Eccentric Culture Gulch Redux

How One Young Family Discovered Dallas Regionalism Vernacular on a Hidden Dallas Pond

Ben Koush
Posted:
January 06, 2014

Architecture Arch Swank circa 1951. Interior design Erika Yeaman, Moser Yeaman Studio. Art direction Michelle Aviña. Photography Jenny Antill and Shayna Fontana. Hair and makeup Kate Yancey. Stylist Elizabeth Farrell.

In the 1950s, Dallas had the most modern skyline in Texas. Suddenly rising downtown were the 36-story Republic National Bank, designed by Harrison & Abramovitz of New York, 1955; the 1,000-room Statler Hilton Hotel, designed by William B. Tabler of New York, 1956; and the Southland Center, designed by Welton Beckett & Associates of L.A., 1958. But the city had a lively culture of modern houses as well. Unlike their downtown counterparts, which were the product of flashy out-of-towners, most of the modern houses in Dallas were designed by local architects, many informed by a distinctly regionalist perspective. 

Dallas’ affair with regionalism began in the 1920s, when architect David R. Williams strove to design buildings appropriate for Texas. During these years, Williams — who was born in a sod-covered dugout in rustic Childress, Texas, in 1890 — toured rural north and central Texas, drawing and photographing examples of vernacular architecture in such places as Castroville and Fredericksburg, often accompanied by his protégé, O’Neil Ford. In a famous 1928 essay published in the Southwestern Review, “An Indigenous Architecture: Some Texas Colonial Houses,” Williams wrote that these old houses “seemed to grow out of the land on which they stood; and they were beautiful because they were simple and natural, and because their builders were honest enough to be satisfied with beauty of line, and simplicity and delicacy of details.”

In 1933, Williams was invited to work on several New Deal-era public service programs. Williams left Dallas, but Ford remained to carry out his architectural ideas in a series of precedent-setting houses, where he translated the simplicity of the vernacular to modern designs that incorporated locally available materials such as brick, limestone and longleaf pine. These houses were economic in plan and sited with sensitivity to solar orientation and prevailing breezes — crucial in the days before air conditioning for any semblance of comfort.

In 1936, Ford hired Arch Swank, straight out of architecture school at Texas A&M. Swank became his partner in 1938 but left to serve during World War II in 1941. He returned in 1946, but Ford had relocated to San Antonio. Swank then partnered with architect Roscoe DeWitt and worked on larger projects, including the design of Neiman Marcus’ first suburban store in 1952, located on Preston Road between Villanova and Wentwood, as well as the expansion and remodel of the retailer’s downtown store the next year. (DeWitt had designed Stanley Marcus’ house in 1937, after the original Frank Lloyd Wright design was estimated by contractors to cost three times the initial budget.) Swank’s continued adherence to Ford’s and Williams’ regionalist sensibility was evident in his design of Neiman Marcus in Preston Center, which the Dallas Morning News said reflected the “early culture” of Texas, especially that of the early Native American tribes that inhabited the Southwest (October 14, 1951).

Somehow Swank found time during these busy postwar years to design houses for his friends as well, including respected Dallas painter Ed Bearden, who was then teaching at Southern Methodist University, and his wife, Fran. The Beardens were part of the Dallas intelligentsia. Besides painting and teaching, Ed was personal assistant to Jerry Bywaters, the longtime head of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Another colleague was J. Lon Tinkle, a heavyweight literature professor at Southern Methodist University, as well as a critic, author and the book-review editor of the Dallas Morning News. Rounding out this close-knit group was Dr. John Chapman, a lung specialist, teacher and literary scholar.

In the late 1940s, Tinkle persuaded this group to buy a plot of land in University Park that was then owned by celebrated landscape architect Joe Lambert. At its center were the headwaters of Turtle Creek. Here, they built houses for themselves. Ford designed the houses for Bywaters (1950) and Tinkle (1952), while English-born architect Todd Dale designed the property for Chapman (1950). All used a similar visual language with loadbearing walls; low-fire “pink” Mexican brick; exposed dimensional lumber for ceiling framing; and wide-brimmed, overhanging roofs that shaded large areas of glass windows. (The architect described Chapman’s house, with its exceptional, eight-foot-wide overhangs, as a “10-gallon Stetson” hat). According to the Dallas Morning News, the four homeowners dubbed it the “lake compound” (April 27, 1952). This name did not stick, however, because a little later, folklorist J. Frank Dobie, another good friend, is said to have retorted, “I can’t call this piddlin’ swamp a lake. You fellows are so educated, I’m calling it Culture Gulch.”

