Owen James Trainer Southwell was a talented but relatively unknown architect who practiced in Atlanta, Georgia, Beaumount, Texas, and New Iberia, Louisianna in the first half of the twentieth century. Although Southwell has received little attention, the buildings that are attributed to him are worthy of attention and preservation. Although Southwell worked in Atlanta for only a dozen years, he left numerous buildings that were among the best of their time, and he also had an interesting connection with two other architects, Henry Hornbostel and Daniel H. Bodin, that were important to Atlanta’s development.
Southwell was born on September 20, 1892, in New Iberia. His parents’ families were involved in building and architectural businesses. His mother’s family owned an architectural millwork business, and his father’s side owned a brick yard. His father, William B. Southwell, supplemented his early training in the brick business by studying architecture in New York (1885-1888). Upon his return in 1888, William established an architecture practice in New Iberia and practiced there until the brickyard was sold in 1901. The Southwell family then moved to Pine Island Bayou, Texas just north of Beaumont. William was involved with developing a brick and tile plant in Beaumont to take advantage of the increased building activity created by the 1901 Spindletop oil boom. William Southwell continued in the building business until the 1940s.
Owen Southwell graduated with honors from high school in Beaumont and won a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans. His father’s education and occupation gave Owen a distinct advantage, but he proved to be very talented. There were few formally trained architects in America at that point, especially in the South. After studying architecture for two years at Tulane, he transferred to the architecture program at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, headed by Henry Hornbostel. Southwell graduated with a BA in architecture and received an AIA medal and a one-year teaching fellowship. Southwell gained a teaching appointment in the Architectural and Engineering Department at the University of Illinois from 1916 to 1918. Southwell then served in the naval reserve for a brief period before joining the architectural practice of Hornbostel, his former teacher. After working briefly in Hornbostel’s main Pittsburgh office, Southwell transfered to Atlanta to manage Hornbostel’s office in the growing Southern city.
Asa Candler selected nationally recognized architect, Henry Hornbostel, to design the original buildings for Emory University’s campus in the Druid Hills area. Arthur Tufts, a contractor who also was an architect, was selected as the builder for Emory. Between 1914 and 1919, Hornbostel and Tufts collaborated on thirteen buildings at Emory as well as Tufts’ home that is currently surround by Emory’s campus. Southwell was listed in the 1920 Atlanta City Directory as an architect working for the Arthur Tufts Company. It is likely that Southwell may have been Hornbostel’s local representative and used space in Tufts’ Atlanta office. Between 1914 and 1923, Hornbostel designed not only the buildings at Emory but also two residences and two other buildings in Atlanta. Hornbostel’s national reknown added to Atlanta’s growing architectural reputation.
Hornbostel’s first Atlanta project was the Callan Court Apartments on West Peachtree and Eighth Streets (1912), and he also designed the Habersham Memorial Hall on 15th Street (1921 – 1923). However, Callanwolde was Hornbostel’s most impressive Atlanta commission. This elaborate residence on Briarcliff Road was built for Charles Howard Candler (1917 – 1919) and stands as one of America’s most impressive residential buildings.
Between 1919 and 1922, Southwell worked on Hornbostel’s Atlanta projects, supervising the construction and providing additional drawings for the projects. Interestingly, in 1918 Daniel H. Bodin, featured in the last edition of the Revival Construction Vernacular, also came to Atlanta to work for Hornbostel after graduating from Carnegie Tech. Although there are no records of a relationship, these men had very similar careers in the 1920s, and both men lived on Springdale Road in Druid Hills. In the growing but still small Atlanta of that time, the two architects must have been acquainted with one another as they designed homes in Atlanta’s exclusive neighborhoods.
Bodin left Hornbostel to work for architect Charles Frazier in 1921. Southwell struck out on his own in 1922 as Hornbostel’s Atlanta work was completed and after he developed a client base of his own. Southwell maintained his Atlanta office until 1931, and during this period he also opened a branch office in Florida as did Neel Reid and others who hoped to take advantage of Florida’s building boom. According to Texas historian Bradley Brooks, Southwell had a successful practice in Atlanta for those ten years, and his commissions “demonstrate that he gained experience in residential work for affluent patrons who designed houses in the historical styles” that were popular during that time.
Upon moving to Atlanta, Southwell lived at 20 St. Augustine Place in Virginia- Highlands. The city directories list Southwell’s residence as 89 Springdale Road in 1925 and 1031 Springdale Road in 1929. The street numbers may have changed, and this may be the same house. Currently, there is no 89 Springdale Road. Interestingly, Dan Bodin designed and built his own home in 1923 at 1344 Springdale Road. The 1930 City Directory lists Southwell as living on Powers Ferry Road, but no street address is given. Earlier in 1927 the Sardis Methodist Church was built according to Southwell’s design near the corner of Powers Ferry and Roswell Roads.
During this period, Southwell’s native Beaumont was also booming from the new oil discoveries at the Spindletop oil field. While working in Atlanta, John Henry Phelan, a wealthy oilman in Beaumont whose children grew up with Southwell, commissioned Southwell to design his home. Phelan built a palatial home which he called Caed Mile Failte(“one hundred thousand welcomes”). The cost of the entire project was approximately $500,000, a tremendous sum at the time. The estate remains one of the most impressive homes built during this time.
Because little is know about Southwell’s time in Atlanta, it is difficult to determine all of the buildings that he may have designed. At this point, Southwell is credited with designing six residences in Druids Hills, three residences in Buckhead, one apartment building in Virginia-Highlands, and one church in the Chastain area. Southwell likely designed much more in Atlanta than noted here. It is doubtful that he would have earned the Dellbrook, Jacqueland, and other prominent commissions in the late 1920s without designing additional impressive work in Atlanta.
As the Depression worsened, Southwell consolidated his practice in New Iberia where he continued to work until World War II. During this time, Southwell designed houses, churches, theatres, and other buildings. Religious buildings became a niche for him, and at least four Louisiana churches are attributed to him.
At the outbreak of World War II, private construction came to a halt, and Southwell travelled to Texas to visit his brother John, an engineer working in Beaumont. In 1942 Owen took a job as an estimator for a construction firm working on a rubber plant near Beaumont. Southwell continued to work on military related projects for the remainder of the war. In 1945 he was married for the first time to Yvonne Patout, a widow originally from New Iberia, whom Southwell had courted as a young man. They returned to New Iberia where Southwell enjoyed a thriving practice until his retirement. He died in 1961. Although little attention has been paid to Southwell’s career, his contributions to Atlanta and other areas is significant and worthy of our appreciation.