Wilson Palmer was a partner of Bartlett Cocke’s brother, Hill Cocke, in the Harlingen concrete supply firm of Valley Ready Mix. This did not inhibit John York, who designed a steel-framed house for Palmer, his wife Nadine, and their four children. Wilson Palmer served on the Harlingen City Commission in the 1950s and was active with the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce.
Entrance to the house is through the open carport; both Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra routed entry to their houses through carports, indicating the modernity of incorporating the car within the dwelling. As is true of many of York’s houses, the ceiling height of the Palmer House is low. But York compensated by making the entire, south-facing backside of the house floor-to-ceiling glass: sliding, wood-framed glass panels that can be pulled back so that the living-dining-kitchen area is essentially open air. The kitchen is spatially integrated with the living area, radical practice in the early 1950s when even Wright’s Usonian houses still kept the kitchen in a separate alcove.
In the living-dining area, one clearly sees the grid of steel structural columns and the repeating structural module involved in the house’s planning and construction. Steel beams cantilever out on the south to support the overhanging wood roof deck, which shades the retractable glass wall. French doors are hinged directly to the steel columns. York hated moldings and sills and eliminated them wherever he could. York’s draftsmen recalled that these components were often field fabricated, since doing it yourself was cheaper than ordering factory-made sliding doors (still an exotic, southern Californian novelty in the early 1950s). Alan Taniguchi recalled that the contractors and sub-contractors available in the Valley were exceptional and enjoyed challenges, a fact he did not fully appreciate until he moved to Austin.
The bedroom retained the original sliding louvered panels that York favored in place of fixed walls, so bedrooms could be opened up to the prevailing breeze on sultry nights.
The Palmer House corresponds chronologically to Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949), Ray and Charles Eames’s Case Study House 8 (1949), Johnson’s Menil House (1951), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951). The house predates by ten years Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 22 of 1960, immortalized in Julius Shulman’s photo of two women sitting at one end of its glass-walled living room as it projects out above the nighttime street grid of Hollywood. A statement to John G. York’s talent.
York’s draftsmen remembered that York was very convivial; his daughter Sandra, an artist in Houston, recalls that he was a superlative dancer. The Palmer House appears to have been designed for lively entertaining, inside and out.
Text provided by Rice University Professor Stephen Fox. Photos by Lupe Gonzales.