Frederick (Tex) Dawson
Interview by Jim Donaldson
I guess you might say that it began- I’d been sketching and painting since I was a small, little guy and all the way through school. You might say it was a normal stretch to architecture. But when I got out of the army, I went to enroll at McGill. Or I should preface that by saying I had one year at McGill in the CAUC, which is the Canadian Army course. That was in 1943-44. And we took engineering. So I had acquired first-year engineering while I was in the army. So when the war was over and I came to McGill to register, engineering was there, but I didn’t lean- I leaned towards architecture because it was more artistic, I suppose, you might say. Although I have always considered myself an engineering architect because I felt that way towards structure all the time that I was practicing. But I remember arriving at school one day and I could either go into phys. ed., which was uppermost in my mind, or medicine or architecture. And I think I flipped a coin. No, that’s too flippant! But anyway, I had those three things in mind, as I remember. And phys. ed. at the time, there was no future in phys. ed. So anyway, through a series of rejections of other careers, I ended up in architecture. But I’ve loved it ever since.
At that time, it was how many years? Was it six years?
It was a five-year course, after pre-engineering, which would be grade 12. So maybe it ended up one year less than what it is now.
So the first year you were in architecture would be, what, 1950?
No, it was 1946.
I graduated in ’50.
So do you have any memories of some of the professors that were present at the school?
Some of the professors, yes. I remember John Bland very well as being a wonderful source of architectural history. I loved his courses, I mean in particular. Others don’t stand out in my mind, possibly Spence-Sales as being, how should we say, eccentric, as an eccentric instructor. Others don’t spring to mind, very frankly, but I loved the course. You know, we used to, like all architect, work overtime on your projects into the wee hours of the morning.
Where was the building then? Was it over on-?
On University, right across the street.
Yeah, it was a beautiful old house there, right across from where the church is now. And then it was subsequently knocked down I guess about a year or so after we graduated, which would have been ’51 or ’2, I guess. But I was one of the few students that were married. In 1948 I was married. So I was attending McGill on my wife’s hard earned money.
She was a nurse. But there was Johnny Barrette was married, Joe Cadloff was married, veterans. This was the year for veterans to come back. We were possibly a little bit older than the normal chap, like Harry Stilman. Harry was a little younger and Dave Reich and what have you, but anyway, it was a great class. Arthur Erickson, of course, being there, we can always say, “We were with Arthur when he was learning and we learned the same things he did”. I wonder where we went wrong!
How about- was it Arthur Lismer? Was he involved at all?
Yeah, Arthur was the- oh yeah, very much so. We used to go to Sketching School with Arthur. And regardless of what we did, Arthur Erickson was always better than anybody else. He was a teacher’s pet, and rightly so. But I remember Arthur Lismer one time taking up one of my paintings and he said, “You know, you’ve been influenced by Walt Disney to some degree!” And he said, “You can make this picture into three”. And with his hand, he sliced it into three parts, you know? Sort of a devastating critique. But he was right, you know? The trees were at the top, there was some tree shafts here and here was the earth down here. You could cut it into three parts. Nothing joined up so he was quite right. But there’s one funny reminiscence when I think of it. We were all out at Sainte-Adèle one time and we were near a valley, a big valley. And Arthur was, you know, he was a- he liked to show off himself to a great degree. And so you know his very detailed pictures of roots and trees and what have you that he was very fond of doing, so he went over and he broke off a little twig off a branch and he sharpened it and dipped that in the black ink and started doing these- a very detailed picture. Bear in mind, he is facing this panorama. And here he’s got a twig, you know, the wrong tool to do a panorama, you know. It’s a very linear tool. So he started to detail these little flowers that were just on the edge of this precipice and he made a mess of it. He made a mess of it! And he finally gave it up. Well, you know, just for the hell of it, I had some sable brushes and when I saw him take this twig off the tree, I threw the sable brushes over the cliff. And I had to get them later but-! I had to get them later, as I remember.
Was, I’m curious, was Gordon Webber there?
Gordon was there, yes. A wonderful fellow. And I guess, Gordon would be about as close as any of us came to an appreciation of anything other than realism, you know, insofar as the arts are concerned. But he’s a wonderful instructor. He was on every sketching trip. But I don’t think any of us really had a grasp even to this day of anything other than realism insofar as art is concerned. I remember one funny anecdote. There was a visiting artist; his name was Morin. And he had an exhibition in our very nice exhibition area about as big as this room. And he had his abstracts all around the room and there were titles and prices on them. So this was our first year. This would have been 1946 and at that time, we were just experimenting with throwing paint at pieces of paper, God knows what else. So we got one of our masterpieces, framed it, hung it up on the end of his exhibition. And I know that we entitled it Oxblood and Caviar- $295.00! And Spence-Sales, after about an hour, Spence-Sales came in, holding this, into our room and he said, “I say, who did this?” Nobody owned up, of course. I think Whitey Chapman was nearly thrown out. He’d had nothing to do with it at all, but anyway. One of those little schoolboy pranks!
