Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone
Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox, and Michelangelo Sabatino
University of Texas Press, 2020
There is a curious genre of biography, which takes as a subject an obscure figure whose work is relatively inconsequential but whose busy life is a keyhole into changing styles and mores in a specific place and time. “Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone” follows in this tradition. Howard Barnstone, FAIA, is all but forgotten today, outside a small circle of people deeply familiar with the history of modern architecture in Houston. He produced no canonical buildings and few Houston landmarks. In the introduction, Stephen Fox and Michelangelo Sabatino therefore pose the question, why does Barnstone matter? The book’s nine essays offer a range of answers. The essays in the first section make a case for the originality of his architectural practice — and the role he played as a local architect in the diffusion of a high modernist sensibility — but it’s the book’s second and third sections, focusing on his clients and his biography, that get to the more fundamental issue of his milieu, specifically his decades-long close working relationship with John and Dominique de Menil. Driven by social as much as artistic ambition, Barnstone’s life was punctuated by depressive episodes and ended in suicide. Making use of a trove of archival and anecdotal materials, the essays testify to his charm, but they also reveal contradictions in his personality and, ultimately, what Carlos Jiménez, in the foreword, calls “a subtle, deep-seated sadness.”
When Barnstone arrived in Houston in 1948, he practiced an eclectic style of modernism, similar to that of Edward Durell Stone, who advised his B. Arch. thesis at Yale. At the time, Stone was designing elegant suburban houses by combining Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian models with International Style motifs. Drawing on his Ozark upbringing, Stone championed the architect’s “moxie” — inventiveness, and the assertion of individual character — over doctrine or dogma. This method appealed to Barnstone and became a basis for the boldness Fox detects in the architect’s early residential projects in Houston. In a lovely analysis of the Bloxsom House (1952), which was based on Wright’s Usonian Solar Hemicycle plan of 1946-1948, Fox observes, “Barnstone’s cheeky method — appropriating the master’s design, and literally, turning it inside out — was one way to generate new designs.” It was also arguably indebted to Stone’s example.
Nevertheless, by the early 1950s, Barnstone fell under the spell of Miesian aesthetics. The reasons for this change — and the predominance of Miesian-style modernism in Houston — are among the book’s main themes. In an essay titled “Translating Mies,” Sabatino points to the growing popularity of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture in the United States in the late 1940s — partly as a result of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1947 retrospective of his work, curated by Philip Johnson, and, to an even greater extent, thanks to the reproduction of photographs of Mies’ buildings in influential magazines. In 1949, the de Menils commissioned Johnson, Mies’s chief disciple, to design their new house in Houston. Hugo V. Neuhaus Jr., Johnson’s local associate on the project, eagerly adopted the style and made it the calling card of his own booming practice. In one of the book’s most important passages, Sabatino argues that Miesian-style modernism — especially once it was endorsed by the de Menils — represented a worldly ideal with which Barnstone longed to be identified, whereas “the egalitarian styles identified with Usonian modernism and Texas regionalism were insufficiently cosmopolitan.” No doubt, other local architects who began to work in the Miesian idiom had a similar mindset, and the style’s elite connotations must have appealed to their clients as well.
However, as he did with Wright’s Solar Hemicycle plan, Barnstone toyed with Miesian principles. Fox explores this theme in an essay titled “Barnstone’s Practice,” explaining how, in the Blum House (1954), for example, Barnstone and Preston M. Bolton (his partner in practice from 1952 to 1961) “cleverly dissembled Miesian symmetry,” while in a number of other houses they achieved Miesian effects through “sleights of hand.” Fox suggests Barnstone exploited the representational potential of Miesian aesthetics at the expense of structural precision. In fact, the houses were designed to showcase impossibly grand living rooms furnished with a combination of chic Knoll pieces and antiques. These spaces look spectacular in photographs — in another lovely analysis, Fox describes how Barnstone created “the perception of scintillating spatial brilliance” — and they were repeatedly published in the leading trade magazines of the day. Examples include the double-height glass-walled and red brick living room of the Gordon House (1955), which appeared on the covers of both Architectural Record and House and Garden, and the double-height glass-walled and wood-paneled living room of the Owsley House (1961).
