Touring Mid-Century Modern Waco

Author

Mid Tex Mod Board

Affiliation

Docomomo US/Mid Tex Mod

Tags

chapter, Waco, texas, Robert S. Bennett, J. W. Bush, James D. Witt, Hal Stringer

This February, Mid Tex Mod board members Sara Ludueña and Elizabeth Porterfield conducted a bus tour of mid-century modern architecture in Waco during the 2017 Preservation Summit hosted by Preservation Texas. Over twenty participants visited and toured some of Waco’s iconic mid-century residential and commercial buildings highlighting the works of local architects Robert S. Bennett, J.W. Bush, James D. Dewitt along with other national architects.

The mid-20th century was a time of growth and change in Waco as new neighborhoods and shopping centers, designed around the automobile, attracted residents to the modern conveniences of suburbia. A devastating tornado in 1953 that decimated much of Waco’s downtown and killed 114 people, led to further suburban growth as many businesses opted to relocate to new suburban areas outside of the center city. Changes in building design heralded the time of progress following World War II. Plate glass walls, soaring roof lines, and austere, clean façades dominated commercial design and saw their way into residential construction in the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

First on the tour were three mid-century modern residences designed by premier Waco architect Robert S. Bennett, Sr. Current Fort Worth architect Stan Love, who designed recent renovations to these three houses, met the group at each home to provide insight about the challenges and successes of the renovation projects. The home at 1901 Ridgewood was constructed in 1957 as part of Waco’s first air-conditioned subdivision, Country Club Estates. Bennett’s original design placed a strong emphasis on the outdoors with a private patio, swimming pool, hot tub, and greenhouse with walls of glass to connect these outdoor elements with the home’s interior. The house at 2401 Cedar Ridge was built in 1955 and is located in Waco’s Chimney Hill neighborhood.

Designed in an unusual C-shaped plan, the front façade is accented with wood paneling and a Roman brick wainscot with a prominent brick chimney near the front entrance. The house at 2716 Merrimac Circle, currently undergoing renovations by Love, was constructed in 1966 and designed with an L-shaped footprint. Ema and Don Moes, the current owners, hosted the group for a walk-through tour, where Love explained how the house has been opened up on the interior while preserving original features such as the fireplace and expansive walls of glass. Refreshments and cocktails were served on the original triangular-shaped rear deck, featuring what must be one of Waco’s most spectacular views across the Ridgewood Country Club and golf course to Lake Waco. Thanks so much to Ema and Don for their gracious hospitality!

Next on the tour was a stop at the Waco-McLennan County Public Library on Austin Avenue near downtown. The one-story library was constructed in 1961 and designed by Waco architects J. W. Bush, James D. Witt, and Waco landscape architect Hal Stringer. The L-shaped building flows outside into a rear courtyard garden. The exterior features various facade systems to provide different lighting conditions for interior spaces: the south corner’s pre-cast concrete fins shade a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, while the east side combines clerestory and floor-level windows with pink marble wall panels. A ca. 2010 north addition repositioned the building’s entrance, originally on the east side and now enclosed, and removed a drive-thru covered book drop area at the rear. Jessica Emmett, from the Waco Library, met with the group and provided original blue prints and historic photos of the library during the tour.

The magnificent Temple Rodef Sholom on North 41st Street was the next tour destination. Designed by the Houston-based architecture firm of Kamrath and MacKie, with Waco’s Bush and Witt architects as associates, the temple was completed in October 1961. Karl Kamrath was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian style, which is apparent in the design of the temple. The temple remains remarkably intact, with very few alterations to the outstanding mid-century modern interior. The steep A-frame structure contains the sanctuary and community space, while the low, flat roofed portion with a recessed entry and deep overhangs houses classrooms and additional worship space.

The sanctuary roof symbolizes the Jewish meeting tent where Israelites worshiped during the biblical time in the desert. The single-story building’s overall form resembles the six-pointed Star of David. Other symbolic design elements include a brick bas-relief menorah on the south elevation, interior doors decorated with 12 copper plates representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and the Holy Ark in the sanctuary containing the Torah scrolls. Rabbi Laura Schwartz Harari provided a fascinating tour of the temple with further details about Jewish symbolism incorporated into the interior design elements and a Hebrew reading from the Torah. The temple serves as the third home of the Rodef Sholom congregation in Waco, which was organized in 1879, and represents a radical departure from the congregation’s more traditional former temple. Kamrath received a National Association of Architects award in 1962 for the temple design.

The last tour stop was at the 10-story Texas Life Insurance Building located downtown on Washington Avenue. Originally called Texas Center, the building opened in October 1972 and was designed by the Waco firm of Bennett, Carnahan, Hearn and Thomas. The building’s exterior fluted wall panels are precast concrete with exposed aggregate and tinted glass. The interior features an open plan with no vertical supports except in the exterior wall beams and the central core. Texas Center was designed to house the Texas Life Insurance Company and National City Bank. Both of the Waco-based companies were founded by the Mayfield family in the late 19th century. The bank originally occupied the lower level and mezzanine, while Texas Life Insurance had offices on the 9th and 10th floors, with lounges, meeting rooms and a computer section shared by both companies on the 3rd floor. The remaining five floors were office space for lease. Former Texas Life Insurance Company CEO Steve Cates provided a tour of their office spaces where many of the original mid-century modern furnishings remain. Iconic pieces still utilized include Barcelona chairs, Saarinen tables, and other Knoll items. A number of the furnishings were salvaged from storage by Mr. Cates and have been recently put back into use.

Thank you to all of our tour participants, homeowners, and speakers for making the day a success and for sharing the mid-century love!