The Dr. James Cole Dental Clinic and the Architectural Offerings of John G. York
text and photos by Robyn Arn unless otherwise noted
When I lived in Norman in the ’90s, I found myself in need of a new dentist. I was referred to Dr. Stephen Weichbrocht and knew it would be a good fit immediately upon my first visit. His modest international style office building north of campus corner had plenty of mid-century modern eye candy (especially the mosaic and brushed stainless wall sconces) to distract my mind from the stranger’s fingers in my mouth. To this day I make the trip down to Norman for my dental needs because, along with a terrific staff and service, the experience of that building is always a joy.
(photo by Lynne Rostochil)
Recently I found myself connected via Facebook with Robert Cole, son of the original owner, James C. Cole. Robert is also interested in architecture and had posted pictures of his father’s office, which I immediately responded to:
(Photo by Kathleen Cole. Courtesy Robert Cole)
When asked what he knew or remembered about the building, Robert wrote a wonderful recollection. Following is his story — my comments are in italics:
“I was too little to remember the actual design and construction process of my dad’s new offices. I do remember his previous, cramped offices on the second floor of the City National Bank building on East Main Street. All I knew was that he was excited about building a functional, modern office of his own.
I remember that the architect was connected to the university and that my father was extremely involved in the building’s program/function layout and overall design.” The architect, John G. York, was Dean of Architecture @ OU from 1962 – 1969. We will learn more about him in a bit.
“I also remember some consternation in the neighborhood with such a minimal building being constructed. At that time, the surrounding area was very cohesive with traditional and bungalow-style homes from the 1920s 30’s and 40s. The three large old churches nearby had not yet gone on their demolition spree, knocking down entire blocks of houses and trees to make way for their oversize parking lots.
I learned as I grew up that my dad was determined to be a good neighbor from the beginning. The building was modestly scaled and set back from the street on its corner lot. Off-street parking was only on Webster, and even the parking spaces were well designed and environmentally responsible: two parking spaces together, interrupted by a small square of lawn with a hemlock tree in the center, then a group of three more spaces.
The office was designed to take two completely independent dental practices. The building was divided symmetrically north-to-south with separate entrances on the east and west sides ensuring that there was no confusion between practices. The main difference between my father’s and the other space was that the rear office had an exterior mosaic mural by the entrance and none on its interior, and my father’s office had its larger mosaic inside, on one entire wall of his reception area. Renting the second office generated income which helped offset the overall cost of the building’s construction and maintenance.
Originally, the building’s design was much more rigorous, with a grid of white enameled I-beams that spoke of the functions of the interior. The reception area’s exterior walls were all floor-to-ceiling slightly-tinted glass, framed in stainless steel. The other four modules enclosed three identical examination rooms, plus his personal office. All four of these exterior walls were to be all-brick with no natural light. While privacy was essential for his patients, my father knew that these windowless examination rooms would be oppressively claustrophobia-inducing. …. he spent the majority of his time in these rooms with his patients, and he wanted to be able to look out the windows, just for visual relief:”
“He also liked to see the comings and goings of his patients (and occasionally, he would slide open a window and surprise his more familiar patients by spritzing them with water, using his handheld dental washer).”
Sounds like my kind of dentist!
“This was the only disagreement with York that I’m aware of. My dad had to insist that the string of windows be designed into the front façade, but York resisted. So, when the bricks were being laid, my father watched and waited until the bricks were laid up to the right height, walked over, put his hand out level and said to the contractors, “No higher than this.” That’s how he got his windows. Full disclosure: As an adult, I know that my father had always been given to dramatizing and rewriting family history so I only know this because that’s what he told me. I learned how to tell when he was 100% truthful, because his made-up stories would change over time. This one didn’t. But this story also makes sense. The building would have been much better looking without the windows. And my father agreed that, as an abstract object, it would be a better thing without the addition of windows. York must have had his hands full with my father who was very budget-minded, design-aware and unlike most people, could read technical drawings, elevations and plans, so he was able to anticipate how everything would work on a day-to-day basis. One very nice touch: the sans serif, stainless steel letters of his name, James C. Cole, DDS to the left of the door aligns with the windows to the right.
On Saturday mornings, and after school on week days, my father employed my older sister and brother and me as dental assistant-assistants since his official assistant also functioned as the receptionist. Working in the space was a pleasure; the design lent itself to being easily maintained and sanitary. I remember the offices as always impeccably organized and functional. The interior spaces had an almost mathematical logic.
I have never seen a better designed doctor’s or dental office than my father’s. The reception was the star of the show, with near perfectly sheer-surfaced, book-paneled walnut on its north side and covering the receptionist’s desk/front office corner nook; and on the south side, floor-to-ceiling glass which looked out on a small Asian-inspired, modernist garden enclosure.” Here is a view of the reception desk and the calming view out to the garden enclosure:
“The entire west wall was a colorful abstract-moderne floor-to-ceiling mosaic. The east was the front door (which originally had a small rectangle of mosaic around the knob) and more walnut paneling. The seating and side tables were classic Florence Knoll. In the rear-center was a planter with a large sculptural Sago palm which was constantly picked at and tortured by nervous patients who also picked at the mosaic. My father was always gluing stones back into the mosaic. The floors were industrial gray carpet, although I remember travertine at some point.”
