Trinity's Skyline Campus
Photo from Trinity University.

Few people in 20th century San Antonio can claim to have left a more lasting imprint on the city than iconic Texas architect O’Neil Ford, who died 30 years ago. Ford was the subject Saturday  of a standing-room-only symposium, “O’Neil Ford and the Future of Trinity University” at Chapman Center.

O'Neil Ford
O’Neil Ford–photo courtesy Trinity University

Organizers who feared the sold-out event would be lightly attended amid unseasonal rains and flash flood warnings needn’t have worried. Two of the architect’s daughters, Wandita and Linda, were on hand, as were a few hundred other Ford devotees. I arrived in San Antonio too late in the 1980s to meet Ford, who died in 1982, but have always been struck by the affection those who knew him still hold for the man and his work. That was evident in the various appreciations delivered by the day’s speakers.

Ford was, perhaps, the ideal of the noble architect, a visionary designer with the eye of an artist and the heart of a preservationist. He had a deep appreciation for Texas’ history and its landscape. He extolled craftsmanship and the use of local materials at a time when such approaches were far less appreciated. He was a humanist who believed the built environment and social good were inextricably linked.

Ford must have been a complex man, too, one shaped by his own hard-luck, small town Texas experience. The Alexander Architectural Archive at the University of Texas in Austin, where more than 10,000 of his drawings and others papers were bequeathed by his widow, Wanda, in 2001, offers some context:

“Following his father’s death in a railroad accident, O’Neil became the family breadwinner at age 12. To obtain work, he developed a flair for persuasive showmanship, one of many aspects of the complex Fordian persona that he was to invent as he progressed through his long and extraordinarily influential life.”

Ford hailed from a different time, when children in needy families were still put to work, and when education often was earned through experience rather than formal learning. After his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Denton where Ford enrolled in North Texas State Teachers College. Broke, he dropped out after two years and eventually earned his “architectural certificate” by mail from the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

You can view Ford’s Dallas residential work here, and his Denton catalog here.

Today’s students attend five-year undergraduate programs, and then spend three years or more working as lowly paid interns while preparing for a battery of tests to earn a professional license and the right to call themselves an architect . They must be amused to read about how a pioneer like Ford did it. Yet even today Ford would be ranked as the most influential Texas architect of his generation, perhaps of all time.

Ford sisters, Linda and Wandita
Ford sisters, Linda and Wandita

A high school teacher in San Antonio, seeking to explain why she loathed the state-mandated TAKS test and its emphasis on rote memorization over  intellectual development, once told me, “O’Neil Ford will never be the answer to a question on that test.”

That’s unfortunate on many levels. Every school-age child knows the Tower of Americas in HemsiFair Park, at least from a distance. Few, however,  could identify its designer, or recount Ford’s principled insistence during HemisFair ’68’s planning and development that more than 100 historical buildings on the fairgrounds be preserved in accordance with state law authorizing the fair. Organizers refused and instead released Ford from his contract as HemisFair’s chief architect. All but  two dozen buildings were razed.

That decision cannot be considered in  a vacuum. The Tower itself stands today as a totem to the tourist and convention business that was born out of the 1968 world’s fair at the expense of investing in downtown in ways that would keep locals living there. One architect who knew Ford told me he built the Tower without enthusiasm. Organizers wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Ford couldn’t afford to turn down the money, and was unwilling to see someone brought in from the outside to do the job.

As San Antonio now seeks to transform itself and reconnect locals with a more livable and vibrant downtown, including the reopening of HemisFair Park, these history lessons seem central to today’s students being guided intelligently toward their own future place in the city.

Today, Ford is rightly remembered in San Antonio and beyond for his masterful design of the Trinity campus, situated in a once-abandoned rock quarry a few miles north of the city.  Trinity’s own history includes multiple campuses in three Texas cities. Present-day Trinity, home to a nationally ranked liberal arts and sciences university, is fittingly called the Skyline Campus.

Trinity's Skyline Campus
Trinity’s Skyline Campus–photo courtesy Trinity University

Julia Walker, an assistant professor of architecture at Binghamton University in New York and a 2001 Trinity alumnus, said in her remarks Saturday that the brilliance of Ford’s design is the way he situated the academic and administration buildings on the elevated heights of the campus with its sweeping views of the downtown, and the sports and recreation facilities and dormitories below, allowing students to make a physical and psychic transition as they descend from a day’s work and move from the upper to lower campus. Walker recalled as a freshman student how an older brother, also a Trinity alum, showed her a choice spot behind the Coates Library to enjoy her lunch and take in those calming views.

You don’t have to be a Trinity student or member of its alumni to appreciate Ford’s enduring work. The graceful red brick buildings and landmark Murchison Memorial Tower are set amid a well-tended natural landscape of mature live oaks and blossoming native trees and shrubs. Walking through the campus, you feel like you are at a center of higher learning, one that offers solitude or community, depending on your mood and direction.

The appreciation of Ford comes at a timely moment for the Trinity community and their neighbors in Monte Vista, the city’s most preserved neighborhood located next door to campus. Both sides share a deep appreciation of historical preservation and architecture, yet tempers have flared over Trinity’s use of several houses on one-block  Oakmont Court, home to the president’s official residence and the Holt Conference Center. In brief, it’s a zoning dispute with Trinity asserting long-held legal rights to use the houses, most of them owned by the university for decades, as it deems fit. The Monte Vista Historical Association and some neighbors want their use restricted to residential only. The fear is that incremental change now might open the doors to future encroachment by any number of schools and churches in and around Monte Vista.

It isn’t the first time Trinity and Monte Vista have tussled. As with many family disagreements, intense feelings sometimes obscure the considerable common ground the parties share. Reaching a compromise has not been easy, but if history is any guide, both the university and the historical association will remain thoughtful stewards of their properties.

Trinity isn’t Ford’s only enduring legacy in San Antonio. The other is the community of architects, planners and others that he inspired, who are working today to see Ford’s vision of the urban landscape realized.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.