The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.04.11

Jim Williamson

What Passes for Beauty: A Death in Texas

In the Davis Mountains, near Kent, Texas, 1961. Photograph from Tom Swan's Photo Times, courtesy of Tom Swan.

For most people, this is a story about Texas, for some, a story about architecture. And to a few who know about both Texas and architecture (I am thinking here of the late “Texas Ranger” John Hejduk), it is a sort of myth: an intersection of human beings with place, grounded as much in our imagination as in reality. It is also a coming of age story: the story of my first job and my first project.

As most stories do, this story has an ending, and the ending is so strange that I will break with convention and reveal it now: They buried her in a martini shaker … and a Dixie-cup.

. . .

Not so long ago, young and ambitious graduates of Texas architecture schools had few choices other than joining one of the corporate firms of Houston or getting out of the state — far out of the state. There were not many firms with large architectural or artistic ambitions, and even fewer with both. But there were a few such firms and one of them, the firm of Frank Welch, was in Midland, which is, as you might expect, in the middle of nowhere.

Midway between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland, in the 1970s, was peculiar even by Texas standards. The land that it rests upon had once been an ancient seabed and had long ago been lifted up to become the Texas High Plains. It is a land full of tumbleweeds, high winds and dust storms. If you are unlucky enough to be outside during a storm, you will feel the dust sweep its way in-between your teeth, even as it covers the street curbs in gritty, brown drifts. This part of west Texas is also a land that once was full of oil; lots of oil, now mostly gone.

Midland was a small city of 60,000 then, but it ranked as the fourth wealthiest city in the United States. It had more millionaires per capita than any other city; it had more private planes per capita (used for business and shopping junkets to Dallas), more Rolls Royces per capita, etc, etc. It also had a lot of roughnecks and real cowboys. How George W. Bush got away with calling it the heartland is a mystery.

Like others in the 1950s, Frank Welch had found his way to Midland as part of a phalanx of Texans and Northeasterners (like George H.W. Bush and his young family) who traveled to the flatness and the heat of West Texas to find success. Frank had been a merchant marine in the Second World War; afterward he photographed Paris on a Fulbright (in an impressive imitation of Cartier-Bresson). He was handsome and talented, and he was married to a kind and gracious banker’s daughter. Welch was a well-admired architect in Texas, and his work, like that of his mentor and the granddaddy of Texas architecture, O'Neil Ford, was a version of critical regionalism well before Kenneth Frampton wrote his famous essay.

A good architect and a bon vivant: one could do a lot worse in Texas. Frank was exactly the kind of person I wanted to work for.

I had been in the office two weeks when Frank told me that his best friend had called to say that the wife of one of his several brothers had passed away, and that his brother wanted us to design a gravesite on the family ranch in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. Frank wanted me to design the gravesite. I was reticent, but secretly elated. I knew others in this small office envied the assignment. It promised to be serious and fun and strange.

Frank’s friend was part of the Soren family, a large oil family, with many brothers heading offices in several cities in four or five states. The brother who had lost his wife was in San Antonio. The family ranch was near Kent, which is near Marfa, which was not then the minimalist nirvana that it's since become; back then it was known for the UFO-like phenomena called the “Marfa lights,” and for the faux mansion built for the set of the movie Giant, which stood deteriorating among the mesquite and prickly pear.

I set to designing and laboriously rendering what I hoped would be a minor de Stijl masterwork: a set of finely proportioned, low, gray granite slabs, a counterpoint to the rough red granite of the hilly site. Some of the slabs would be benches, some would be inscribed with a dedication or the family name, and some would be there just for effect. The design resembled an abridged fragment of Mies van der Rohe’s famous brick house with its attenuated lines and right angles. In my view, the schemes were elegant and artistic; I was happy with the results.

But apparently the Soren family was not. So I revised and eliminated some of the slabs. They sent back an amateur's sketch of a star that filled the space of a sheet of oil company stationery. The star was dimensioned so that it fit into a twelve-foot-diameter circle. It was a big lone star.

Fort Davis, Texas, blooming agave. [Photo courtesy of Cherie Benoit, via Flickr.]

A few years earlier, Frank had struggled with the design of his own son’s grave, and he understood the exaggerations of grief. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he talked the Sorens out of the star. But the minor de Stijl masterwork was never to appear again; instead we settled on a nondescript, rose-granite square within a square, two foot on a side.

Feeling that I'd lost my first battle of architectural aesthetics, I tried to rely on the even more fragile consolation of art. If the project were no longer a part of one artistic lineage, it could be part of another: the simple slab would be like those iconic paintings by Joseph Albers, with their squares within squares. But this was neither real nor heartfelt, and anyway, Albers was not anywhere near a painter that I liked. So the design was just a square, unambiguous and unassuming. And it would be decorated with a bronze plaque engraved with a sentimental and effusive sort of poem by the husband.