Swank’s design for the $17,000 Bearden house, completed in 1951, was a runner-up in the residential category of the Architecture, 1951 competition, which was sponsored by the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with winners’ plans exhibited in the Dallas Museum of Art in October and November 1951. It was also featured in Living For Young Homemakers magazine in January 1952 and the Dallas Morning News on March 29, 1953.

Bearden’s house was the only one of the four that doesn’t actually face the pond, but it was originally connected to the water by an elaborate series of paths fitted into the site by Lambert. When the Beardens applied to the FHA for a loan guarantee, the officer turned them down, saying that he had never seen “a roof like that in Dallas.” Through a sympathetic mortgage broker, they finally applied to an insurance company instead of a bank for the construction loan.

Fast forward to late 2009, when Erika and Matt Yeaman settled in Dallas after several years in New York, where Erika studied interior design at Parsons and Matt worked in banking. After honing her eye at Parsons, Erika was not going to settle for any old house. She wanted a place with clean lines and a sharp profile softened by the patina of time — something only a 1950s modern house can offer. Unfortunately, these are a somewhat dear commodity in Dallas today, as their modestly sized floor plans and big lots often doom them to knock-down heaven. But Erika was undeterred. Because of school districts, however, the young family was only seriously looking within the genteel confines of the Park Cities, an area that has a lower percentage of modern as compared to, say, Kessler Park or East Dallas.

After fruitlessly searching, they stumbled upon Culture Gulch, where Maria Tinkle and Fran Bearden still occupied their old houses. Even though Matt had grown up just a few blocks away, he had never noticed the small modern houses tucked into their rustic setting around the pond. Erika was intrigued and began to ask about them. Soon she discovered the details about the unusual history of the compound, which she calls a “little treasure to discover.” She knew Fran Bearden’s house was the house for her own family. It took some doing, but they managed to convince her to sell in the summer of 2010.

Shortly afterwards, they began to remodel, and Erika’s budding design firm, Moser Yeaman, took on the project. In just a few short years, Erika and her partner, Brooke Moser, have designed the interiors for the Henderson Avenue bar and restaurant Alma and the upscale lounge Dram, as well as the multi-family development projects Light Farms (a master-planned community in Celina, Texas) and Bandera, which is now breaking ground north of Highland Park on Hillcrest.

The Culture Gulch house, while suitable for the modest needs of family life circa 1951, was sadly lacking by today’s standards. The Yeamans worked with up-and-coming architect Josh Nimmo on plan changes, and although the changes they made were extensive — nearly every interior wall was reconfigured, the first floor was extended along the back, and a second floor was added, almost doubling the original square footage — parts of the original house still shine through. Old redwood siding from the exterior was salvaged and used on the ceiling of the new master bathroom. An old pedestal sink was cleaned up and reused in the powder room. Other updates included scraping away the cork tiles on the first floor to leave the concrete exposed and painting the exposed-pink-brick walls, both inside and out, bright white.

Erika’s interior selections tend towards the maximalist; here, she uses bright colors and riotous patterns to punctuate the mostly white-painted rooms. Furniture ranges from 1950s modern, to English antiques (Matt’s mother ran an antiques store), and the rest are funky finds collected, magpie-like, by the couple on their travels all over the world. The old master bedroom is now a secluded den that gets its English club feel from dark-stained wood shelves, equally dark wallpaper applied to the ceiling and antique furnishings. In the kitchen, rift-cut oak cabinets take their cue from the originals but are paired with cool gray marble counters. A wall of tightly packed, cleverly mismatched artworks enlivens the breakfast area. The living area is more sedate and pairs quieter modern sofas and black-leather-and-chrome Wassily chairs with a red oriental carpet. The room is suitably outfitted with tables made of horn from longhorn. In contrast, their daughters’ bedrooms have whimsical canopy beds, black-and-white-striped carpets and abstract floral-print wallpaper.

Their neighbors continually regale the new owners with stories of what life used to be like in the Gulch, even while congratulating them on their updates — hence, the unique lifestyle envisioned by the original settlers continues. The new remodel and interiors give a clear demonstration of how the concept of Dallas regionalism, now fast approaching 100 years old, can be updated while maintaining its relevance in today’s design vernacular.

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