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Howard Meyer was the Epitome of the Gentleman Architect
By David Dillon, The Dallas Morning News
17 January 1988
Dallas knows Howard Meyer's work without always being able to put his name to it. Temple Emanu-el is widely regarded as our finest contemporary religious building and, for decades, 3525 Turtle Creek has been synonymous with discreet elegance, the kind that doesn't block views. Architecture tours invariably stop at Meyer houses in the Park Cities and North Dallas, which are frequently misattributed to O'Neil Ford and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Howard, who died last Sunday at 84, could have changed this situation by being an aggressive self-promoter, but that wasn't his style. He put his energy into his buildings instead of his business, believing that good design would sell itself, without being hustled like beer or corn flakes. He viewed architecture as a moral undertaking, not to be done carelessly or on the cheap. He had no patience with architects who just slapped things up. “Lazy” and “disrespectful” were his curses on them and their work.
Howard never made much money at architecture because he designed everything twice. Associates joke about finding two sets of drawings for every project, one for the way it was supposed to be, the ideal version, another reflecting the harsh realities of budget and client perversity.
Such meticulousness was the result partly of character and partly of training. Though he would scoff at the epithet, Howard was among the last of the gentleman architects, attired permanently in sport coat and button down shirt, white or blue, without pleats or other trendy embellishments. He knew button down shirts were here to stay. He had a secretary even when he had no work, and could rarely be induced to close the office for lunch. That simply wasn't the way a serious architect ran his shop.
Without being pompous, he considered being an architect a calling, somewhere between a painter and a priest or rabbi. He graduated from Columbia University in 1928, in the twilight of the Beaux-Arts era, and took away with him a respect for discipline and tradition, and a love of precise drawing. He would remark with undisguised pride that he'd learned to draw with India ink on linen, and even kept a few examples handy, like archaeological relics, to show incredulous younger colleagues what real training was all about.
But it was the European modernists who finally won his allegiance, particularly Le Corbusier, with whom he once conversed in cracked French and whose buildings he revered at first sight. His career was a long, systematic refinement of these youthful enthusiasms, rare enough at any time and particularly now, when many architects wear half a dozen stylistic hats before they're 40.
Howard found his truth early and stuck to it. His first project was a thin-walled, flat roofed house in New York City that was an act of homage to Corbu. Although he soon dropped modernism's clean industrial look for a richer, denser style that owed much to Frank Lloyd Wright, he always took the movement's moral agenda literally.
While many of his contemporaries paid lip service to the ideal of public housing, Howard actually built it, hundreds of units in South and West Dallas, some still occupied. The lack of a social conscience among contemporary architects saddened him. He attributed it to Republicans and lax design education, two plausible explanations.
As important to Howard as modernism's social agenda was its vision of the architect as orchestrator and concert master. One of his favorite projects, though by all appearances not one of his best, was a tasting room for Baccardi Rum in New York City, for which he and partner Morris Sanders designed everything: room, furniture, lighting fixtures, glassware. They even commissioned a Marxist friend to do a mural, which turned out to be a commentary on American imperialism in the Caribbean and had to be painted out.
The whole experience was better than being at the Bauhaus, and Howard never missed an opportunity to repeat it, first in his own house and ultimately in most refined and poetic form at Temple Emanu-El, in which art and architecture are harmonized into a serene and uplifting composition.
The flip side of exactitude is often stubbornness, reluctance to compromise, and Howard was no exception.
“Once Howard got an idea down on paper it was hell to get him to change it,” recalls architect Howard Glazbrook, who worked with him in the early 1970s. “He always listened and treated you as an equal, but he clung to that original idea.”
The saving quality was that Howard was that way with everybody — friends, relatives, clients. I once had lunch with him at a now defunct McKinney Avenue restaurant. Suddenly he threw his napkin down, stood up, and announced that we were leaving. I asked if he was ill and he said no, he'd just realized the owner of the restaurant was the same person who once ripped the teak paneling out of one of his residences and he wasn't about to give his money to someone like that.
In restoring the Lipshy house in Greenway Park, which he designed originally in 1950, he ordered the owners — who also happened to be relatives — to throw out all the electric switch plates because they lacked the 45-degree bevel of the originals. He also spent months trying to locate egg-shaped stainless steel door knobs to match those from the first version, even offering owners of his other houses from the same era new hardware in exchange for theirs. For Howard turning to a Sweets supply catalog was a last resort, an admission of failure.
It is easy to view such behavior as eccentric, but that is the last thing Howard Meyer was. He was formal and diplomatic, unerringly professional. All the massaging of details was merely an expression of seriousness about his craft. He couldn't abide frivolousness, what his contemporary O'Neil Ford used to call ”jolly time architecture,” and was never playful in his own. His best work is rich, warm, inventive but never witty. He never caught on to that aspect of Corbu.
But even his less successful projects have integrity and seriousness. He didn't know how to be slapdash. In the end the arc of his career is as impressive as the lines of his best individual buildings — clear, steady and whole. It was the kind of career that most architects aspire to, and a few fortunate ones achieve.
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