Sunday, June 1, 2014

Jewel Box on the Plains

Schwaller House (designed by Edward Buehler Delk) - Hays, Kansas

Jewel Box on the Plains
essay and photos
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

          I was worried we would be late to our appointment in Hays, Kansas. The car’s speedometer needle was stuck on eighty while we rocketed along I-70. Travel in Western Kansas would have been much different in the 1920s, with many unpaved roads where Model T Fords and Pierce Arrows crawled across the prairie, succumbing to rough conditions and extreme temperatures. Edward Buehler Delk, an architect from Kansas City, must have dealt with the perils when driving to Hays, Kansas, to meet with his client, Henry Schwaller, to design a house for the successful businessman and lumberman on the high plains.

          Fortunately, in January of 2013, I was able to travel more quickly and comfortably on my way to meet Dr. Michael Meade (Associate Professor – Fort Hays State University), the current resident of the Schwaller house designed by Edward Buehler Delk. Dr. Meade, the grandson of Henry Schwaller, had invited my wife and me to see the house, attend a luncheon with invited guests, and give a lecture on Delk’s architectural accomplishments during his Kansas City practice (1920-1956).

          Delk, a talented architect from Philadelphia, had moved to Kansas City in 1920 to develop a master plan for the J.C. Nichols mixed-use development, The Country Club Plaza. He established a private practice in Kansas City which allowed him to pursue all of his architectural interests. His projects varied from private residences to participating in the national architectural competition to design the Liberty Memorial, Kansas City’s monument to the sacrifices made in the World War I. Delk was developing the master plan for the Country Club Plaza and designing the first two Plaza buildings when Henry Schwaller contacted him.

Country Club Plaza - shopping district - Kansas City, Missouri

          The wheat crop yields were abundant in the early 1920s in Western Kansas, and Schwaller had promised his wife that when the market price per bushel of Hard Red Winter Wheat surpassed $2.00, their reward would be a new house designed and built specifically for them.  Once the wheat price exceeded the $2.00 level, Henry’s next concern was how to go about finding an architect well-versed in designing high-quality residences.

Grand Staircase - Schwaller House
          According to Dr. Meade, Henry Schwaller told the foreman at the lumberyard to go to Kansas City and make the next purchase of wholesale lumber for their business in Hays. He also asked him to query his peers at the lumber yards and find out where the large houses were being built, and who was designing them. The foreman returned and told Schwaller that Edward Buehler Delk’s name had come up numerous times. Delk was developing a reputation for designing houses of the highest quality of design and construction in the Kansas City area, specifically in the new Country Club District, south of Brush Creek. 

Dining Room - Schwaller House
          Schwaller contacted Delk and requested that he design a new residence for his family. He told him that he wanted a tasteful, yet understated residence to be built on a corner lot on the north side of Hays. Delk focused on beaux-arts style of design which revisits European classical details, and he was well-versed in many styles using his innate sense of scale and proportion to create a design that suited each client’s needs.

Well-tailored façade of Schwaller House - Hays, Kansas

          He worked his magic for Henry Schwaller, and created a neatly-wrapped “jewel box” of light stucco, with red brick arches outlining the doors and windows. A horizontal band of brick wraps the house and establishes a façade line between the first and second floor, while the red Spanish tile creates the lid and harmonizes with the brick. The construction was completed in 1923. The year is significant, because that is when Delk began to focus on high-end residential design, and it was two years before Delk would land one of the most important clients of his career – Waite Phillips, a Tulsa oilman.

          The house appears much smaller from the street than it actually is. The single story appendages on each end and a rear two-story extension add considerable square footage. The rustic shutters on the second floor windows are a nice accent to the tailored façade. One of Delk’s signature items, decorative eaves at the roof overhang, gives a sense of scale to the exterior.
Decorative eaves - Schwaller House - Hays, Kansas
designed by Edward Buehler Delk

Decorative Eaves - Country Club Plaza - Kansas City, Missouri
Mill Creek Parkway Building, designed by Edward Buehler Delk
          The house today has been well maintained and is in mint condition, both inside and out. Even the original sprinkler system for the lawn is in working condition. Ironically, there is very little lumber in the construction, which seems unusual for a lumberman’s house. Delk was known to stress the idea of permanence and the use of fire-resistive materials, including clay block.

          Dr. Meade’s cousin, Henry Schwaller, IV, gave us a grand tour of the house. I was amazed at the condition of the interior, with most of the original light fixtures and chandeliers still in use. The interior furnishings add to the ambience of the 1920s residence, reminding visitors of a slower, gentler pace of life. Dr. Meade explained the south Sun Room was originally an open porch, and in 1984 he contracted with a German cabinet maker who enclosed the porch with arched windows that were compatible with the existing house.  

Schwaller House - Sun Room

          After the tour through the house, the host and guests greeted us with champagne in the parlor, where lively conversation ensued. It was an event that was befitting of the house and its history, and I could picture Delk enjoying just such an occasion, with pipe in hand, joining in the discussion of art and architecture.  A formal luncheon (with place cards) was served in the dining room, followed by more discussion and dessert. It was a grand meal, and my wife and I were warmly received and made to feel at home.  

Living Room/Parlor - Schwaller House

          When dessert was finished, we gravitated to the breakfast room where I gave the lecture and digital slide presentation titled “Edward Buehler Delk: Architect and Gentleman.” After such a big meal I was concerned that some of the guests might nod off during the lecture, but my fears were assuaged as all were attentive, and many had questions and comments at the end.

          We thanked our host, Dr. Meade, for the wonderful day and said “good bye” to his collies in the backyard. As I drove away from the house, the tires began to hum softly on the brick pavement. I accelerated onto I-70, where the dotted pavement lines seemed incongruous with the warm, 1920s ambience we left behind. My thoughts wandered to the “jewel box” in Hays as I made a half-hearted attempt to stay under the speed limit.

Curious Collies

Image of a Bygone Era
(photo courtesy of Henry Schwaller, IV)