A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: Shell
In the dogleg of a modest single-story office building at 700 Asp Avenue, where Duffy Street begins, just south of Asp Avenue’s own dogleg on its way to downtown Norman, Oklahoma, I worked for nearly two years in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. All our neighbors, in a building you might mistake for a mom-and-pop motel, were dentists, as I recall. [One was an oral surgeon who botched the removal of my wisdom teeth but he’s probably dead now. It’s curious the building is still there.] Fred — known to most of us as Shell — maintained his practice because that’s what architects do: practice, until they get it right, which, by and large, Fred had managed to do. I got $2.00 an hour.
Fred’s clientele were primarily residential — middling to large houses (but certainly not by today’s standards) for university faculty, doctors and the occasional banker. We designed a modest clinic for six doctors and the home for retiring O.U. President George Cross. I was the office go-fer, lowest on the pecking order, beneath Bill Peterson and Richard Kenyon, but because my desk was closest to the phone I was de facto receptionist and taker of messages. I was never asked to do floors or toilets but would have because Fred was a nice guy. He took me on, I think, because we had got along very well in his other occupation, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma just down the street. A little background seems in order.
FRED DAVID SHELLABARGER [1918-2002]
Shell’s obituary will acquaint you with the outline of his life. Frankly, it says more than I knew as his student-employee. He was born in Decatur, which connects us as sons of Illinois and, besides, Decatur is the site of two iconic Prairie School houses associated with Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. I never asked if those houses had influenced his career choice. Architecture, of course, was our primary link: he was what I thought I wanted to be. What I didn’t know then was that teaching, Fred’s “other” job, would be our ultimate connection.
During nearly two years in his office, I learned a lot about architecture: how to design and how not to do business. The nicest house of those two years was the retirement home for O.U. president George L. Cross and his wife Cleo. If you should stop by, I designed the mailbox. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence, where his strong suits were kitchens and bath-dressing rooms, the wet places of the house. If those are gendered space, Fred was a better woman than most in my acquaintance. His kitchens were generous and efficient, without the acreage consumed by today’s McMansions. His bath-dressing rooms [the phrase “en suite” makes me gag] were equipped with fixtures and built-ins that avoided the scalar issues of ancient Rome. I learned first-hand the anthropometrics of intimacy, the calisthenics of cleanliness and cuisine. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence. That level of detail has its downside, however: such custom cabinetry does not come cheaply. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him these and many other lessons that I’ve passed along in my own studio classes.
About 1968, the regional A.I.A. held its annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A, a resort at Lake of the Ozarks. A few of us went as student representatives but Fred also gave me a letter of introduction to some of his earlier clients in Springfield, Missouri. Mrs Shellabarger, Gladys, was from there. I remember being welcomed into two incredible mid-century modern works that were even closer to the Wrightian ideal I treasured than were the houses in Norman. Here also was the chance to meet satisfied clients who spoke warmly of their relationship with their architect; to truly understand the work, talk to the client.
As a faculty member at O.U., Fred taught in three areas: 1) fourth-year design studio, 2) a course that blended interiors and landscape, and 3) the first two of four architectural history courses — Egypt through the Gothic. [William S. Burgett, a.k.a., Billy B, covered Renaissance through Modern, largely I think because he liked saying FRAN•SWAH•PREM•EE•AY instead of Francis the First; Bill was insecure that way.] Shell was the sort of design instructor I’d like to have been: supportive, non-judgmental, prescriptive without being presumptive. Whatever success I may have had came from studio experiences with Fred, Bill and D.B.V., alias Dean Bryant Vollendorf. [More about him another time.] ARCH 273 was the finest design studio experience of my undergraduate life. Fall semester fourth year, it was eighteen weeks of eighteen week-long projects — a Gatling gun of quick intensive studies, assigned on Friday and due the following week, when the next would be assigned. I learned to live with choice.
During a crit Shell was poetry with a pencil; ideas flowed with no effort whatsoever, a light lattice-work of lines emerging, one of which eventually became the right one. I’m shocked to realize how, even today, I’m still trying to draw like him. His treatment of architectural history, however, I frankly don’t recall; a lot of slides in a darkened room. If that experience played any role in my eventual career, it was his example that someone could be both an architect and passionate about its history.
I saw Fred briefly in the winter of 1992-1993 when I should have thanked him but didn’t.