Prof. Peabody’s Improbable History of Planning: How We Began Working in Fort Worth

By those that know of David M. Schwarz Architects, but do not know us well, one question is asked time and again.   With the forthcoming opening of the actual “square” in Sundance Square, which also marks the 25th year of our planning efforts in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, it is finally time to definitively answer the question, “How did an indigenous Washington, DC architectural firm get to design so many buildings in Fort Worth, Texas?”  The answer’s roots trace back to the mid 1980’s.  So, please join us for a ride in Professor Hector Peabody’s WABAC (WayBack) Machine.  Sherman, “Set the WABAC to Fort Worth, 1983.”


Actually, let’s go a bit further back.  In the late ‘70’s a group of lawyers, led by David Bonderman, from the prestigious Washington law firm, Arnold and Porter, were in a bidding war for two Dupont Circle townhouses on Connecticut Avenue against a brash young architect, David M. Schwarz.  Long story short, the lawyers won, and the architect designed the renovation and addition of the townhouses. Thus began a still-ongoing, 3+ decade’s long friendship and professional relationship.

By 1979, Mr. Schwarz’s firm was designing its first new construction, concrete-framed, commercial, elevator building – 1718 Connecticut Avenue, NW – for the same client group.  In addition to being a brilliant trial lawyer who argued the Supreme Court case that saved New York’s Grand Central terminal, Mr. Bonderman basically wrote the new District of Columbia Preservation Law and did pro bono legal work for Don’t Tear It Down (now the D. C. Preservation League).  Schwarz customarily served as Bonderman’s expert witness before various courts and bodies in preservation cases.

1718 Connecticut Ave, NW

1718 Connecticut Ave, NW

Now to ‘83.  The U.S. Department of Transportation planned to expand an overhead freeway on the south end of downtown Fort Worth, which would have placed a Philip Johnson-designed water garden in shade for most of the day.  A group of prominent citizens, under the leadership of Robert M. Bass, organized to fight these plans on environmental and preservation grounds.  Intent on hiring the best preservation lawyer in the country, Mr. Bass found Mr. Bonderman, who agreed to take the case.  And so CITIZEN ADVOCATES FOR RESPONSIBLE EXPANSION, INC. (I-CARE) et al., Plaintiffs, v. Elizabeth DOLE, et al., Defendants, was launched.  Enter Schwarz, who testified on the neighborhood-destroying impact of overhead freeways.

The case continued through several years of motions, rulings, appeals, and, finally, a successful settlement that blocked the overhead expansion. During this time, Bass realized just how truly brilliant Bonderman was, and Bass and other notable Fort Worthians realized how talented Schwarz and his band of young architects back in DC were.  Moreover, Bass and others suggested that if Schwarz established a presence in Fort Worth, they would help ensure its success.  As they say, “The rest is history!”

However, major success for Schwarz and the firm did not come overnight.  The earliest endeavors included the renovation of a house for Bonderman in the Rivercrest neighborhood and the remodel of a Volvo dealership for Bass.  While working on these projects, Schwarz met Mr. Bass’s brother, Edward P. Bass. And thus began yet another, still-ongoing, 3+ decade’s long friendship and professional relationship.

Renovated Autobahn Volvo Dealership

Renovated Autobahn Volvo Dealership

Our first major Texas commission came in 1985, when Robert Bass served as chairman of the building committee for two children’s hospitals that were merging to form a new institution.  We were hired by Cook-Fort Worth Children’s Hospital (now Cook Children’s Medical Center) to design the new facility.  The hospital opened in 1989 to much fanfare and acclaim, setting a new standard for the building type.  Not only did we design the main hospital; we also master planned the overall campus to accommodate future growth.  And grow they have.  Twenty-four years later, we have never gone more than a year and a half without working on one or more of a dozen or more expansions and ancillary buildings.  Today, we are in the midst of designing a $300,000,000 South Tower expansion.

Cook Children's Medical Center, 2012

Cook Children’s Medical Center, 2012

[As a significant aside, one of the new hospital’s earliest patients was Paul Schieffer, the son of Tom Schieffer, former President of the Texas Rangers Baseball Club.  The unique, family-friendly design and nurturing environment of the hospital did not go unnoticed by the Schieffer family.  Two years later, while preparing to build a new ballpark for the ball club, the Rangers invited the Schwarz team to participate in the design competition.  Showing the same ingenuity, attention to detail and campus planning employed on the hospital, as well as a keen understanding of the business of baseball, we prevailed.  The Ballpark in Arlington (Texas) opened to great acclaim in April of 1994].

While working on the design of the children’s hospital, Schwarz began discussion with Edward Bass about the family’s disjointed and underutilized land holdings at the north end of downtown.  When a gas explosion leveled half a square block on which we were already designing a small office for Mr. Bass, he decided to redevelop the entire block as a mixed use project, with retail, restaurants, office, a multi-screen cinema and the first new multifamily housing in downtown since World War II.  Sundance West, as the project became known, was the first new construction building completed as part of the efforts to revitalize downtown Fort Worth.

Sundance West

Sundance West

Like many cities its size and age, suburban flight after WWII brought urban blight, and never completed, grand urban renewal schemes of the 1960’s brought vacant land and parking lots.  Rather than providing more grand schemes loaded with outdated theory and little in economic practicality, we took a more humanist and pragmatic approach to Fort Worth’s planning issues.  By the late ‘80’s, where were studying a manageable core of approximately one hundred and twenty square blocks between the north side of the convention center and the Tarrant County Courthouse.  We concentrated on basic “quality of life” parameters like increasing walkability, mitigating barriers, eliminating vacant street frontage, and determining opportunities for contextual infill with a variety of private, commercial and civic uses.

[Speaking of civic uses, as a second significant aside, by the end of 1992, our planning scope was expanded to include the analysis of potential sites for a new 2,100-seat multi-use performing arts venue.  Ultimately, we were selected as the design architects for what became the world recognized Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, our first major performance venue, which opened in 1998.  Now among the country’s most accomplished designers for the arts, we look back at Bass Hall with tremendous sense of pride.]

As told by Craig P. Williams, Principal

As we approach the grand opening of Sundance Square next Friday, look for additional Parchment posts with a more detailed look at our 25 years of planning and some of our more notable buildings from the plan’s implementation. And check out this great video on the history of development in downtown, with special commentary from Ed Bass and David Schwarz. 

One Response to “Prof. Peabody’s Improbable History of Planning: How We Began Working in Fort Worth”
  1. Lars Etzkorn says:

    A great story of great design. We look forward to more. Congrats!

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