On February 18, 2020, the Shelby County Historical Society held it monthly meeting with Carol Bounds as the guest speaker. Carolyn shared a brief history on the architect, Raiford Stripling, who lived in San Augustine, Texas. She states her major source of information for this program was the book”“Restoring Texas, Raiford Stripling’s Life and Architect”.
Carolyn began her program by stating she was not an expert on history, architecture, or Raiford Stripling. She was just an adamant admirer. Her interest in Raiford began when they first met in the 1980’s to discuss repairs on their home in Center. She stated she was awed-struck by everything in his office, the building itself (which was the 1894 old jail), bookcases, hinges, pottery, column pieces, brick shards, coffee table, shotguns, and 1927 photos of A&M cadets. Mr. Stripling himself was a gentleman, a gentleman with a presence. He had been trained in the Beaux Art expertise of architecture to carefully compose the elements of a building. Mr. Stripling was dignified; he knew who he was and what he was about.
Some facts about San Augustine. It is steeped in history. In the 1700’s, San Augustine had the Mission Delores where the Spanish attempted to mission and convert the Indians. In the 1800’, it became the area of culture flowing west out of the deep south. The travelers fed into the Camino Real which started at Natchitoches and travelers would cross the area known as no-man’s land. Once they had safely traveled though this dangerous area, they would then catch a ferry to cross over the Sabine River, landing at Pendleton. When the state was building Pendleton bridge after the lake was formed, Mr. Stripling was one of the leaders who petition to make sure the bridge went exactly where it had originally been. Pendleton was only 15 miles from San Augustineand was considered the St. Louis of Texas, the gateway to the west. Some of the travelers passing through would see the rich red dirt, the forest and were reminded of home. These settlers decided to stay. As things progress, San Augustine become very prosperous. San Augustine became an economical and culture center. In 1837, San Augustine had three universities. San Augustine became a town in 1833 and was the first town in Texasto be laid out on the American plan; that’s the courthouse in the middle and all the other building around it like we have in Shelby County.
In 1838, a guy come to town from supposedly Philadelphia and his name is Augustus Phelps. He was an architect, designer slash builder. Phelps was an architect who crafted classical Greek Revival architecture. He set a standard of excellence in material and design. He was contracted when he came to San Augustine to build 5 houses. He probably built more but at least 3 of the homes he built are still standing. The three are the Cullen House, Blount House, and the Cartwright house.
An example of the Greek Revival is the Supreme Court building in Washington DC. Some of the characteristics of Greek Revival are columns, pediment (that is the triangle you see over porches or end gables), molding, pilasters, simple cornices, entablature (above the columns-three part) and triglyphs (were the ends of the wooden beams of the roof), and the metopes were the spaces between the beams. Phelps invented his own design to add to his building which was the Phelps 5-pointed star. On the Blount house, there is a big 5-pointed star above the door because we think Mr. Blount was wealthy and connected.
Raiford and his son in their architectural practice would also take the Phelps 5-pointed star and place it on their buildings. If one didn’t want to build a new building, you could take an old farmhouse add some columns, a pediment on the porch or on the ends, and these changes would add harmony, dignity and elegance. Mr. Raiford embraced this style of architecture as this was the style taught at Texas A&M.
San Augustine prospered for a while but during the time of the Regulator-Moderator War (1839-1844) markets were destroyed. The area goes from a boom to a bust. San Augustine never really recovered. Ironically Phelps’ work was saved by the bust, no one would afford to build a new house or tear down an old house. All these old structures remained in place, a wealth of historic buildings that was protected by this stagnation for at least the next hundred years.
San Augustine and its structures were saved when a native son was born there in 1910. Raiford Leak Stripling would immortalize the kind of architecture that Phelps created. He would embrace the Greek Revival. Raiford did not push his predilections on his clients. Even if he did some modern work, he would sprinkle somewhere at least one detail of Beaux Art on these houses. He said his job as an architect was to make things look good.
Who was Raiford? His parents came from Georgia in the 1850’s. His father was Raiford Nichols Stripling and his mother was Winfrey Leak. Winfrey’s father was Dr. Leak who was a physician here in Center at one time. Railford’s father was a very successful businessman. Hecame to San Augustine in 1903 from Nacogdoches. A great fire in 1890 had destroyed part of the town including the pharmacy, so he came there looking for good business prospects. For 26 years, he was also the county judge and an organizer of Deep East Texas Electric Coop.
