Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Meeting of the Minds

Shadows of Elpidio Rocha and Greg Larson on a Sacramento sidewalk


While researching the Kansas City architect, Edward Buehler Delk, I was told that an eighty-seven-year-old man named Elpidio Rocha, who once knew Delk, was living in Sacramento.  I contacted Elpidio and discovered that in 1953 he was a twenty-seven-year-old engineer/architect working for the Kansas City Parks Department when he met Delk (1885-1956).  At that time, Delk was a consultant for the Parks Department and was nearing the end of his architectural career.

This blog posting is a brief memoir of my visit with Elpidio Rocha, and is not intended as a full assessment or review of the careers of Rocha or Delk.  The goal is to share the experience of my time with Elpidio and my thoughts on how it affected me.

The visits occurred during February 14th and 15th, 2013, in the second floor atrium at The Inn Off Capitol Park, in Sacramento, California, near Elpidio’s apartment.  We also met on the evening of February 14th, when I drove us to dinner in the area called Old Sacramento.


A Meeting of the Minds

non-fiction research and memoir
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

I’m not a person who gets easily excited, but after making contact with Elpidio Rocha via phone and email, I was more than intrigued at the possibility of meeting him face-to-face.  The eighty-seven-year-old engineer/architect/artist’s mind was sharp.  He was full of energy and had much to tell about architecture, politics, Kansas City, and life in general.  Not only had he known Edward Buehler Delk, but they had long conversations and Elpidio was mentored by him. His recollections would add a big piece to the research puzzle that I had been crafting of Delk.  In February of 2013, during a trip to San Francisco, I scheduled a two-day visit with Elpidio in Sacramento.

At our first meeting, we ate lunch at a small deli just a block from my hotel.  Elpidio began the discussion on a variety of topics, and our minds traveled over decades, a journey through an intellectual landscape of design, politics and history.  Early on in the conversation I knew that our interests were similar, yet different, and our thoughts on architectural design were simple, yet complex.

After lunch, we took a leisurely walk in the warm winter sun, our shadows side by side as we made our way along the sidewalk to the hotel to continue the discussion.

Elpidio’s childhood stories reveal much about him, his culture, and how he established his passion for science and art.   He was born at 23rd and Holly in the Mexican-American Barrio in Kansas City in 1925, where poor education, subservient jobs and ongoing discrimination were dished out to the community by those in the majority.

Elpidio’s parents believed in a good education, both from school and from quality time spent with the family.  He remembers meetings at home to discuss various topics, with different family members assigned to lead each gathering. 

He has memories of time spent with his father during trips around the city, especially the time they went to see the circus when it came to town.  They watched the elephants and men unload the train cars and erect the small village for the performers and staff.  His father could not afford tickets to see the big-top performance, so he informed Elpidio that the activities “back stage” were much more interesting.  Elpidio remembers the sights and smells of walking through the commissary tent, of watching the clowns practice with their colorful props, and of seeing the raised pedals in the car operated by a dwarf clown.

During elementary school, Elpidio’s parents transferred him from the school in the Barrio to Lowell School, which was located near Penn Valley Park, in the German-American community.   An open-air wing had been added to the school for children at risk of getting tuberculosis.  Elpidio’s aunt had died from the disease, and his parents believed the open-air school was a good prescription for him.  He remembers the windows in the classrooms being fully open during the winter, and students were given special meals, cold showers, and hooded clothes.  He thrived in the educational environment, but remembers the German-Americans yelling at him to “go back to Mexico” as he walked near the school.

His teacher, Miss Gladys Blunk, noticed Elpidio’s artistic talent and she was able to get him a scholarship for Sunday classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and later for classes at the Kansas City Art Institute.  Wilbur Niewald was one of his classmates at Lowell School.  Both he and Elpidio would become future instructors at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Elpidio saw the world from two perspectives: the Barrio view and the “cultural world” of the majority.  At the age of eight, he struggled with what he described as a “painful racist environment,” and he remembers several times when he sought out a darkened gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, sat on a bench, and confronted his emotions as he focused on a sculpture of the Shiva dancing on the monsters of ignorance

Shiva Nataraja
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

As his artistic talent grew, Elpidio’s father showed him the Country Club Plaza.  He pointed to the Spanish-style buildings and told Elpidio to “unlock these people from their cages,” referencing those who perpetuated the use of architectural symbols of the European design, symbols for those in a position of power.  In retrospect, it is ironic that when Elpidio began his professional career as an architect, he came to know and respect Edward Buehler Delk, who had created the Country Club Plaza master plan.

