The “Texas Rangers” and Small Town America
Posted on August 10, 2018
“It is a guileless architecture, which, because innocent, is often apparently venerable; and which, because one may believe it to be uncorrupted, is sometimes curiously eloquent. When, as at Lockhart, it is combined with a city plan as entirely legitimate as that of the courthouse town; when, as there, a spontaneous and comprehensible architecture flourishes in a complementary relationship with a principle of authority; then we are in the presence, not of an amusing specimen of Americana, but of an exemplary urbanistic success whose meaning has been for too long obscured.”
-Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, “Lockhart, Texas”
In the 1950s, a young architecture professor named Colin Rowe visited tiny Lockhart, Texas with his colleagues—all professors teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. An Englishman, he was surprised by and admired “the small triumphs of urbanity” that made this little town great. Lockhart had a distinctive and expressive courthouse and a lively square in front of it that, for Rowe, rivaled the piazze of Italy.
The town has a basic grid structure, centered around the Caldwell County Courthouse, and the main square and streets are lined with shopfronts, churches, and other public buildings. The hierarchy between these buildings is clear. The courthouse—colorful, lively, and built in the Second Empire style—designed by Henry E. M. Guidon and his partner Alfred Giles is at the center is surrounded by taller and more articulated civic buildings and churches—the Norman castellated Caldwell County jail and the First Christian Church—and less formal and shorter fabric buildings. These shops and offices are still complex and interesting with impressive brickwork and Italianate details, and they work to form the town’s public spaces.
Like a lot of small towns in America, it was and is a frontier town that many drive right by without paying it any mind. In the 1950s, most architects saw this Victorian town and its architecture as a backwater—a place entirely of the past just waiting to be modernized. Rowe and his colleague John Hejduk, however, saw it differently, and their article “Lockhart, Texas” appeared in the primarily modern journal Architectural Record in 1957. To them, Lockhart was “curiously eloquent” with “an unsophisticated strength”—exemplifying the simple and often profound greatness in the architecture of small town America.
The faculty at UT during this time, of which Rowe was a part, is now referred to as the “Texas Rangers,” and, influenced by the Texas landscape itself, they introduced a new curriculum at the school that emphasized the importance of comparing historic examples to create a teachable and workable urban and architectural theory. Rowe himself would go on to write Collage City, a book that challenged the utopian and comprehensive planning that dominated the second half of the 20th century and has unfortunately damaged so many of America’s best cities.
I was reminded of this book last week as I read an article published in Texas Monthly on Texas’ “Small Town Revival” that quotes Rowe and particularly one of the passages above. The article documents the recent rebirth of three small rural towns in Texas. Lockhart—the town UT’s faculty considered so important, Brenham, Alpine, and many others like them have gone from shrinking small towns on the decline to growing communities with new restaurants and shops.
So what is it that about these towns that can attract both a group of young architects in the 1950s and young entrepreneurs today? Hidden in the Texas landscape, the UT faculty saw in them echoes of the great towns of Italy and France. Beyond mere nostalgia, Lockhart and towns like it have simple, idiosyncratic, and profound architecture that is at once in sync with and in sharp contrast to its particular landscape.
Just like in Tuscany or rural France, the small towns of the American West are informed by their particular landscape. From the Architectural Record article: …”the first indication of arrival is apt to be the courthouse which appears, from a distance of several miles, as the slightest eruption upon the horizon.” Like similar great towns including Pienza in Italy, they are built of local materials and in direct response to an often rugged and difficult climate, thus assuming a distinct, simple, and powerful form out of necessity and a need to survive.
But both in Italy and in America, these small towns’ strength also lies in the clarity of their purpose—they were formed because of one unifying idea and their architecture and urbanism expresses it simply and succintly. Rowe tells us while visiting Lockhart’s courthouse square:
“For patently this is a town dedicated to an idea, and its scheme is neither fortuitous nor whimsical…it is the law which assumes a public significance; and it is around the secular image of the law, like architectural illustrations of a political principle, that these towns revolve. In each case the courthouse is both visual focus and social guarantee; and in each [courthouse] square the reality of government made formally explicit provides the continuing assurance of order.”
This example would inform Rowe’s later urban theory, and it is a phenomenon often lost in the ambiguous forms of modern architecture. Where Lockhart’s courthouse, churches, and other public buildings rise above the city’s fabric in stature, detail, and importance, many modern buildings lack the forms necessary to create such a hierarchy. This leaves us with towns full of buildings that are at best unclear in their meaning and purpose.
I shared this article with my coworkers, and many of them shared stories of other small towns experiencing similar rebirths. Robert Dinkins, who went to school in Kerrville, Texas, has watched new breweries and restaurants breathe life into what was a sleepy retirement town.
Mac White worked on the renovation of the Caldwell County Courthouse when he first began working as an architect, and he has seen a similar Renaissance in San Saba, Texas, another courthouse town, as younger generations of local family’s work to preserve and enhance the town’s character.
As these little towns grow, Colin Rowe’s reflections on the architecture of rural Lockhart are an apt reminder of how powerful architecture that is tied to its place and purpose can be. New development and businesses are started, not in a vacuum with no discernible local identity, but in a place with a rich heritage that is reinforced by its architecture. Their history and culture, tied intrinsically to the landscape, are captured in these “curiously eloquent” buildings and thus are more easily passed to new generations.