As traditional architects, we often look to the work of those who preceded us in order to re-learn the skills they used to execute some of our most beautiful buildings and cities. It’s not often we think of those caught in the chasm between then and now–those who trained and studied to carry on the traditions of the past, but found themselves after the war with skills no longer wanted or needed.
When I moved back to Texas in my early twenties I worked for a short time for a large corporate firm; a firm that did a lot of schools, banks and other institutional work- all mostly contemporary- award winning work, very typical of large commercial firms. I think it was novel for them to have a young “classically” bent designer in their office. Nonetheless, there I was, where I was kept extremely busy with clients that wanted a traditional viewpoint.
The very first day on the job, I noticed a large beaux-arts rendering of a monumental lighthouse hanging on the wall of the print room. I immediately asked where such an immense and wonderful painting had come from. “Oh, that was done by ol’ John Kell, Sr. back in the day”, came the answer. Nobody thought much of it. It had hung in the print room for decades.
“Ol’ John Kell, Sr.” was the firm’s senior partner’s father, and interestingly enough, he still worked at the firm. He had worked there since coming to San Antonio in his twenties. Now, well into his eighties, he religiously came in every day to the office. He sat in a back corner and drafted basic details all day long. He brought his sack lunch with him and ate it at his desk, then would go home early afternoon–but everyday, without fail, he would be there, drafting.
Unlike his gregarious and out going son, now the patriarch of the firm, Senior was a quiet man. He just sat and did his work, ate lunch and went home. I did manage to get a few stories out of him. One story he loved to tell was of the time he worked for Paul Cret, and the day Mr. Cret came to let some of the staff go during slow times. Kell had kept his job, while his desk mate, a young man by the name of Louis Kahn, was let go. He would just chuckle at the thought of it.
While a young man, he had come to Texas to oversee Paul Cret’s work at San Antonio’s Federal Building and Post Office under the auspices of Ralph Cameron. But soon after the project, times changed. The classical buildings Cret built (and Kell had so long studied) went out of fashion and there was no more work for a “classicist”. So, there he was, left in San Antonio, Texas.
Kell married and raised a family. He worked for a modern firm, doing modern schoolwork, shopping malls and anything else needed to keep the firm alive in a small Texas city. There he stayed, decade after decade, partner after partner, until one day his own son would turn the firm into the city’s largest and most successful. Now, there he sat; in the twilight of his years, drafting details, until not long after I left the firm, computers had made even that task obsolete. Not long after, ol’ John Sr, was gone.
This last week, John Kell, Jr., my old boss, dropped by the office. He had brought a gift–a book of his father’s watercolors when he was a young man. I was shocked; his father, the quiet man in the back, had been a prodigy. He had won a traveling fellowship while at the University of Pennsylvania, and the book, lovingly written and illustrated in minute detail, followed the young man’s footsteps through Europe and the multitude of watercolors that he had produced.
Kell, Jr. then paid me the biggest compliment possible when he said he wanted me to have the book, “because, if his father had lived in another time, he would have had an office like yours.” I can’t imagine what buildings we would have today if only Kell, Sr. had not lived in a time when our world had turned its back on the beauty and the lessons of the past.