Raiford was born in 1910 and his brother Robert born in 1912. Then there was a seven-year gap where no children were born and suddenly every two years a girl was born for a total of 4 girls. Raiford was one of six children in this family. Raiford had an almost privileged childhood with proprietary access to the soda fountain. Raiford’s father had a fleet of 5 cars. Raiford drove at age 8 and had a car that his daddy bought him at age 11. Raiford was very bright and skipped 3rd grade. When he was in second grade, Raiford discovered he had the ability to draw. He stated, “I could just do it and I started doing it”.
As parents, we wonder what will influence our children in their choice of a career. For Raiford such an experience happened in 1924. The Santa Fe Railroad and the 4-H sponsored a contest and he had a first prize tomato that won the contest. It was a trip to Chicago Livestock Exposition by train. There Raiford had a lot of first: first train ride, first time in big city, and first time to stay in a tall building. He had the opportunity to see Marshall Fields and this left a vivid impression on him. So, when he returned to San Augustine, he had a good idea of what he wanted to do in life, not a doctor like his grandfather but an architect. His vision as an artist would be built and used, and he could make a living at it.
Raiford decided on A&M but his dad wanted him to go to Rice. Raiford was very determined in whatever he undertook and because of this determination his nickname was Hammer. So off to Texas A&M he went. He was schooled there in the Beaux Art method of architecture. He graduated in 1931 and this was during the great depression. He was an outstanding student who won numerous awards. He got to design the senior class ring. He was the only one to get a job when he graduated as an architect in 1931 of that class. He started the program as a freshman with over 100 students but by the next year, his sophomore year, there was only 20. Raiford worked hard but he also played hard too. He could put away his share of bootleg and throughout his life that would haunt him. One of his mentors while in college was a very heavy drinker, Vosper. They were very good friends with a great work relationship but some of the drinking rub off on Raiford.
Raiford’s first job was with Shirley Simons, architectin Tyler. He had met Simons in San Augustine in 1927 when Simons was called to San Augustine to do some work on the square. Raiford beginning salary was $10 a week. Then in the fall after he had graduated, he was called back to Texas A&M. The head of architecture department had noticed Raiford and was aware of his relationship with chief designer, Vosper who was from New York and a heavy drinker. A&M hired Raiford to make sure Vosper got on the job. Raiford also did drafting and other things. Raiford drafted the ornamental animals on some of the buildings, such as cows and horses done in tile. He learned a lot while working with Vosper.
Vosper and Stripling worked on the building expansion at Texas A&M designing the west wing of the Administration building himself. At the University of Texas, Vosper and Stripling designed the library in the main building and the tower. Raiford helped the police in 1966 when Whitman was shooting students from the tower on the U.T. campus. Stripling stated, “I knew every stone he was hiding behind up there; I had detailed all of that thing”.
Jobs continued after the A&M building program but now the Depression was in full force. For 6 years, Raiford worked for the Park Service in one job after another. Raiford worked on Fort Parker in Mexia and was hired in 1935, as a 25-year-old, to help Vosper with the reconstruction of the Goliad Espiritu Mission.
The state of Texas passed a law requiring architects to be registered with a licensed in 1937. The law came about because of the New London school explosion where 295 teachers and students were killed. Raiford then stated, “I have a license to starve on my own.”
He had his eyes on another project, the Presidio Bahia at Goliad. He always wanted to do that type of work. But first let me tell you about a young girl Raiford met in 1940 named Roberta Rayland who was from Johnson, Texas but living in Goliad. They married in 1941 but with the start of WWII his work in Goliad was cut short. FDR redirected all national priorities to the war efforts. Everyone mobilized for war and there was a need for architects. Raiford took his new wife and “Miss Tucker”, one of his hunting dogs, and reported to Washington DC naval yards where he worked with a Lt. Commander Peterson in the camouflage unit. Peterson hated heights and planes so to guide in the camouflage design, Peterson and Railford climbed the Washington Monument to look down on their camouflage work.
In 1943, while still living in DC, the Striplings had a son born named Railford Ragland (nickname Raggie). Mr. Stripling stated, “He, Raggie, was forced to come into this world as a Yankee, but we got him back to Texas as fast as we could.”
After WWII, Raiford returned to San Augustine and designed lots of new houses, schools, institutions, and churches. He attracted a loyal following. He restored the Ezekiel Cullen House in 1952. From 1952-1962, he did more to bring an awareness and appreciation to his hometown than anyone else. He organized the San Augustine City Historical Society, worked to have 34 San Augustine structures designated as landmarks, and spearheaded the drive for Mission Deloris. He could not only crusade for the Mission but could do the restoration/preservation
This is just some of the information shared by Carolyn Bounds about the life and work of Raiford Leak Stripling. For the rest of the story, please come to the Shelby County Museum on Pecan Street to view a video of this presentation.