O’Neil Ford by Jim Cullum Jr

O'Neil Ford

Because of the lure of the music and the romance of the Landing and the River, O'Neil Ford, the great Texas architect, loomed up large in my life. At first I had no idea of his world-wide fame. He was there in the crowd with his colorful entourage. But my father knew. He had been hearing the O'Neil Ford name since way back in the 40s when sophisticated Dallasites would speak reverently of the great man who plied his craft in San Antonio. "He's one of the great architects of all time," Dad said. "The whole band is invited to go out to his home after the Landing closes."  

My sports car made its way to the deep south side following the convoy down Mission Road, and we finally turned into the bushes past a sign that read "Willow Way." The winding road turned into brick, and the cars fell into formation side by side and came to a halt, their headlights illuminating the amazing setting where Neil (as his friends called him) and his wife Wanda held sway.

It was like no other place I'd ever seen. Willow Way was (and still is) situated on several acres, dominated by an old two-story stone house surrounded by sheds, garages, servants quarters, and terraces. It's joined on one side by a lovely pool, and beyond that the San Antonio River gurgling along in its channel. The whole place reflected the lives of Neil and Wanda. It had been her family's home in prior years, and every place my eye fell, pleasing detail came rushing up to greet me. They were both artistic Bohemians.

It was chaos plopped down with a creative eye. Peacocks strutted around the grounds, screeching. There was a large aviary, and barking dogs joined the cacophony of welcome as we paraded in under a canopy of huge trees. Old classic cars stood around in disrepair. Neil was proud of his Bently, which waited patiently in the drive for the day of its restoration which never came. Wanda's 1939 MG touring car was in a nearby shed.

But, of course, the house fascinated me the most. It was set up for the old-style Texas life of my boyhood, with large, screened porches all around. After a few hours I discovered its main secret: it was not air-conditioned. All windows and doors stood open, breathing in the summer night air. Upon our arrival, the place began to throb with life. I prowled around, delighted.

We set up the band at one side of the swimming pool and played a dozen tunes for our own fun, and at the same time gave a command performance for the Fords and their small assembly. We ate and drank and joked and generally soaked up the charm of our hosts and their wonderful old home. Before I knew it, 4:00 AM had come and gone, and I was dragging myself away with many good-byes. As I drove out, I admired the ancient San José mission across the street.

This was the first of many journeys I am still making to Willow Way. The parade of visits now blurs together in my memory. Gradually, I came to know the fascinating Ford family and their patriarch O'Neil, who loved to entertain an avid listener like myself with outrageous stories. One never knew where truth ended, but as Huck said of his creator Mark Twain, "there were some stretchers." At one of the Willow Way parties, I was jamming with pianist Red Camp. We got to talking about Neil's stories, and Red revealed to me a new concept: he said, "A few lies are good! Makes life more fun!" I'd never heard of such an idea, having been raised with the George Washington stereotype.

So I never knew the fact from the fiction, but I think it went this way: Neil and Wanda had met in London just before the war and had returned aboard ship with the beautiful MG. Wanda had acquired it new, and she always says that Neil only married her "to get the MG." His career in architecture was already churning along.

Neil was to embody the old San Antonio flavor like no one else. It was in his spirit and in his drawings. I am not expert, but I can list off a number of Neil's triumphs, such as the restoration of La Villita at the beginning of his career and the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral towards the end. His office was located in two old houses in the King William district. This was years before King William became fashionable.

He designed homes for the more adventurous of the city's elite and in the process developed a "Texas Style," which I understand is copied now around the world. His most famous and extensive work in San Antonio was the architectural design of Trinity University. I learned years after his death that he had designed the Episcopal church at which I was a parishioner, The Church of Reconciliation.

One day, I watched as he quickly drew on a cocktail napkin his idea for the waterfalls and fountains between the Hyatt and the Alamo. The final design was quite faithful to his original idea. I have an idea that Neil often dashed off his first ideas like this, and then it was up to the technicians to make them work.

We became good friends. Neil so admired my father that he wrote the liner notes for Dad's award-winning album, Eloquent Clarinet. He steered me to the newly restored San Fernando Cathedral where we performed the first Catholic Jazz Mass in Texas. We had presented the very first Jazz Mass the year before at the Trinity University Chapel which, of course, Neil had designed.

Lyndon Johnson appointed Neil to the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. I think he very much enjoyed the activities of this group, and because of Neil, their board meeting was held in San Antonio. Of course, the Landing was the unofficial headquarters of this meeting, and Neil held forth nightly hosting famous artists. I specifically remember several visits by Clint Eastwood and Gregory Peck, who were special friends of Neil's.

Neil died unexpectedly in 1981, and our band performed at his funeral at the Trinity Chapel. After the service, the funeral procession wound through the city for an hour, passing one after another of the buildings Neil designed. When it was all over and in accordance with his written instructions, we all went to Willow Way where we had quite a party with jazz, champagne, Virginia ham, and black-eyed peas. Written instructions had been left by Neil which ordered the party and food down to the last detail, including that everyone was to "have a good time" and "not to grieve at the natural ending."

One of my favorite memories is of one very hot Texas afternoon in Austin. I was at my sister's apartment there. A knock came at the door. Neil appeared, and after a few minutes, he stepped into the bathroom, where he stood in the shower fully clothed in a wash-and-wear suit. He emerged soaking wet and announced to us that he was leaving at once for San Antonio and intended to use "evaporative cooling" as his car had no air conditioning.

Wanda says Neil loved those wash-and-wear suits and routinely showered in them, complete with a bar of soap, and washed his suit in this way.

I've known many musicians who are so compelled by the creativity that goes with their music that they live to play. My father was like that. Neil was like that about architecture. He was also in love with life and San Antonio. Fortunately for me, that always included regular doses of jazz by our band.

He sure knew how to live and maybe he was right--maybe life is more fun with a few stretchers.