|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
|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
|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
|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
|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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