The Country Club Plaza - Kansas City, Missouri

The professional career of Elpidio has been an interesting journey, and what is mentioned here just scratches the surface.  He not only “unlocked some cages,” but he also rattled a few during his career while sharing his design philosophy to wed art and science to create an organic, sustainable and democratic architecture for the public. 

After studying architecture, engineering and humanities at Kansas State University, he obtained an engineering degree in 1951 and began working at the Kansas City Engineering Department, while working at a structural engineer’s office at night and on weekends.  He accepted a job in the Kansas City Parks Department in 1953, where he met Delk.

Elpidio’s remembrances of Delk confirmed one of my conclusions, that Delk was a true gentleman . . . but our meeting also revealed something new to me.  Elpidio believes that in 1953, the sixty-eight-year-old Delk was tired of the Beaux Arts style of design, and may have been tired as a practicing professional.  Delk had a small office in the Parks Department, as a consultant.  Six months each year, Delk and his wife travelled to Europe.

          Elpidio took Delk’s marketing advice to heart and in the 1960s he began his own professional practice.  He also taught design at the Kansas City Art Institute.  One of his projects was to design a park on the 27th and Madison site where Lowell School had been.  He privately dedicated the project to his mother and to the art teacher, Miss Blunk.  Unfortunately, the park was demolished when a freeway was extended towards downtown Kansas City, Missouri. 

          He was also influenced by the organic designs of Bruce Goff, and they became friends.

          In the late ’60s he became the lead designer on the Urban Renewal Agency – Center City Project for the downtown mall in Kansas City, Kansas.  It received mixed reviews depending upon the social, cultural, or artistic viewpoint of the reviewer.

          Elpidio then focused his career towards teaching and instructing, and he moved to the west coast, where he taught at several different institutions:

  •          California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo, California and Pomona, California
  •            The Oakland School of Arts – Oakland, California
  •          University of California - Davis, California
  •            University of Southern California – Los Angeles, California
  •            University of Oregon – Eugene, Oregon

          For a brief time in 1978, he took a break from his academic career to become the architect for the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez.

          On the second day of my interview with Elpidio, I showed him the historical slides of Delk and his career.  He shared with me that he did not agree with Delk’s Beaux Arts design style, but he respected him.  Delk was an honest man and shared with Elpidio his method for obtaining clients.  Delk told him, “Wash your hands before you meet with clients.  Wear the style of clothes they wear, drive the types of cars they drive, and eat at restaurants they frequent.”  It was valued advice that Elpidio used in his early career.

          We sat beside each other on a sofa in the hotel atrium, with the laptop computer in front of us.  I displayed the 1951 picture of Delk standing at Starlight Theatre, his last major design.  Elpidio looked at the picture and spoke in a soft, reverent tone, “Oh, Eddie, you were quite a guy.”  In that moment, it seemed as if sixty years were washed away, as if he wanted to pick up the conversation that had been silent for decades.

Edward Buehler Delk - Starlight Theatre - 1951
(archive photo courtesy of Starlight Theatre)
         I was overcome with emotion but held back the tears.  I realized that my journey to research Delk had introduced me to unexpected people and places.  My research back into history has taught me more about life and how I fit into it.  Delk was from the generation of Elpidio’s father.  Elpidio is from the generation of my father.  In our Sacramento meeting, Elpidio and I connected as professionals, as artists and gentlemen, sharing cross-generational and cross-cultural wisdom.  

          We said our “good-byes” and I drove out into the California sunshine, a better person for having met Elpidio Rocha.

Elpidio Rocha - Sacramento, California - February 2013


·        Email correspondence between author and Elpidio Rocha from late 2012 and early 2013.

·        Meetings between author and Elpidio Rocha on February 14th and 15th, 2013, in Sacramento, California.

·        entrel√≠neas, vol. 2 no. 1-2, 1972, Penn Valley Community College, Kansas City, Missouri.