I was delivered by the same doctor that delivered my Dad way in the middle of a flatland nowhere West Texas in 1951. Most significantly, I was born to creative and nurturing parents, and if I ever amount to anything much, it’s partially their fault. I’ll write a bit about my happy childhood, because, to me, it seems important.
Architecturally speaking, there’s nothing much to learn from in Midland, Texas, however, because of the "oil money" the school system was well-funded and able to hire excellent teachers. I received a phenomenally good education and I will forever credit my High School Art teacher, a Mrs. Parker, for inspiring the love of art and beauty I now enjoy and for the deep encouragement she blessed on myself and others. The boy scouts were also shockingly well funded and expertly led. I spent a great deal of time in the outdoors with fellow scouts and also my family and friends, contributing to a love for nature that shapes my creativity, in spite of the concrete and steel materials of my trade. In my early years my parents weren’t well off and the scouts facilitated constant constructive activity...you’d be surprised to hear the details of this. The city also had youth centers where teens could go for a wide array of activities at little or no cost...I am absolutely thankful I grew up in Midland, but I’m glad I’m not there now.
I wanted to be a race car driver and pursued racing a bit as a youth, but never had the money for proper equipment. Also, I don’t tolerate pain so well, and it hurts to wreck, and wrecking is inevitable in that game. Being a bit of a jokester I also thought I might want to be a comedian, but how? Look at Midland, Texas...it’s truly the middle of nowhere (only New Mexico was nearby). Every other part of the world might as well have been on a different planet, and the rest of the world was just places you saw on tv...places you’ll never go to, it seemed.
My father was a talented advertising artist who was eventually trained in sales and as an Interior Designer by one of his Employers. My mom, who had always created a rich environment for us (a brother and sister, too) at home, eventually joined my Dad in this career. I was forever helping my Dad build something...as a family we built our own home several times. I loved his artistic ability and "to be like Dad" I tried my artistic hand at an early age and showed great promise. I often helped my parents by measuring and drafting their projects. I even worked for an inventor doing patent drawings. At about the age of 14 or so I pondered career choices...Artist or Architect? I decided on the latter because I guess I think big, and also was inspired by library books I saw on Frank Lloyd Wright and oddly enough, Spanish Architect, Antonio Gaudi. Midland had an incredible public library and I loved to go there on Saturdays with my Mom. It also had a small museum with some real shrunken heads (weird). Despite a population of only 60,000, Midland had numerous high-rise buildings in its’ tiny downtown due only to the egos of the oil executives. There was surely no other reason for the "tall city", as it was known.
Texas Technological University has the best reputation for Architecture schools in Texas and its’ reputation is well deserved. My only other choices were RiceUniversity in Houston and the University of Texas in Austin. Texas is so large Houston or Austin might as well have been on the moon, I didn’t even consider them. Trouble is Texas Tech is in Lubbock, which has a well deserved reputation as the "armpit of the Panhandle"...great people though. I have many life-long friends from my 2½ years there. I transferred to UT...the physical environment in Austin better suited my "nature", and the much looser curriculum requirements suited my interests. I spent much more time in the ArtDepartment than the ArchitectureSchool. The fact that these were on opposite ends of an enormous campus kept me in shape, too. I proud to say I received my Bachelor’s degree with High Honors in 1975.
My financially challenged situation necessitated that I work my way through school. Actually this was possibly fortunate, because my training went far beyond the academic and made it easy for me to find work after graduation. Because of my natural talent I designed numerous major projects, in spite of my low-status as a student. I guess was something of a "privileged character" at the University and was allowed to get hours of credit and payment for working with the Dean of the Business School, George Kozmetsky and his Architect Roeland Roessner on a "Think Tank" development. While I’m mentioning people who nurtured and encouraged me during my school years let me also thank several professors who seemed to know I needed help...Professors Calvert, Swan, Taniguchi, and Spencer made a big difference in my life. I served my three year apprenticeship with three varied firms, then passed my Architectural exams in 1978, with very high marks, by the way. I immediately formed my own practice in Austin and started a company back in West Texas with my family building energy efficient homes, which were rather uncommon at the time.
