Monday, February 13, 2012

O'Neil Ford's Campus Architecture: A Sense of Home and Place

By Isabel Howard

Not long ago, in a conversation with a friend, I mentioned the architect O’Neil Ford and the fact that he had built my grandmother’s house, my high school, the university across from my house, and the church in which my grandmother’s funeral was held. My friend looked at me seriously and said, “O’Neil Ford is the architect of your life.”

This couldn’t be more true – O’Neil Ford is the architect of my life, and a fairly great portion of my time, throughout my four years at Middlebury College, has been spent attempting to understand why. When I arrived at Middlebury, after having spent a gap semester in Texas and Mexico, thoughts of my high school wouldn’t leave my mind. I consigned my feelings to nostalgia – a normal state of mind, I thought, considering my distance from home. It wasn’t long, however, until I realized that it wasn’t just the people that I missed – it was the place. My mind would go back to the outdoor courtyards with their hard wood benches and the low walls surrounding those courtyards. I thought about the small fist-size stones that were set to pave the mini courtyard where the benches were, and I thought about the way that the irregular paving stones, round on top, would cause the soles of our shoes to bend over the rocks we balanced on them. My mind went back to the way the library scanner’s dinging would bounce off the gleaming, cold tiles on the library floor. Yes, I missed many parts of high school – the teachers, the friends – but most of all, I missed the place.

It didn’t take much time – just four months of being removed from Texas– for me to realize that this place was unique – that my school, Saint Mary’s Hall, was a school not like many others. I realized that I talked about my school in a different way than the way in which my friends spoke of theirs. My school wasn’t just a place – it was a home.

Ford’s ability to make a home environment within a school setting began with his work on Trinity University during the campus’ move from Seguin to San Antonio in 1949. Trinity’s new campus, like that of Saint Mary’s Hall, was built on an empty (and at that time) rural site. In the case of Trinity, the site was an old quarry, the tallest part of which gave striking views of downtown. The dorms, which maximize the use of such a natural site, give students the best access to views, to nature, and to each other. One cliff in particular, between the student center and the easternmost dorms, creates a natural grotto of vines and trees through which a stream runs over mossy, shaded rocks and into shallow moss-filled pools.

I grew up just around the corner from Trinity and have many memories of riding my bike on the campus trails. As I grew older, I realized there was much about the campus still to be discovered. In high school, after my tennis practices on the Trinity courts, I would walk around the campus for hours and peek into empty buildings, which were dark with age and cool from the tile floors. Outside, after my way through one breezeway and then another, I would step out onto the neighborhood streets and make my way back home.

In 1949, Ford was directed by consulting architect William Wurster at Trinity, “Get rid of all this anonymous Texas space. Bring the buildings close together. Create significant spaces.” Looking at the Trinity campus now, one can see that Ford put Wurster’s advice to use. Each aspect of the campus, from the brick-walled, tile-floored buildings to the small courtyards and gathering spaces, comes together to ensure that Trinity is a school that truly feels like home.

Isabel Howard is from San Antonio and recently graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in History of Art and Architecture. The blog entry above was a partial excerpt from her thesis, At Home in the Campus Architecture of O’Neil Ford.

More about the upcoming O'Neil Ford Symposium

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