The mosaic wall in Dr. Cole’s front office was taken down during a long-ago renovation and Dr. Weichbrodt was told it had been stored in an attic. He was wondering about it recently but doesn’t yet know its fate. However, the exterior mural, which was designed by York’s wife, Shirley Voekrodt, is still in place:
(photo by Lynne Rostochil)
“Adjacent to the receptionist desk on the north wall, led the hallway which ran the remaining length of the building:”
“On the right were the three examination/procedure rooms and at the end, my father’s personal business office. On the left was storage, a lavatory, the lab with a skylight, storage, and a rest/recuperation room.
Oddly, the front office has been unused for many years and is still unused today. The back office has installed an unnecessary eyesore of a crude wood panel announcing the address, which was originally in stainless steel lettering on the steel-paneled fence facing Symmes.”
The panel he’s talking about was created because the mosaic had lost a large section of pieces. Years ago Dr. Weichbrodt also made some alterations to the windows in the examination rooms on the west side. He did call Arn Henderson at OU for research so the new windows wouldn’t fight the design of the original structure too much. He may not be a mid-century modern purist, but my dentist really does love his building and tries to keep it maintained to the best of his ability.
As for architect John York, the assessor lists the year 1961 for the building, so when he worked on it, York was relatively new in town, having just left Texas in 1960 for a faculty position at the School of Architecture. At that time, he was considered the foremost modernist architect to practice in the lower Rio Grande Valley. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1940 and after holding several positions in Texas and Colorado and serving in Air Force during World War II, settled in Harlingen in 1948 and became a partner with the firm Cocke, Bowman, and York.
York quickly established a reputation for the firm, designing inventive modern buildings that “responded lyrically to the climatic conditions and made a virtue of the generally meager building budgets with which the firm had to work. The exposition of lightweight structural members and technologically produced building components, accented with brilliant color combinations, was the hallmark of York’s style,” according to Texas architectural historian, Stephen Fox. Clinics, elementary schools and shopping centers were mainstays for the firm and created the most publicity (they were profiled in Progressive Architecture in June 1955), but for the entrepreneur John McKelvey, York laid out the Harlingen subdivision of Laurel Park. There he designed a series of dramatic modern houses, among them the McKelvey House (1948), the “House Designed for Living” (1949), the C. P. Thise House (1950), and York’s own house (1952). Both the “House Designed for Living” and the W. B. Uhlhorn residence won a national merit award from the American Institute of Architects in 1951. Here’s an interior shot of the beautiful York house:
(photo courtesy of Progressive Architecture)
Here’s another home that York designed in 1949 that’s located in Port Isabel, outside of Harlingen:
(photo courtesy of Nydia O Tapia-Gonzalez)
The same house today:
(photo courtesy of Nydia O Tapia-Gonzalez)
For more information about this beautiful home, go here: http://lavidavalle.com/architecture/mad-about-mid-century-homes/
In 1952, York also designed Klee Square on the outskirts of downtown Corpus Christi that Texas Highways deemed as one of the most innovative pieces of architecture in the state. With the small shopping center and office complex, “York lyrically evoked the patios and arcades of South Texas’ traditional Mexican architecture with steel-pipe columns, steel-bar joists, and a screened breezeway surrounding a central garden court. York used industrial materials to make modern architecture that was democratically accessible, friendly, and spatially evocative of the region’s indigenous traditions,” according to the article. Here’s a not-so-great Yellow Pages image of the shopping center side of Klee Square:
When Cocke, Bowman, and York dissolved in 1955, York continued working in Harlingen and Corpus Christi until 1960. His independent work at this time included the houses of Bernard Whitman and Antonio Cisneros, Jr., in Brownsville (1955); the Fairway Motor Hotel, McAllen (1956); the Narro-Sánchez Clinic, McAllen (1958); the Petroleum Club, Corpus Christi (1959, with Irwin Don Meyers); and the John Roberts Manufacturing Company plant and office building, Norman, Oklahoma (1960). Here’s an image of the Narro-Sánchez Clinic that we featured in the Mod Blog last December:
In the late ’50s, York began hiring artist Shirley Voekrodt to create mosaics for many of his buildings (you can get a glimpse of one in the above image). She also made this gorgeous abstract creation for his Harlingen National Bank (now the Harlingen Housing Authority) in 1958:
Soon, the two were a couple, and York left his wife and three children and married Voekrodt in Mexico City 1959. According to Stephen Fox, “the dissolution of his marriage to Patsy York in 1958 created tensions and alienated old friends in Harlingen. When, in 1960, York was offered a teaching position at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, he accepted and left Texas, where he never again lived.” As for Shirley, she continued working in Oklahoma and made a number of pieces for residences, apartment foyers, banks, clinics, office buildings and clubs. She even created mosaics for Baptist Hospital and Norman Municipal Hospital. Squadder Lynne has attempted to find her Baptist Hospital piece but has had no luck. If you know where it is, please let us know.
Here’s more of York’s body of work in the Rio Grande Valley: http://rgvmod.com/tag/john-g-york/
York spent the rest of his career in Oklahoma and designed several buildings in Oklahoma City, Moore, and Norman. We are currently researching the locations of these buildings and will have photos of more of York’s Oklahoma work in an upcoming Mod Blog. York died in Norman on February 7, 1980. Four years later, his widow, Shirley Voekrodt York, donated his drawings to the Architectural Drawings Collection of the University of Texas at Austin.
Sadly, many of York’s mid-century masterpieces in Texas have been altered beyond recognition or demolished altogether. We’ll soon see if his Oklahoma work has faired better — we sure hope so!
(A huge thanks to Robert Cole for letting us share his vintage photos and stories with you.)