Word came to me, by chance, less than 30 minutes after Frank Welch’s death. I was out of town and had a full day’s schedule of meetings, which quickly became punctuated by the expected phone calls, texts, and emails as the word of our great loss spread across the networks.
In the past months, my thoughts were often with Frank, hastened by his recent sharp decline, so the news came as no surprise. Nonetheless, my long drive home that day was filled with melancholy, more calls with close friends, and reflections on the impact my mentor and friend had, not only on me personally, but on so many.
I spend quite a bit of time on the road, driving to remote projects. In fact, I have come to perceive these long drives as a privilege more than the obvious necessity. There is time for contemplation and to engage with the vast Texas landscape, experiencing the nuances of the regional changes that only long trips can provide. There are frequent stops to photographically document structures, natural vistas, and skies. Some of my fondest memories of Frank were that he always encouraged bringing the office staff together for a break to see the slides of his/our recent excursions. Obviously, sharing road trips with Frank was a special, highly charged treat.
Due to my state of mind, my acuity for the surroundings was compromised on that day, yet as I drove into the setting sun, having broken the chaos of Austin traffic and approaching the peaceful Hill Country environs east of Llano, something joltingly caught my eye. In a pasture adjacent to Highway 71 was a simple shed, framed by a live oak set against low-lying, distant hills. I remembered seeing this shed before, but on this day of all days, at this seemingly random moment in time, the shed was animated by a perfect band of light, beginning at a narrow separation between its western wall and roof, terminating precisely at a supporting post on the back wall. I couldn’t help but perceive this scene, on this day, as an homage to, and gift from, Frank. Light, and its impact on what we build and the spirit it injects on the human experience, was an early lesson Frank learned and passed on so elegantly through his work to us all.
Later that day, long after dark descended, on the last leg of my trip home to Midland, my route along Highway 87 bordered the ranch where Frank’s iconic Birthday stood. I pulled off the highway and turned off the engine and lights. The night was clear and moonless, with a familiar warm West Texas breeze. I walked to the fence across the dry, crisp grass of the barrow ditch and gazed off to the hill where The Birthday so gracefully engaged the site. The lack of moonlight obscured seeing even the silhouette of the structure and, mercifully, its modifications perpetrated by the misguided new owner of the ranch, allowing me to reflect on my first visit, almost 40 years ago. On a blustery day in November of 1977, after less than a month of employ by Frank, I visited The Birthday by myself, the lone human present for miles. My anticipation was keen as I purposefully stopped the car short of my destination and ascended the hill on foot through a light sleet, driven by the familiar West Texas wind. As I followed around the curving road, up the hill, the building revealed itself just as the clouds parted and light washed over its stone walls and timbered frame. It was a moment of pure cinematic composition and the stuff of legend for any architectural touring junkie. I immediately felt an emotional surge, bringing a tear to my eye. It was at that moment that I experienced the impact of a master engaging the site, making place and manipulating light; elevating the human spirit, the likes of which I have experienced seldom since.
My memories were interrupted, mystically and appropriately, by a shooting star descending to the western sky, bringing to a close my last most poignant road trip with Frank.
Mark T. Wellen, FAIA, is a principal of Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland.