O'Neil Ford's Legacy
1952-1979: Skyline campus architect leaves lasting impression
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
O'Neil Ford (left) and President James Laurie (right) look out over Trinity's campus.

Conjure the name “O’Neil Ford” on Trinity’s campus, and you’re likely to be met with adoration and praise.

Architect and designer for the University’s first campus master plan, O’Neil Ford came to Trinity in 1948 on the advice of William Wurster, Trinity’s consulting architect and dean of architecture and planning at MIT. The University had purchased an abandoned rock quarry four miles north of downtown San Antonio to build Trinity’s permanent home. Upon first sight, Ford jokingly called Trinity Hill a “dismal and antagonistic jungle” littered with battery boxes, glass, wire, and chunks of asphalt. Yet, as he walked the campus, Ford took in its distinctive, sloping topography and the limestone escarpment that famously bisects the campus.

Although original plans called for Trinity’s site to be leveled, Ford understood that the beauty of Trinity’s location stemmed largely from its rocky divide. Only an informal grouping of buildings would appropriately fit the site’s unique topography.

Exercising great foresight, Ford thought deeply about the varied relationships between buildings, between students and faculty, between the buildings and the site, and between academic departments. He also considered the University’s proximity to downtown San Antonio and positioned long, thin buildings so that occupants were naturally inclined to take in the skyline’s best views.

Big-Picture Details

A Texas native, Ford and his siblings, Lynn and Authella, grew up outdoors, and Ford’s father, Bert, taught his children the types of trees and the importance of physical education. In a school woodworking class, Ford first developed his lifelong love for good craftsmanship.

That love of hand work and the use of good, honest materials would only grow over time. When Ford came to Trinity, he required materials that would serve his simple, yet functional style. The hallmark “Trinity red” brick—actually a hue called “Bridgeport pink”—was chosen because it was laid by hand and because it beautifully reflected the glow of the Texas sun.

A view upwards of the library staircase; a close-up shot of an iron light fixture; a close-up shot of woodwork on doors.

Ford worked closely with his brother, Lynn, to design and craft fixtures and interior details throughout his buildings. Wooden doors, beams, and mantels throughout the building were hand-carved in geometric patterns, and perforated spherical hanging lamps adorn the corridors. “There is nothing accidental about the fact that my brother and I made things from drawings,” Ford once recalled. “From the third grade on, we worked with hand tools.”

In addition to details, Ford embraced big-picture ideas. He famously pioneered the use of the lift-slab method on Trinity’s campus, where concrete floor and roof slabs were poured on the ground and held apart by a wax coating. Hydraulic jacks then raised the slabs. Lift-slab was an economical investment for Trinity, and the Youtz-Slick construction technique was employed for the first time on a full-size structure with the original Northrup Hall.

The horizontal spirit of lift-slab construction reinforced Ford’s theme of long, graceful lines. Ford designed the buildings to blend into one another instead of stand apart, and a linear design helped connect the buildings together. Ford understood the “lived experience” of buildings, how buildings situated together can form a cohesive learning-living environment.

Workers employ the lift-slab method on the original Student Union building.

Honoring a Spirit

In June 2018, Trinity University was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, largely in part to the University having the largest concentration of O’Neil Ford-designed mid-century modern architecture in the world. Ford designed 33 buildings and structures on Trinity’s campus—including the iconic Murchison Tower—29 of which still diligently serve Trinity’s students, faculty, and staff today.

Read more about the life and legacy of O’Neil Ford in an article from the Summer 2017 issue of Trinity magazine, or explore Trinity’s historic designation.

The Trinity campus has the largest concentration of O'Neil Ford-designed buildings anywhere in the world.

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