Many of these homes were designed for prominent Jewish clients. Barnstone himself came from a well-off assimilated Jewish family and grew up in Auburn, Maine, and on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As Fox and Sabatino explain in the introduction, even though Barnstone “fiercely resisted identification with Houston’s Jewish communities,” Jewish clients nonetheless formed one of his core constituencies. In an essay titled “Barnstone’s Jewish Houston,” Joshua J. Furman provides brief portraits of these clients and their homes, as well as a panoramic analysis of ethnic and racial demographic shifts in Houston in the postwar era, notably the migration of Jewish families from Riverside Terrace and Washington Terrace to the suburbs and exclusive neighborhoods formerly off-limits to Jews, e.g., River Oaks. This focus on the social and urban changes that facilitated modernist development is one of the book’s overall strengths.
But Barnstone’s relationship with the de Menils was the foundation of his professional and social life, and for this reason, Barrie Scardino Bradley’s essay, “A Constructive Connection,” is the centerpiece of the book. Johnson balked when the de Menils hired the haute couturier Charles James — known for his voluminous modern ball gowns memorably photographed by Cecil Beaton — to design the interiors of the de Menil House, and in the early 1950s, they needed a local architect to fine-tune it to their specifications. Neuhaus introduced them to Barnstone at a dinner party at his own palatial Miesian-style home. Recounting the episode, Bradley states, “Barnstone essentially became their in-house architect.” Bradley chronicles the projects Barnstone carried out for the de Menils, as well as their companies and extended family, over the next 35 years. Remarkably, they regularly called on him to take the edge off buildings they commissioned from Johnson. In 1961, Barnstone conceived an open-air barrel-vaulted canopy for the interior courtyard of the de Menil House, an unexpected, whimsical addition, and in truth, an improvement on Johnson’s original design. In 1967, when Johnson extricated himself from the prolonged Rothko Chapel project, Barnstone and Eugene Aubrey (his partner in practice from 1966 to 1969), completed the building. Ironically, Barnstone’s most iconic contribution to the Houston landscape is one for which he remains little known: In the early 1970s, he convinced Dominique de Menil to preserve the historic bungalows that now house the Menil Foundation and to paint them gray with white trim. The de Menils never gave Barnstone showpiece commissions, which they reserved for eminent architects. Rather, he handled a multitude of workaday projects (e.g., the renovation of their garage into an office space, Schlumberger-Surenco campuses in the Caribbean and South America, Manhattan office and apartment interiors, an East Hampton compound, a Scottsdale estate, Schlumberger research and systems centers in Texas) with a high level of competence, and often great flair, but without much fuss.
Another of the book’s main themes is the connection between artistic modernism and political liberalism in the milieu Barnstone inhabited. In the introduction, Fox and Sabatino write, “The liberal modernity with which Barnstone was identified occurred in a racially charged atmosphere of intense conflict, in which Gertrude Barnstone became a key player.” In 1955, Barnstone married Gertrude Levy, an actress and artist, who became a pioneering national figure in the effort to desegregate Houston’s schools in the 1960s. In an essay titled “The Worst Thing That Can Happen: Gertrude and Howard,” Olive Hershey describes their life together as “glamorous and colorful, something like a Fellini movie being acted out on a Gulf Coast prairie” — a wonderful image. Hershey details the marriage’s unraveling after its early halcyon days: The demands of Gertrude’s political activism — and the racist and anti-Semitic reactions the couple faced as a consequence — took a toll, as did Barnstone’s jealousy of his wife’s rising profile. “Howard had begun having covert affairs with men,” Hershey reveals. The couple divorced in 1969.
