Excerpt: Dallas Architect Frank Welch on his first important clients (and the correct cocktail)

by | Architecture, Design, FD House

Frank Welch. photograph by Nan Coulter.

From Becoming an Architect: A Memoir


John Dorn met my plane one Saturday at the airport located on the treeless pancake between Midland and Odessa. A stiff breeze whipped his short-sleeved shirt and poplin Bermuda shorts. John was tall and trim with an aristocratic bearing that belied a fun-loving, lighthearted personality. He had grown up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where his family founded the Forest Oil Corporation and made a fortune in the oil business. He was a Choate graduate and attended Yale before enlisting in the Navy during the war. His wife, BLee (“BeeLee,” a nickname for Blanche Lee), came from a line of Texas ranchers and was a graduate of Hockaday, the girls’ prep school in Dallas, and the University of Texas.

The Dorns were undisputed leaders of their social set. They gave informal dinner parties with elegant food. Max Thomas, a black bartender, knew what everyone drank and, spotting guests coming up the walk, would have the correct cocktail ready. Each year John or one his five siblings living elsewhere hosted a weekend “Wimble Dorn” tennis tournament. During the fall, John and BLee organized late afternoon dove and quail hunts in the mesquite scrub near Midland, which were followed with torch-lit, gourmet cookouts served by waiters in white jackets. Oriental rugs were spread on the bare ground. Max Thomas was always there.

The Dorns were avid readers and made regular theater trips to New York, “camping out” in the family-owned apartment in the St. Regis Hotel. On other occasions they would fly friends on the Forest Oil DC-3 to the large Forest Oil beach house in Port Aransas, or to Monterrey, Mexico, for party weekends.

They were low-key connoisseurs of a good life, to be enjoyed quietly. John’s father, whom he adored, told him his name should only appear in the newspaper once: at his death. John still wore a polished pair of fine shoes he had at Yale, and drove his big sedan cars “into the ground.”Among the rich émigrés, John was exceptionally unpretentious.

BLee grew up in Wichita Falls, in a house designed by David Williams, O’Neil Ford’s mentor. She and I developed the notion that we shared a North Texas affinity for similar idiomatic language and a sense of the absurd. Self-effacing, she had this great laugh and never let pass without comment the nuances of eccentric human behavior. Both of them enjoyed hunting and fishing and, led by bibliophile BLee, shared an enthusiasm for literature. … BLee was also very funny, as funny as anyone I ever knew. One of the best stories she told me was one from her father, rancher Les Stringer: Back in the thirties in Wichita Falls, Les’s brother James, a handsome, charming playboy, was a big drinker who “kept a barrel of whiskey” in his car. James, though a “sweet boy,” was a notorious problem for his family. The way Les put it to BLee,“Well, one Saturday night, he ran off a bridge at the country club and broke his neck, and that solved the problem of James.”

Frank D.Welch’s On Becoming an Architect: A Memoir was published this month from TCU Press; www.prs.tcu.edu.