Of all the courses that you took there, any one in particular other than-?
You know, I did enjoy, although I certainly didn’t stand high in the class, but I did enjoy the engineering courses. I enjoyed Strength of Materials. I think they were invaluable in my later architectural career. One things of an architect being simply a designer, but many times, I would design my own, let’ s say, for housing, design my own beams and what have you. Concrete, wood for sure. But you did get a grasp of the blood and guts of architecture, which is the structure. I liked design very, very much and the projects, everything about the subject.
Was Stuart Wilson teaching in those years? No.
Stuart was there.
He was there.
He was teaching design, as I recollect. And he was a crazy guy too, out sketching. You know, I remember- I can remember him throwing his big piece of paper down into a stream and then pulling it out on shore and putting four big rocks on it and going at it with brushes and pens and everything. You know, he was wild. He was an eccentric genius, I think. No doubt about it, he was a genius. It’s funny. I followed him also after I left college. One of my first jobs was with Peter Dobush. Do you remember Peter Dobush at all, Jim?
Yeah. I remember Peter Dobush. He was a great collector of art, too.
Exactly. Well, I remember working there. As I remember, he used to get them on consignment and the walls would be covered with a vast subject matter. You know, from the abstracts to the surrealists or to anything, you know. But I think Peter looked upon it as more of an investment than anything else, but anyway, I was just talking about Stuart. And Stuart worked for him as well, so I followed him after I graduated. And Stuart’s design was excellent. What a draughtsman! What a draughtsman!
Yes, when we were talking about design, Jim, one thing that came to mind is that McGill was a- McGill’s work, it was based upon the International Style as we called it at that time: Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, etc. And Frank Lloyd Wright was someone who was only mentioned fleetingly and yet, I must confess that I always had a deep down love of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, much against the teaching of the rest of the instructors. Had you noticed that yourself?
Yeah, I’m sure that- I don’t know how- I don’t think Frank Lloyd Wright was- Gropius, or I should say Corbusier probably was the man, you know, in our lives and work. And this is what is best; this is what you have to study and think about. And Frank Lloyd Wright really wasn’t mentioned. As a matter of fact, he was laughed at in many respects for his feelings towards organic architecture, as it were. And I loved it. I loved his work.
A lot of us did. And I think the testament, the true testament of one’s ability is time. And I mean he’s survived today. I mean even this week there was a television series on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yeah. Well, I had a foot in both camps. Like every one of us, I loved Corbusier and I loved minimalists as well as I did Frank Lloyd Wright, so I can’t explain that. Frank was anything but a minimalist.
How would you classify your design? You eventually, after you graduated, I guess you went into your career?
Yes. I’m trying to think, Jim. I would say that it would be a compromise between the International School and something more like Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.
In the mix just some of the client’s wishes thrown in.
Just a little bit! No, the client always had a great influence on me as well as my wish to make sure that he got the best for the least money that he could put out.
You were in practice, Tex, for a long time on your own. Or you probably had a partner, did you not?
I had lots of partners. I wore them out!
Oh, I see!
My first partner, I opened an office, I think it was ’57, May ’57. I remember writing on my diary, which I still have somewhere, Opened the door to business, you know. After about three months, we received our first big job, which was a Steinberg’s store. And I’d worked on Steinberg’s stores with my former employer, and I guess that was the association that I started out with. And that was our first big job. And we went on after that. We did, I guess over eighty stores by and large, stores and shopping centres. And my first partner was Max Baker. Do you remember Max?
I remember the name, yes.
And Max went on. We were together for a couple of years. And then I guess- I think Max was more of a- how should I say? He preferred the quieter practice rather than one like mine, which was industrial work, commercial work, and you had to have it out very quickly. All that was the nature of the beast. And Max went on to become the roofing expert of Canada. He went into NRC in Ottawa. But Max was- he had dual citizenship of an engineer and an architect. He had both degrees.
But the type of work that you were doing, actually, is a lot better than doing housing all the time because at least the commercial, industrial clients pay.
Yes, they did, Jim, some of them. Some of them paid. After a while, it took me a long time. You know, it’s so hard to get a client. And when you get a client, you want to please them and keep them. And sometimes, they didn’t pay their bills for over a year, maybe even longer, a year and a half. And my friends, you know, in other fields, would say, “You mean to say you let them go on and on?” I said, “Look. It’s hard to get a client. You don’t want to drive them away!” We knew the problems he was having getting his mortgage and what have you. And so we just- we got stuck a couple of times but not too seriously.
So you worked with other partners?