Barnstone’s commitment to progressive ideas existed in tension with his even stronger obsession with social class. “He was transfixed by American patrician manners,” Fox and Sabatino note, adding, “In Houston, he bonded with people whose sense of identity was conditioned by their exposure to and participation in upper-class social life.” This helps to account for the role he came to play as a courtier in the de Menils’ inner circle, but it also highlights a paradox in his career. While Barnstone assimilated patrician manners into his persona — Jiménez refers to “his patrician smile”; Bruce C. Webb refers to his “patrician demeanor”; and Hershey comments on the “patrician guests at an exclusive party for an elite group of art collectors and patrons” — he never really assimilated patrician style into his architecture. Barnstone’s buildings lack the formal severity, intellectual rigor, and historical allusions that characterize Johnson’s truly aristocratic architecture, for example. By comparison, they are merely fashionable.
That said, Barnstone integrated his patrician sensibilities and his liberal world view in his teaching, the arena in which he probably made his most consequential impact. In an essay titled “Barnstone and the University of Houston,” Webb chronicles his long tenure as a professor at the University of Houston’s School of Architecture. Webb, who taught in the school and eventually became its dean, gives an honest portrait of Barnstone as a “bona fide scholar and intellectual member of the faculty” but an often sour and bad-tempered colleague. In fact, Barnstone’s two books, “The Galveston That Was” (1966) and “The Architecture of John F. Staub: Houston and the South” (1979) are serious, beautifully written books of enduring value. Gorgeously produced with photographs by both Henri Cartier-Bresson (who was paid by John de Menil) and Ezra Stoller, “The Galveston That Was” helped to revive interest in Galveston’s historic houses and became a cri de coeur in the historic preservation movement. In an essay titled “To Be Modern in Texas,” Kathryn E. Holliday offers a vivid description of Barnstone’s lyrical but informative writing style. A few years before “The Architecture of John F. Staub” was published, Barnstone bought a Staub-designed house from 1926, which he remodeled. In both books, Barnstone indulged his fascination with the history of Houston’s upper class, while also bringing renewed attention to neglected subjects. Indeed, it is in these two books that Barnstone exercised all his best attributes (“he was an inspiration — ethereal, charismatic, imaginative,” in Aubrey’s words) and reconciled his ethical concerns, squaring his interests in social history and social class. The recovery of Barnstone’s books is one of the greatest contributions of “Making Houston Modern,” because, as numerous contributors to the volume suggest, more so than his architecture, they are a true lasting legacy.
The book succeeds in illuminating Barnstone’s milieu, and offers important insights into his architecture, but his inner life remains an enigma. The authors treat his depressive episodes (described as bipolar disorder) with great sensitivity and respect. But the essays hedge on the topic of his sexuality. Although he lived with men from the time of his divorce until his death in 1987, “he denied that he was homosexual,” according to Fox and Sabatino. Hershey quotes Gertrude as saying, “I always knew he was bisexual.” This raises a host of questions. How did his suppressed homosexuality mark his life and contribute to his depression? How did it manifest in his architecture, either consciously or subconsciously? Was it a part of his hero worship of Philip Johnson? Combined with his Jewishness, how did it factor into what Fox and Sabatino characterize as his feelings of “ambivalence,” his contradictions and oppositional attitudes? In what ways did it contribute to his becoming, in Aubrey’s words, “the ultimate social climber”? The book, as a whole, addresses these questions obliquely; the editors conclude: “In the same way that seeking Jewish cultural traces in Barnstone’s architecture seems futile, so too is the effort to isolate traces of a gay identity in his buildings.” This is too facile a conclusion for such a complex personality. A more forthright analysis of gender and sexuality and the role they played in the development of Barnstone’s sensibility could add deeper layers of meaning to his life and work, and help to untangle questions that, sadly, he himself was never able to resolve.
Jeffrey Lieber is an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design at Texas State University and author of “Flintstone Modernism and the Crisis in Postwar American Culture.”