I soon became involved in something that to this day I look at as one of my most fulfilling ventures. With a lady Architect, Karen McGraw, and a contractor, Allen Marburger, I formed a non-profit corporation which leased three old buildings and renovated them solely for the use of artists as studios, including some live/work units. It wasn’t that it made me a lot of money...it didn’t, though it did "save" me a lot of expense and I had a very unusual office for next to nothing. "Designers’ Space" was enormously successful in that it made it possible for numerous creative people to have a home for their efforts and the camaraderie and positive human interaction were unlike anything I’ve ever enjoyed before or since. The Arts Factory in Vegas where I officed for years, except for the higher price tag, does remind me of these places. Eventually escalating real estate prices and governmental urban renewal destroyed our creation and the grass roots network that united so many people for nearly a decade was squashed. I really don’t think to this day that I have recovered from this setback. For a good while I was a real "somebody" and this knocked me right out of the picture and brought my practice to a standstill in 1981.
The construction company failed primarily due to the Neanderthal policies of the real estate appraisers who supposedly had to compare our houses to the energy wasters nearby, without acknowledging the extra expense we put into our homes to save energy. One house was unfairly appraised for less than the pile of receipts showing our expenditures and we couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Banks won’t loan for more than the appraised value. We had to look for cash customers. I won recognition for this work from West Texas Utilities Company two years in a row for creating the most energy efficient homes in Abilene...homes that used 1/3 the electricity of their neighbors, yet I starved while less sophisticated builders made fortunes. I’m still bitter about this...I was a "green" Architect way before it was popular, and now where am I?
I’m going to mention here something a bit out of kilter, perhaps, but it meant a lot to me at the time. In the mid-eighties in Austin, I put my amateur song-writing and guitar-playing hobby to use and formed a rock band called Mass Faction and had more success in the music business than I would have predicted. Did this distract from my success as an Architect? Yes, it probably did, but I don’t regret it, even though the "Warholian"15 minutes is long gone and forgotten. When it wasn’t hell, it was a lot of fun. This came about after moving to Dallas in 1982 and working for one of the absolutely nicest people I’ve ever known, Mr. Robbie Fusch, and it was a terrific job. I also had several close friends, including the favorite girl friend of my whole life, but I hated Dallas and returned to Austin first thing in 1983. I rented a rundown warehouse and somehow found some clients and eventually returned to a somewhat successful state designing office, retail, and residential work. I also did conceptual design and renderings for other Architects as a consultant. I was feeling downright proud of myself by about 1986, doing quite well it seemed, when the Texas economy took its’ predictable periodic bust.
Fate sometimes hinges on the most tenuous and accidental of moments. Had I not had lunch at a certain restaurant one day my whole life would be different today...better or worse? Impossible to tell. I looked up from my enchiladas to see over a partition an old college buddy I had lost track of, Greg Watkins, a fellow Architect. He had moved to California and was very busy and encouraged me to think about moving West as well. I hadn’t hit my slump yet, but stayed in touch with Greg, and when things got really bad he helped me find a job (landed with a phone interview) in Newport Beach with another amazingly charming person, Kennith Clark. I sold half my stuff, stored the rest that wouldn’t fit into my car, and headed to California...even rented an apartment over the phone long distance.
So started a new phase in my life. After about a year I found the most amazing place to live...a travel trailer on a hill on 14 acres across the Coast Highway from the ocean. Turned out that Kennith didn’t really need a person so creative as I, so we parted amicably and I returned to my usual creative consultant status doing conceptual design and renderings for my own Clients and other Architects, including my friend Greg. Greg saved my life a second time, literally, in 1991. I became severely ill and was so out of it and didn’t even realize how ill, but when he came by and saw me he knew it wasn’t good and he helped me down my hill and to a nearby hospital, where I had an emergency appendectomy. I was only hours from death. Thanks Greg!
At one point I joined a prominent firm, Howard F. Thompson Associates, and I loved the work. Their lead designer, Leonard Malmquist was an awesome talent, and although I have my own ideas, I was able to learn from him. I also worked at one point with another super talent, James Adams, while in California, who worked in Historic styles, and I learned a lot from him as well, though I never learned why he is such an ass to his employees. Anyway, when the Gulf War broke out, most of HFTA’s projects were canceled and he had to lay off most his staff, though ordinarily, Howard’s not that type of employer, unlike many of the sweatshop firms in Las Vegas. Howard’s very good to his people, and years later I went back to work for him, running his Las Vegas office.
