Beth Stribling: Save University House

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I am very concerned that Denton will lose an important part of the history of Denton County if and when Texas Woman’s University demolishes its University House.

The recent Texas Historical Commission project review of the documentation provided by TWU as required by the Antiquities Code of Texas, Section 191.098 of the Texas Natural Resources Code, listed many criteria that clearly established that this historic house is significant.

The report dated July 24 was from state commission project reviewer Adam Alsobrook and represented the comments of the commission’s executive director, Mark Wolfe. The commission is the state agency responsible for administering the Antiquities Code of Texas.

In the report to David Strickland, director of design and construction services at the university, the commission determined that the University House is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; is significant at the local level under Criterion A in the area of college education and as an education-related historic resource; is significant at the local level under Criterion C in the area of architecture; and as an example of the Modern Movement as both residential and institutional Mid-Century Modern architecture.

Built in 1954, the University House was designed by prominent local architect Arch B. Swank to house the Texas State College for Women President John Guinn and his family. Swank, who was born in 1913 and died in 1999, is described as one of the “great innovative figures of Texas architecture.” He graduated in 1936, a member of the first Texas A&M University class to complete the five-year architecture program.

O’Neil Ford and Swank became partners of Ford and Swank Architectural firm and worked together to design the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods built in 1939 on the campus of TWU. The Little Chapel is known for its embodiment of regional modernism and has been named one of Texas’ 20 most outstanding architectural achievements by the Texas Society of Architects.

Other Denton projects designed in part by Swank from 1951 to 1970 include numerous houses throughout the city, the Fairhaven Retirement Home and the First Christian Church. Swank and Ford were influenced by the Prairie School, which stressed the use of natural materials, uncluttered horizontals and the feel that a building belongs to the landscape.

Throughout Denton you will find at least 10 structures attributed to Swank and more than a dozen structures attributed to Ford, providing a network of designs by two noted and prominent architects in this city.

The University House exemplifies many of the style elements utilized by Ford and Swank. The mid-century house is a split-level style. It was originally designed with the kitchen and open living and dining areas on the ground floor; a family room on the lower level; and four bedrooms and a study on the upper level. The contemporary elements include the flat roof, the large and excessive amount of windows and incorporation of the natural landscape, overlooking the TWU golf course.

Fred A. Westcourt, who worked on the botanical gardens at the university, designed the original landscaping utilizing native plants. Today, the house has mostly retained its original exterior appearance and has undergone some interior renovations that will not affect the architectural significance. Alsobrook said, “Examples of these types of buildings are rapidly being lost, which enhances the University House’s significance.”

In addition to the architectural significance, the historical associations connected with the house are represented by the TWU presidents, who were leaders not only at the university but also in the community.

Dr. Guinn and his family lived in the house for 21 years until his death. He was recognized as a legendary leader at an important time in the growth of the college.

President Dr. Mary Evelyn Blagg Hughey (1976-1986) chose to remain in her own home in Denton during her tenure. The house was used by the College of Nutrition, Textiles and Human Development during that time.

Dr. Shirley Sears Chater (1986-1993) renamed the building University House. Dr. Carol Surles, was the ninth president and the first African-American president of TWU. Dr. Ann Stuart, current chancellor and president, lived in the house from 1999 until around 2012.

“THC supports the retention and preservation of this historic building” according to the staff report. However, Alsobrook concluded “the house has no historical designations and is not a State Antiquities Landmark, and the decision of whether to proceed with the demolition remains with the university.”

In the Denton Record-Chronicle president’s house Aug. 12 article, we all learned that TWU will go forward with its original decision to demolish the house.

The history of this mid-century house begins in the 1950s in what was a small college town. Today, it is representative of a historic era that has become significant for its architectural styles and historical associations. The TWU University House needs to be saved and not razed.

The state’s report and recommendations for the house clearly identify the historical significance of this important structure. The University House should be preserved for the benefit of all of the residents of the city, county and state.

BETH STRIBLING is chairwoman of the Denton County Historical Commission.

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