Hill Country Deco: Modernistic Architecture of Central Texas
    About Hill Country Deco

Geologically, the Texas Hill Country begins west of Austin and northwest of San Antonio where the Balcones Escarpment separates the rugged limestone of the Edwards Plateau from the more fertile Coastal Plain. This website includes the area's two dominant commercial centers as well as counties to the east. This is the region where Austin and San Antonio architects had the most influence, particularly during the Great Depression, when federal programs funded the construction of modernistic government buildings outside major population centers. At the same time, the State of Texas commemorated the centennial of the Texas Revolution with modernistic museums and monuments throughout the area.

Art Deco generally refers to the dominant design movement in the United States from the mid-1920s through 1940, although the late 1920s to 1950 is a more accurate period of influence in Texas. The term "Art Deco" was not used when these buildings were constructed; at the time the style was referred to as "modernistic" or simply "modern" design. British art historian/author Bevis Hillier coined the expression "Art Deco" in the late 1960s when the style was being rediscovered after decades of disdain. Hillier adapted the name from the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the Parisian trade fair that was instrumental in promoting the popularity of modernistic design.

 

About Art Deco

"Art Deco" is a fairly generic term that has come to mean many things to many people. Its imprecision is evident in the number of names applied to the style and its three major subsets.

 
 

Art Deco is the classic modernistic design of the 1920s and early 1930s. It is sometimes called Zigzag Deco or Zigzag Moderne for its distinctive angular detailing. Art Deco buildings are highly ornamented with geometric interpretations of natural forms or stylized examples of ancient and classical architectural ornamentation. Art Deco buildings usually have symmetrical facades. They are vertically oriented and frequently include pylons or towers that emphasize the building's height. Highly ornamented metalwork is common, particularly around entrances and store windows. Interior decoration frequently includes elaborate grilles and banisters, colorful murals and polished stone. Pyramidal or stepped roofs with lanterns, beacons or pinnacles are characteristic of Art Deco design especially on the stepped-back skyscrapers of the period. The style is generally found on urban commercial buildings and some public buildings begun before the onset of the Great Depression.

 
 

The architecture usually associated with 1930s Hollywood musicals is sometimes called Streamline Deco or Streamline Moderne for its sweeping curves. Art Moderne was inspired by industrial design, particularly the era’s new airliners, ocean liners and aerodynamic automobiles. Ornamentation is very restrained, especially when compared to 1920s Art Deco buildings. Stucco is commonly used to create smooth exterior wall surfaces; lines incised into the stucco suggest architectural elements, such as columns and cornices. Art Moderne buildings are usually asymmetrical with a horizontal orientation, flat roofs and at least one rounded corner. Casement windows are often continuous around corners. Glass block and round windows are also common. Art Moderne is usually found on suburban commercial buildings and the relatively few modernistic houses built in the 1930s.

WPA Deco is the result of two frequently competing influences: changing architectural tastes and cost concerns. The style has been somewhat derogatively called "starved classicism" because it features simplified classical detailing applied to traditional building forms. The style is also sometimes called PWA Deco or PWA Moderne.

 
 

The names refer to two major components of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) was the largest New Deal agency. The WPA directly employed millions of Americans to construct schools, parks, roads and public buildings.
Public art is an important component of many PWA and WPA projects. The most familiar examples are the murals painted in large and small post offices across the country.

WPA Deco combines the symmetry and squared angles of Art Deco design with Art Moderne's horizontal orientation, flat roofs and clean lines. The classically inspired ornamentation is stylized along modernist lines. There is more ornamentation than in Art Moderne design, but not as much as on Art Deco buildings. The style is found on post offices, courthouses, schools and city halls that were designed and built with federal assistance during the Great Depression.


Photos on this page by David Bush
Hill Country Deco cover image courtesy of TCU Press

Hill Country Deco was produced with support from the Fondren Endowed Preservation Services Fund for Texas of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.