I moved to Las Vegas in the early nineties to work for a Casino design firm. When I showed up for my first day of work, my employer gave me a map of all the casinos he wanted me to visit in the next three days, some gamble $$$ and the keys to his Ferrari (WOW!!!)…true story! He instructed me to use the valet parking and observe how I’m treated by the casinos, having pulled up in said Ferrari. My first assignment was to design a Mississippi riverboat casino. I’d never designed a boat or a casino, but proved to myself, if no one else, that I’m damn good at doing things I’ve never done before. The project turned out fantastic, and I designed numerous other casinos that year. This boss was a very difficult person, so I moved on to another difficult employer for a year, where I again was able to be very creative in spite of all the unnecessary grief, until the next year, when I worked for an Interior Designer, Ken Murphy who was quite the opposite...a really nice guy. After a year he married a fine gal and moved to Guam or Indonesia or some place like that.
By this time I had developed some contacts and was back in business for myself, when I heard that Howard Thompson had opened an office in Las Vegas. I contacted him...he wanted my creative help and for a couple of years we shared an office. I worked for him half the time and on my own work the other half. He eventually attracted enough work (and better clients) that he offered me full time employment as his Director of Design, a position I thoroughly enjoyed for a number of years. He offered me tremendous opportunity and treated me with the kind of respect we all hope for. We created numerous projects I’ll always be proud of, though I’ll never get much credit for my significant contribution. What happened?
Several factors...HFTA limits its’ practice to office buildings and industrial parks. After seven years of this, I hungered for the opportunity to do something more creative akin to the resort, casino, and restaurant design I enjoyed in years previous. After the 9/11 attacks on this country I love I couldn’t help myself from worrying that I would be laid off again as happened following the Gulf war. Another company, HFTA’s biggest rival, had been "hitting on me" for years at professional and social events, promising a fabulous future if I would join them. My closest friends warned me against making a move, relating to me numerous stories of past indiscretions of this company towards people they knew, but I took a chance anyway. My friends were right. It was a horrible experience I did not deserve. If living well is the greatest revenge, then I haven’t my revenge as yet, but I will, hopefully. After a year with this company I’d had enough, and quit, though I didn’t have a clue as to what I would do.
One important positive about Las Vegas at one time was the steady economy...I’ve found opportunity here and this enabled me to buy a nice home. I bored of looking for work from home though, no matter it is a pleasant place. I gravitated to a great small space downtown in The Arts Factory, which distinctly reminds me of the old buildings Designers’ Space had rebuilt years ago in Austin. I organized and enhanced my portfolio in preparation for interviews, and found the market was seemingly non-existent for a senior level Design Architect locally. Over the course of time those years I’ve was offered top positions in Sacramento, Phoenix, and Newport Beach, but declined because I didn’t care to live in those places. The beach was nice for the years I lived there, and I lucked into a cool place to live, but homes are just too expensive there and I don’t care to rent ever again.
I contacted everyone I could think of to try to cook up some work. Jeff LaPour, a Developer I had worked with previously, was less than thrilled with the design of a few projects he had underway and asked me to "tweak" these through written critiques, sketches and renderings . He did express a high opinion of my design ability. I mentioned an interesting old Bakery down the street that recently went on the market…he said “Get the Key!” He knew the agents personally, we toured the place, and Jeff’s enthusiasm overcame his cautious side. He hired me to redesign it. Jeff loved my ideas and we sailed through planning obtaining some parking and landscaping variances we needed. He started negotiations with the Owner for the building next door, which worked out to be a necessity to make the building comply to code. The building department may well come under some criticism for their interpretations some day, we’ll see…it was extremely hard to get it permitted, though in the long haul not one single thing in the original design proved to violate the code. Westar Architects was hired to help battle the City…most difficult project to permit either of us had ever worked on.
They had been helping me from the start, and took over the project to apply more manpower to it. Someday, I’m convinced this will work out to be a great investment for Mr. LaPour, but it has been very trying for him. The Holsum Lofts Bld’g... has proven a fun addition to the renaissance of downtown Las Vegas…turns out my idea to include a restaurant, now the popular “Lola’s Louisiana Kitchen”, was good one, though it is cramped.
These days I have a few irons in the fire... some very interesting projects, if they "happen". Stay tuned...I remain hopeful I’ll live up to the promise of this talent I’m lucky to have and hard pressed to fully utilize.
H. Stephen Jackson / Architect and Human
October 16, 2013
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