Having just completed his sophomore year at Trinity University, 20-year-old Jason Azar was eager to begin a summer internship at Ford, Powell and Carson. He was excited to have the opportunity to work for one of the most respected architecture firms in the state – one that happened to have a history uniquely interwoven with that of his alma mater.
For 33 years, O’Neil Ford, one of the firm’s founding partners, guided the design of Trinity’s Campus. In addition to developing the original plan and architectural character for the university, he designed some of Trinity’s signature buildings, including the 166-foot-tall Murchison Tower and the adjacent Parker Chapel.
Like many summer interns who leave behind the idyllic quads and residence halls of college to plunge headlong into the corporate world, Azar was given a job that on its surface did not seem at all compelling.
He was asked to clean out the basement.
Specifically, he was asked to sort through more than 1,000 files and rolls of drawings and examine, identify and archive their contents.
“We wanted to commemorate our 75th anniversary by delving into our history,” said Michael Guarino, a senior associate at Ford, Powell & Carson, who worked with Azar during the summer.
Azar proved to be the ideal person for the job because of his interest in architecture and his familiarity with Ford’s work.
“He appreciated the importance of the work he was doing,” Guarino said. “He was the perfect person for the job.”
At one point during the summer, Azar opened an unmarked drawer and discovered some early sketches of Trinity’s tower. This was particularly noteworthy, because the drawings were thought to have been lost. What Azar had uncovered was a vast trove of drawings of many of Ford’s most enduring works.
After O’Neil Ford died in 1982, most of the drawings produced by his office were turned over to the Alexander Architectural Archive at the University of Texas at Austin. His drawings for Trinity were not included in this transfer, and it was assumed they had been misplaced or accidentally destroyed.
The drawings of the Trinity tower, along with others discovered by Azar, will go on public display for the first time in an exhibition at Trinity titled, “Education by Design: Drawings from the Collection of Ford, Powell & Carson, 1939-1970.” The selected drawings include projects related to education, including Ford’s extensive work on the Trinity Campus, at the University of Dallas and at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Drawings of other San Antonio projects, notably La Villita and the Tower of the Americas, also will be on display.
The exhibited drawings are fascinating artifacts that also illustrate the iterative nature of the act of design. The Tower of the Americas, for example, did not emerge from Ford’s head fully formed. Rather, what was ultimately built represented the end result of a lengthy process that saw Ford and his associates, consultants and clients study many different conceptual approaches before selecting and developing the design in one particular direction.
In addition to drawings describing Ford’s design work, the exhibition includes drawings created by students at an art school that existed at La Villita between 1939 and 1942. Although a popular tourist attraction today, the district of small immigrant houses had deteriorated into a slum by the early decades of the 20th Century. At the same time the Works Progress Administration was working to create what is now the River Walk, a parallel effort was under way by the National Youth Administration to restore La Villita.
The goal was to create an art school where each house operated as a small studio where students would hone their trade with skilled craftsmen. In a typical scenario, a design student would draw a scheme for a lamp that a metalworking student would make that would subsequently be installed somewhere on the La Villita campus.
Ford originally came to San Antonio to assist with the restoration of La Villita, and his interaction with students clearly had a lasting impact on him. The fact that he kept the student drawings for more than 50 years and emphasized craft for the rest of his career speak to the fact that the students taught Ford as much as Ford taught his students. How fitting it is that a student would be the one who discovered evidence of this after all these years.
“Education by Design: Drawings from the Collection of Ford, Powell & Carson, 1939-1970,” will run from Sept. 18-Nov. 1. The gallery is located on the first floor of the Ruth Taylor Fine Arts Center and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 1-5 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
*Featured image: Construction drawings of the Trinity University Tower. Image from the exhibit, “Education by Design: Drawings from the Collection of Ford, Powell & Carson, 1939-1970” at Trinity University.