Yes, with Max. And then after that, with Harry Stillman and I were in partnership for two years. And we, again, split up very amicably because, you know, architects are independent people. They want autonomy. And I asked Harry to join me because of an abundance of work. Harry did and so as a result, we were working on work that I generated mostly. And you can’t do that to an independent chap who’s been independent for so long. He loses his initiative, his spirit. It’s quite understandable. Harry and I are the best of friends, you know, but it just wouldn’t work out much longer. And then after that, a chap who had been working for me for some time, Matt Shamansky. Matt was Polish and was lacking I think about three courses to satisfy the architectural association for his license. So he took, I think four months off. I gave him four months off and he got his license and became a partner. And that was in 1969.
And then you continued in that type of practice, I guess, for a little while.
Yes we did. Actually, you know, we tackled everything. But once you become known to a degree in a form of, a type of architecture, that’s the type of client that you attract, naturally. We did everything that we could. We did retirement homes, we did- Matt, with his Polish connections, we did the Polish Consulate in Montreal.
Yeah, on Pine Avenue.
On, yes, on Simpson.
Simpson or Cedar or Simpson, what have you. It’s right beside us. I admire your work everyday because I drive by or walk by.
Oh is that right, Jim?’
Just on the corner there.
A very good building.
Well that was a fun job.
Yeah, and you did a good job on it.
Oh yeah. It was mostly Matt’s work. I had a little input design-wise, but it was mostly Matt’s. And that was in ’67, so that was an exciting year for us too. We had a couple of very small Expo projects and we had one fairly large office building in Quebec City and we had an airport, believe it or not, in Abu Dhabi that we did. And it was a fun year.
You had a pretty good career, then. I guess did you continue more or less the same way until, you mentioned you retired from the business, or-?
Yes. Depending on what was going at the time, Jim. You know, an architect’s- every practice goes up and down, you know, just like a teeter-totter. You may not have noticed it as much as us.
I was aware of it, though.
You were certainly aware of it. You know and as a result, the numbers in our office varied from about two to ten depending on how busy you are. We had a permanent staff of about six that we liked to keep, which is not very large as practices go, but I felt very loyal to them. And we hung in there and then the work got down until it just got so that we couldn’t- when you can’t keep people busy, then it’s not good for their morale and not good for your pocketbook. It’ s just- it’s the way it goes.
It is tough.
But did you eventually close the door? And you opened the door a little earlier, now you’re closing the door. When was that?
It was ten years ago, Jim. That would be in 1989 that we closed the door, ’ 89-90. That’s when we built this studio.
Now, when you had an active practice, you were also doing a lot of extra-curricular activities, one of which you are really famous for, the fossils.
The fossils, right.
Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that? Because it’s very much a part of the history of Montreal for years and years.
Well, I joined the fossils in 1953, Jim. And I think that had architecture not been there, I think I would have gravitated towards the theatre in some ways. My daughter is in the theatre now as a professional. And I loved it. I love writing songs; I love performing them. And as a matter of fact, I have a rehearsal tonight with five lads. Even though we’re not now putting on the bigger shows that we used to every year, we haven’t for the last two years, we’ re getting a group together that we can take out to retired homes or hospitals or anyone who needs entertainment. So we’ve been rehearsing this for the last year and we’re just about ready to go on the boards now.
How many years did you actually- were you involved with the fossils in the way that I know of? You know. It would be thirty?
Yeah. Maybe a little- maybe forty-five, yeah, forty-five years. And, you know, the years go very quickly by the way, Jim.
They sure do!
As you know, you start writing it in November and it goes on in May. And before you know it, November is coming up again and- well, of course, just ask Hat, my wife, about that, and she’ll- after a while, she gets to hate it. But I couldn’ t let it go.
It keeps you young and energetic, right?
Now, I think what we should do is just tell us a little bit about your hobby, since, I guess you were active to a degree when you were working and you had the time but you are a lot more actively involved now in your artwork.
Yes, I’ve- this is what I have a deep love of, Jim, painting and- painting or sketching, either one. As long as it’s putting something down on paper or canvas. It’s nice to get up in the morning and feel that you have a project, you know, something that you can go to. And I’ve got that every morning. I just get out of bed up there and come out and look down at the canvas and try to overlook the things that Hat wants me to do!
It’s interesting because I think you say you pretty well work all day on a painting.
And that’s really a labour of love because if you talk to anybody who does writing, they have a discipline but it’s not all day. It’s about three or four hours in the morning or late in the day, but they just can’t write all day.
Well, exactly. Well aside from the mornings that I play tennis or what have you, I’m at the canvas. I’m actively planning another vernissage. We should be having one in about a month, which may be at the arts club or even here. I think we’re able to- the last one we had was here and we were able to hang about forty, fifty pictures in the two rooms and in front of the windows. And actually, it was quite pleasant. You know, on a fall day, it was quite pleasant.