The Architect and his Community. Cocke, Bowman & York : Harlingen, Texas

This article was published by Progressive Architecture 36 (June 1955) 102-115
The further one dips into the State of Texas, the more one finds the extraordinary. In studying the firm of Cocke, Bowman & York, of Harlingen – in the Lower Rio Grande Valley just 35 miles north of Brownsville and the Mexican Border – we are dipping just about as far south as one can go in that fabulous State. And, as might be expected, the resources of the area and the growth of the city are both phenomenal. But most extraordinary of all, from our point of view, is that Cocke, Bowman & York have been able to contribute such remarkable refined architecture (subsequent pages) to a region that is so hustling and youthful.
Actually, the fact that Harlingen is a young city was a prime reason why Bartlett Cocke, Walter C. Bowman, and John G. York decided to practice there. As Bowman puts it: “The advantages of this area lie largely in the fact that it is new territory….that it is progressive and not bound by a long period of tradition.” All three partners comment that there is some disadvantage in comparative geographic remoteness; but, as Harlingen is the fast-growing center of the Lower Valley, this is slight and will diminish as the region continues to prosper. Now, oil and cotton and the tourist trade vie with the well-known agricultural and food-packing industries of the region. As someone scribbled on a piece of Chamber of Commerce literature that was sent to us: “It is now a landscape of beautiful citrus orchards…afraid oil is going to ruin our handsome farms; but , you know, oil can sure make a cornfield pay off!”

Cocke, serving chiefly as business adviser for the firm, received his B.S. in Architecture from the University of Texas. Subsequently he attended MIT for two years as a special student. After working in several offices and entering a partnership with Marvin Eickenroht, he conducted his own practice in San Antonio. Bowman came to work with the firm in 1939, and in 1945 the firm of Cocke & Bowman was established in Harlingen. Bowman, whose chief responsibilities are in the engineering end of the firm’s work, was born in Waterproof, Louisiana. He received his B.S. in Engineering from Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, studied for a year at Tulane, and was graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. After working with a landscape architect, he joined the office of Bartlett Cocke, in San Antonio, and ever since has been associated with Cocke in some capacity, becoming his partner in 1945. During the war years, he and Cocke worked with the engineering firm of W.E. Simpson Co., on jobs for the U.S. Engineers.

York’s training included two years at North Texas Agricultural College and five years at the University of Texas, where he was graduated with the degree of B.S. in Architecture. York’s main function is design. After working with various architects in Austin, the State Parks Board, and the National Youth Administration (Architectural Department), he was with the Austin Company in their Houston office for a time, and, later, with the U.S. Air Force. Following this tour of duty, he worked in the offices of G. Meredith Musick and of James Roger Musick in Denver for two years, during which he also taught design at the University of Denver. At the end of this period, he migrated to Harlingen where he conducted his own practice, until joining Cocke & Bowman as a partner, in 1949.

York tells us that with Cocke, as business designer, ‘we are able to carry a job through completely with close coordination in design, materials, structure, and mechanics.” During the time the work shown in this issue was produced, they were assisted by a secretary and five draftsmen – two of the men holding Texas architectural licenses. “On large projects,” York reports, “once the program was set and preliminary talks terminated, the job was processed with very little consultation among the partners. However, during this phase, the engineer and designer worked in close harmony and, in many cases, engineering improbabilities dictated the design trend.”

Possibly York sums up the firm’s architectural goals most acutely when he comments: “My design philosophy has, from school days, stemmed from the idea of expressing structure, simplifying details, omitting unessentials, and striving for economy with stability by avoiding the use of too much “architecture.” I am not at all in accord with monumentality of stylized period work for any reason whatsoever….Thus our society need not be burdened with heavy, ornate buildings which it cannot afford to destroy.”

Whether or not this is a full statement of the case, the firm’s completed work exemplifies the wisdom of this fundamental approach – and clearly demonstrates their ever-present concern with structural expression.