This issue of Texas Architect marks the 50th anniversary of The Birthday appearing on the September/October 1967 magazine cover — with a black and white Ezra Stoller image accidentally (unknowingly?) reversed. The small stone and wood shelter had been completed the previous year on BLee and John Dorn’s Willow Creek Ranch just northwest of Sterling City. Visible from the highway and, in fact, quite close to the existing ranch house, it is nonetheless very remote from the world in any larger context.
The cryptic name — The Birthday — was derived from the small stone cairns left in the region by migrant workers, which ranchers called “birthdays.” The idea may well be related to ancient Inca religion, which worshipped stone, and today such lithic piles in South America are known as apachitas; quietly growing over time as travelers leave another rock on the pile as a form of blessing for safe travels. To the Inca, such stacks were considered to “rhyme” with distant mountains considered sacred. In west Texas, the Dorns and the architect thought it the perfect nickname for their humble stack of rocks on the escarpment.
There were only two sheets of working drawings, without title blocks, prepared for the 1966 construction. One sheet included a plan and three of four elevations; a second sheet was a longitudinal section. The architect would turn 40 years old after the construction completed. He remembered drinking tequila in the sun with the editor of House Beautiful while Stoller shot the well-known images, including one of a horse tied to the entry rail. Twenty years ago, Welch inscribed this author’s two printed construction sheets with “Little did I know.”
A wood entry deck lifts the primary floor above grade (“to keep the snakes out”), and when one passes through the 20-foot-square room it projects as a cantilevered platform into the northwestern sky. Two sliding wooden shutters on north and south open and close this room as though it were a box camera set on the shelf. The view is captured in the mind’s eye, as is so perfectly done in Hester + Hardaway’s stunning image. The “proportion of concerns” it reflects is that of a view with a room.
Landscape architect Dan Heyn, who had attended Texas A&M with Welch and worked with O’Neil Ford with him, “landscaped” the site with a single tree. A low stone bench/wall and historic piece of ironwork once delineated the east edge of the approach.
The “move,” as painter Agnes Martin would say, “that takes it to heaven” is the lifting of the roof over the six-foot east alcove, allowing a glazed clerestory to shed daylight on the apse-like fireplace. This subtle gesture lifts the space over the fireplace instead of lowering it as any other architect might have done for intimacy. The move is transcendent and elegant. The clerestory is supported by a 16-inch-square timber found left over at a lumberyard from oil rig work. Implicit references to a Peter Blake guesthouse proposal for Long Island, or the Rancho de Taos church, or to Shinto shoji screens are all to be found, but the work is far beyond such thoughts of precedent and is singular in that place; in the highest form of artistic accomplishment.
Other works by the architect in his 60 years of practice bring this same breadth, depth, and clarity, as well as his convictions toward simplicity in the face of an architectural world seemingly fixed on “innovation” and the moment. But it is this humble, inflected rock box on a ranch bluff with its plan a literal “X marks the spot,” which has for 50 years quietly spoken of what architecture in such a place as ours might aspire to.
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.