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Making Houston Modern:
The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone

Barrie Scardino Bradley, Stephen Fox, and Michelangelo Sabatino
University of Texas Press, 2020

Howard Barnstone. The name is certainly familiar in Houston, but probably not beyond Texas. Barnstone (1923–87) practiced in the city in the second half of the twentieth century. Making Houston Modern successfully tells the story of Barnstone’s life and work by engaging many voices in the writing of this book—architects, historians, critics, and even clients and family members.

Figure 1. Howard Barnstone in his office, 811 Lovett Boulevard, Houston, c. 1955. Courtesy George Barnstone.

The beautifully illustrated volume is divided into three sections: “Howard Barnstone’s Architecture,” “Howard Barnstone’s Clients, and “Howard Barnstone’s Life.” Since each essay stands on its own, for those unfamiliar with the protagonist I would recommend beginning with chapter 7, which offers a short biography. We learn that he was an immigrant to Texas, born in Maine into a Jewish family and raised in New York City. After graduating from Yale in 1948, he took a cross-country trip, had car problems, and decided to stop in Houston to visit relatives. There he was introduced to the dean of the nascent School of Architecture at the University of Houston, and immediately accepted a job offer. And so, by chance, began the career of this unlikely Houston architect. We also learn that Barnstone suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. These illnesses led to the dissolution of both his partnership with Eugene Aubry and his marriage to Gertrude Levy, ultimately resulting in his suicide in 1987.

Though Barnstone is mostly known for private residences in Houston, the book reveals work farther afield: interior designs in New York City and larger commissions, including projects in South America through his connections with businessman and art patron John de Menil. Throughout his work in Texas, he remained sensitive to the landscape and climate of the South. Ironically the piece of architecture for which he might be nationally known, the Rothko Chapel, is one that he did not count as his own, since he and Eugene Aubry completed a building begun by Philip Johnson. A modernist, but not enslaved to the International Style, he incorporated steel, concrete, glass and brick, along with wood and plaster, in his material palette. Disparaging of regionalists, he nevertheless designed many projects that clearly evince an awareness of place.

Like Philip Johnson, whom he admired greatly, Barnstone could not draw well, so he relied on the draftsmanship of talented partners and associates to convey his uncanny vision. He also had a distinct character. From the foreword by Carlos Jiménez to the conclusion by the editors, Barnstone’s personality emerges through his personal and professional relationships: charming but ruthless, brilliant yet manipulative, socially adept but paranoid. He was an outsider who wanted into the ecumenical circle of modern, politically progressive people developing modern art, architecture, and culture in postwar Houston. Barnstone also authored two books: The Galveston That Was (1966), about the preservation of the city’s nineteenth-century mansions, and The Architecture of John F. Staub: Houston and the South (1979).

Figure 2. Menil House with “barrel-vaulted canopy” designed by Howard Barnstone (1961–62). Photograph by Paul Hester. Courtesy Hester + Hardaway.

Kathryn E. Holliday suggests that these writing projects might have been a way for Barnstone to critique and situate his own practice in the South. In her essay, Holliday outlines the complex Texan identity, a romantic mythology of the frontier and the cowboy in confrontation with rocket science, oil refineries, and unzoned urban development, within which Barnstone initiated his practice. Joshua C. Furman offers an account of Houston’s Jewish community after the war. Though he never identified as a “Jewish architect,” Barnstone did have Jewish clients in Houston, and five of their houses are highlighted here. This is the only section of the book that includes a map.  Bruce C. Webb details his pedagogical work at the University of Houston. The faculty were primarily practicing architects—hence Barnstone’s competitors—and Webb’s lively account reveals the challenges of managing a group of independent thinkers. Olive Hershey devotes a chapter to Barnstone’s charismatic wife, Gertrude, a theater actress, sculptor, and political activist who died after this book had gone to press.

Figure 3. Evelyn Fink and Morris G. Rosenthal House (1953, Bolton & Barnstone), 4506 North Roseneath Drive, Houston. Courtesy Benjamin Hill, photographer.

Figure 4. De Saligny Condominiums (1982, Howard Barnstone, FAIA, and Robert T. Jackson), 1111 West Twelfth Street, Austin, Texas. Courtesy Robert Barnstone.

Figure 5. Office building for Howard Barnstone and Burdette Keeland, Jr., 1962, unbuilt project. Courtesy Howard Barnstone Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library (MSS 178-3146-REN-01).

Several chapters address Barnstone’s architectural career. Stephen Fox offers an overview of forty years of practice, including Barnstone’s partnerships first with Preston M. Bolton and later Eugene Aubry. Fox describes Barnstone as an architectural auteur; like a deft film director he was able to produce his vision through extracting the best talent of others. Michelangelo Sabatino focuses on the way that Barnstone and his contemporaries (including Philip Johnson) translated Mies van der Rohe’s architectural principles. Barnstone’s nephew and niece-in-law, architect Robert Barnstone and architectural historian Deborah Ascher Barnstone, write about projects commissioned by members of the family—including a stucco-covered masonry specialty store in Mexico and the remodeling of a barn into a house in Indiana. Barrie Scardino Bradley describes the Menil/Schlumberger “effect.”  When the Menils, John de Menil and his spouse Dominque Schlumberger, emigrated from France to Houston during World War II, they changed Houston, championing civil rights, purchasing modern art, and patronizing academic institutions. John de Menil became Barnstone’s mentor, providing a constant source of commissions, as well as financial and moral support.

Making Houston Modern is a commendable beginning, but there is so much more to learn about the architects and designers who contributed to the city’s modern landscape. The editors include a helpful catalogue raisonné, but more maps might have clarified Barnstone’s role in the city. Nevertheless, the book adds to important recent work such as Barrie Scardino Bradley’s Improbable Metropolis: Houston’s Architectural and Urban History (2020); recent books by Ben Koush cover some of Barnstone’s contemporaries; and David Heymann and Stephen Fox’s book John S. Chase—The Chase Residence (2020) illuminates the architecture of the first African American registered in Texas. As the editors make clear, Houston’s architecture deserves a broader audience.

Nora Laos recently retired from a thirty-year teaching career, first for the University of Illinois in Versailles, France, and then for the University of Houston. She received her BS in Architectural Studies and MArch degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and her PhD from Princeton University. Though trained as a medievalist, from the start she taught architectural and urban history of all periods, with an evolving interest in sacred space of diverse cultures.