Frank Welch, FAIA, died the morning of June 22 in his Dallas home. He was 90 years old.
With a career that spanned more than half a century, Welch was the standard bearer of Texas regional modern architecture. His talent as an architect inspired generations of practitioners who followed in his footsteps. His firm, Frank Welch & Associates, won design awards in every decade of its nearly 60-year history.
Welch’s legendary charm, wit, and intelligence are well conveyed by the “Words of Wisdom” he offered his fellow practitioners in the January/February 2006 issue of Texas Architect: “Hold close the ethics of architecture and civil conduct with peers. Stay close to the cutting edge, but not so close you bleed. Never stop traveling to see buildings, old and new. Be patient as to your personal opportunities. Be culturally aware and participatory. (Learn Chinese as a backup.)”
Born in the North Texas town of Sherman, Welch studied architecture at Texas A&M University and served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He lived in France for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. After returning to Texas, he worked for O’Neil Ford and Richard Colley before opening his own firm in Odessa in 1959 — in the basement of his brother-in-law’s clothing store. A little over a year later, Welch moved the practice to Midland, where it continued to operate until the mid-1980s.
Welch’s project The Birthday on Dorn’s Willow Creek Ranch (1966) — a small family retreat on private land north of Sterling City, Texas — made the cover of TA in September 1967. It immediately became a highly lauded and influential work of regional modern architecture and, in 1997, split TxA’s 25-year award with the Kimbell Art Museum — the only time that award has been given to two built works. Writing about the project in the November/December 2015 issue of TA, Andrew Vernooy, AIA, remarks: “I remember vividly the moment I saw The Birthday on Dorn’s Ranch, and when I lack fortitude or inspiration, I play that moment back…. The Birthday was at once modern, unabashedly contextual, and timeless. It could have been there forever. For me, it stood for a modern Texas architecture that was proud of its regional condition…. [It] augured a skein of inveterately regional Texas architecture that continues to this day.”
Welch & Associates primarily designed residences but also took on corporate, education, religious, and recreation work. Other notable projects include the Forrest Oil Building in Midland (1974), the Forrest Oil Field Headquarters in Odessa (1976), the Hunt Residence in Dallas (1973), the Morton Residence in San Antonio (1981), and the Ward Residence in Dallas (2004). Welch moved the firm to Dallas in 1985 where he continued to work on projects right up to his 90th birthday.
In the article “The Man Who Loves Houses,” which appeared in the April 1986 issue of Texas Homes, former TA Editor Larry Paul Fuller quotes Welch: “I have no plans for retirement. I just want to keep on going; don’t want to stop. That means another 20 years, I hope. And I want these next 20 years to be full of good work — the best I have to offer.”
In 2003, TxA gave Welch the John Flowers Award for his writing and architectural accomplishments. Welch wrote throughout his career, beginning in college. He contributed to several architectural publications (including TA) and published a number of books, including the 2015 memoir “On Becoming an Architect,” in which he lays out the details of his education in his characteristically sprightly prose. Writing about his turn to literary interests while at A&M, he says: “I began to rebel against the conservative school administration and became a part of a non-architect coterie of English and history majors with, we thought, elevated and critical senses and intellectual pretensions: Bill Colville, Mack Nolen, Herman Gollub, and Chuck Maisel. All of us eventually worked as writers on one student publication or another. We were left-wing politically, I guess, though I didn’t know the term then.”
Architectural historian Stephen Fox had this to say about the architect: “Frank Welch never seemed to be in such a hurry that he couldn’t stop for conversation and a cocktail (but be prepared: one was never enough). He was genial, bright, witty, and interested in everything — and everybody. Frank loved architecture. And he loved the people of architecture. His fascination with the social dimension of architecture is evident in his best-known book ‘Philip Johnson and Texas,’ in which he documented Johnson’s career through ethnographic interaction (i.e. conversations and cocktails) with Johnson’s myriad Texan clients. Frank’s own architecture typically combined subtly proportioned exterior planes of brick or wood with soaring interior volumes charged with daylight. In that way, his buildings were like him; in appearance: low-key and tailored; in spirit: energetic, insightful, exuberant, and inspiring.”
In 2006, TxA awarded Welch the Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Honor of Llewellyn W. Pitts, FAIA. In a letter recommending Welch for the award, W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, writes: “For several decades Frank D. Welch has been the embodiment of the highest achievements of Texas architecture and of architectural practice. His singular example is reassuring to architects across the state in the breadth of concerns which he brings to his practice.”
In 2015, TxA awarded Welch the O’Neil Ford Medal for Design Achievement, of which he was the first recipient. For the occasion, Mark Wellen, FAIA, had this to say about him: “Frank Welch has dedicated his professional life to advancing the cause of good design. Those sensibilities are embedded in his DNA. His designs have always been sensitive to the client’s aspirations, a critical sense of place, sensitivity to historic precedent, and the torch of humanity, all the while masterfully manipulating natural light and employing an understated economy of means. All these elements are woven together by an individual with a designer’s ego, which is virtually nonexistent.”
Upon hearing of Welch’s passing, Max Levy, FAIA, offered the following epitaph: “The (cultural) eyes of Texas are upon him. And having been upon him for so many years, they have become better eyes.”