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B o o k R e v i e w

Houston Historicist John F. Staub excelled in constructing an identity of tradition and prestige for city’s oil patch elite b y M a r k Ob e r h o l z e r , AIA

Images courtesy Texas A&M Press

Many modernists have been trained to look down their noses at the output of twentieth-century architects who designed within eclectic or historicist vocabularies. The work of architect John Staub and his contemporaries was often dismissed by subsequent generations of architects who refused to accept the disjunction between the historical references of this work and the essentially modern character of its program and use. In his new book, The Country Houses of John F. Staub, architectural historian Stephen Fox tackles head-on the issue of architectural and collective identity, considering the importance of Staub’s remarkable work through a consideration of its power, significance, and delight. The story of one of Houston’s most successful domestic architects is closely tied to the development of planned “garden city” subdivisions on the former fringe of the growing city. In the context of a largely featureless coastal plain, early-twentieth-century Houston developers looked to architects to help create and reinforce the character of these new places. Staub, a Tennessean transplant born in 1892, received commissions for dozens of houses meant for wealthy Houstonians, including works of both modest and grand scales. The breadth of Staub’s work and its concentration in relatively few places makes the study of his work fascinating. Fox, who teaches courses at Rice University and the University of Houston on the history of Houston’s built environment, adroitly addresses both the architectural and cultural context of domestic architecture in Houston during the 1920s through the 1950s. He avoids dwelling unduly on the variety of architectural styles popular during this period in favor of his primary thesis: how architecture was used to construct an identity of privilege and power for wealthy Houstonians in a young city in the twentieth century. Nearly all of the houses Staub designed were at least partly based on references to historic styles, yet all the houses were planned for modern family life—a characteristic that continues to make them desired and valued today. The design career of Staub is chronicled through his involvement in the affluent Houston enclaves of Broadacres and River Oaks, as well important commissions in Galveston, Beaumont, and Fort Worth. Fox addresses Staub’s design of relatively small houses, identifying in these designs a developing consensus of the characteristics of an “appropriate” house for its time and place. Staub’s virtuosity is evident in his variations within what is essentially the same program. Yet, while the houses share fine proportions, planning, and site, each manages to assert a remarkable uniqueness. Many of Staub’s contemporaries whose work is likewise centered in other cities have inevitably been the subject of coffee-table books, and the richness and clarity of Richard Cheeks’ photographs throughout the book might cause the casual reader to misinterpret the author’s underlying message—that is, how Staub repeatedly used architectual design to aid Houston’s burgeoning upper class in creating and reinforcing a new social

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Texas Architect March/April 2009: Adaptive Reuse  

Texas Architect, March/April 2009; Official magazine of the Texas Society of Architects|AIA

Texas Architect March/April 2009: Adaptive Reuse  

Texas Architect, March/April 2009; Official magazine of the Texas Society of Architects|AIA