to the National Gallery of Art to see what is now the West Building. “I loved the symmetry of the axial organization and its clarity,” he recalls.

Thus it was that Welch returned to school as an architecture major, finishing up his degree in 1951. The following year brought a Fulbright Scholarship in France through Southern Methodist University. As Welch tells it, he was at loose ends when a girl he met on a blind date talked him into applying for the scholarship. “I got the scholarship, and she got one too,” he says. In the meantime he met and married Katherine Welch, and three days after the wedding they sailed for Paris. “I was in the city of my dreams,” Welch says. “I had read all of [Ernest] Hemingway and [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and just wanted to be involved in some sort of artistic activity in Paris.”