And then a new requirement arose: a cross on a nearby hill — like Calvary, of course. Even though I am a Christian, it was painful and disheartening even to make a drawing of the cross for the stonecutters; it seemed as unfortunate an idea as the star. 

In the course of the project, we took several trips to the ranch. Mr. Soren would fly to Midland to meet us, and then we would fly to the ranch together. We would land on the ranch’s airstrip and then drive up a single-lane asphalt road. The main house was big, and it saddled a hill and was crammed with western art. Cowboys worked outside, as if mirroring the art inside. On some visits, we would arrive early enough to eat the cabrito that the Tejana cooks would prepare for lunch. The ranch had a gritty romanticism; it seemed to be its own world.

Presiding over this world was Charlie O’Donnell, the ranch foreman, who would also be our contractor. Charlie was in his sixties, tall and slim. He really did look like John Wayne. He also looked like my father, which meant that we would probably never hit it off. But he was an admirable man; he would go out to the campsites along the migrant trails that crossed the ranch and leave food for the illegal workers. He did this because it was the right thing to do, and because he knew their lot was terribly harder than his — it was a different Texas back then. On one visit, he looked more exhausted than any man I'd seen; he had been up for days fighting brush fires, and he was dirty with soot. Parts of the ranch were too rough to cross even with a jeep, so Charlie and his crew had led horses saddled with stacks of wet burlap bags up the hills to beat out the fires by hand.

Charlie was in love with two women. He was in love with Mrs. O’Donnell and Mrs. Soren. His love of Mrs. Soren wasn’t romantic; it was a bond forged through generosity and respect. Some of the nearby ranches were merely weekend retreats, but Mrs. Soren had instructed Charlie that he was not a caretaker but a real foreman. He was to make the ranch profitable, and he did. Charlie dug Mrs. Soren's grave himself, blasting a hole in the rock with the dynamite.

Somewhere around the time that Charlie was blasting this hole in the rock and not long after we’d been asked to design the cross, Frank came to my drafting table for a talk. He understood that the project had not gone as either of us had expected, and I understood that he had been doing his best to finish the project with understanding and grace. Grace was important to Frank. He had been wise and empathetic. But what he was about to say was clearly too much.

He had just finished a telephone conversation with Mr. Soren and learned that the family was planning a memorial service on the ranch in two weeks. Mr. Soren wanted us to drive down and place Mrs. Soren’s remains in the gravesite and seal it before the service. Standing by my desk, he said, “Jim, Mr. Soren has told me that he is putting Mrs. Soren’s cremated remains into a martini shaker. It was an anniversary gift from Mrs. Soren to Mr. Soren.” Frank looked weary and dismayed.

I could say nothing but “Oh.” It made a grim kind of sense.

Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis, Texas. [Photo courtesy of Cherie Benoit, via Flickr.]

The day before the memorial service, Frank and I arrived at the gravesite early in the morning. Charlie was already there with one or two ranch hands. It was almost midday for them, and they had come on horses. A slightly befuddled stonecutter from San Angelo was there, too. We gathered around the grave that Charlie had blasted out of the rock and encased in concrete. The granite slab and bronze plaque lay next to the hole on a portable lift. The atmosphere was sad. Not much was said after the handshakes and hellos.

Then Frank turned to Charlie and told him that Mr. Soren had wondered if Charlie would like to place Mrs. Soren’s remains in the grave. Charlie’s eyes welled up, and he nodded. Frank reached into a cardboard box and brought out the martini shaker, which was wrapped in brown packing material, and began to unwrap it.

And as Frank unwrapped the shaker, we stood dumbstruck, and stared, blindsided by a small, unexpected epiphany. The shaker was startlingly and exquisitely beautiful. It was simple and unadorned and subtly shaped in a way you could only call feminine. It was 24-carat gold. It was gleaming, like the treasures from an Egyptian tomb that had just been touring the country.

Charlie took the shaker in his rancher’s hands, and he placed it gently in the grave and choked up even more as he did so. Frank looked happy and relieved; I felt a thickness in my chest; somehow, something had made a kind of wondrous sense. We had entered some unpredictable and paradoxical place where beauty trumped all. And where architecture doesn’t have much of a stake.

The slab was glued to the concrete, and the grave was sealed, and we started to say our goodbyes. And then Frank reached back into the box and brought out something else that was wrapped in brown packing, and turned again to Charlie. “Charlie, they were not able to put all of Mrs. Soren into the martini shaker," Frank said. "Mr. Soren was hoping that you would take what is left someplace on the ranch and spread them out.”

He unwrapped the packing and pulled out something that looked too much like a Dixie-cup not to actually be one. Charlie nodded. He took the cup from Frank.

Frank and I, the stonecutter and the ranch hands left Charlie at the gravesite. I am not sure what happened next; I know that Charlie got on his horse and rode out to some part of the ranch to scatter the rest of Mrs. Soren’s ashes. But I also imagine that he returned a few hours later for the lunch that he had every day with Mrs. O’Donnell, carrying with him an empty Dixie-cup.