The Ecole’s Local Influence
Posted on April 3, 2015
In what was the proving ground for America’s early generations of architects, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was where their understanding of classical design principles was formed and nurtured. The recently published Americans in Paris: Foundations of America’s Architectural Gilded Age: Architecture Students at the École des Beaux-Arts 1846 to 1946 by Jean Paul Carlhian and Margot M. Ellis, beautifully documents the work created here by the likes of Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Carrère and Hastings, James Gamble Rogers, John Russell Pope, Julia Morgan, and Bernard Maybeck. These and others returned to the United States and reshaped our cities and helped to create the classical Renaissance of American architecture, both in their work and in the further development of architectural education.
Here in San Antonio, we had one architect who was providing a glimpse of his own brief experience at the Ecole and how it would shape his work and our city. Ralph Haywood Cameron was born in San Antonio in 1892, and his architectural education would begin as a draftsman for Alfred Giles. He would later continue with the firm of Adams and Adams, where his work included supervising the construction of a new main house at the King Ranch, and developing designs for the Dewitt County Courthouse. Shortly after opening his own small office, he would enter into service in the United States Army to serve as an engineering officer in World War I. It was here, that after being exposed to poison gas in the last days of the war, he would be hospitalized in France to recover, and he would spend this brief time to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While not a full time student or diplomate, this time would greatly influence his work upon his return in 1919, much to the benefit of our city.
He would become one of the architectural leaders carrying on the Beaux-Arts traditions in south Texas, with his design sophistication being expressed in a variety of project types – from the neo-gothic expressions of the Medical Arts Building (1925-6) and the Grace Lutheran Church (1928), to the Spanish Colonial revival Academic Building at Randolph Field (1929).
He would also become well known for his residential work which include several projects in Monte Vista – the Italianate home of Dr. Oscar H. Judkin (1920), the Georgian Revival Hornaday House (1929), and the Colonial Revivial Spencer-Noble House (1929).
A culmination of this Beaux-Arts expression in his work would come to life in a project that would partner him with a graduate of the Ecole, the French-born Philadelphia architect Paul Cret, who had created a master plan and the designs for several buildings at the University of Texas in Austin, and the United States Post Office and Courthouse (1937). Framing the north boundary of Alamo Plaza, this example of American Beaux-Arts Classicism that is reflected in much of the federal architecture of the time. Its great south facing facade of cut Texas limestone features a rusticated base with a raised, central recessed porch sitting behind a screen of six monumental ionic columns supporting the wrapping entablature and attic. The interior lobby features a 750 square foot fresco mural by New Mexico artist Howard Cook depicting “San Antonio’s Importance in Texas History”.
Cameron would go on to create other works throughout south Texas and become a founding member of the Texas Society of Architects. It is through his thoughtful designs and meticulous execution of his work that helped to define a period of architectural expression in San Antonio that carried on the Beaux-Arts tradition.