By Sharon Wisch-Ray
The work of Judith Singer Cohen and her late husband, Don Cohen, was recently on display as a specialty exhibition “Cowtown Moderne: The Lasting Influence of the Art Deco Style” at the University of Texas at Arlington Fine Art Collections Gallery. The exhibition closed Dec. 9.
The architectures of Fort Worth and Dallas are known for their art deco influence. Judy and Don Cohen led the movement to document and preserve the Art Deco skyscrapers and artforms of downtown Fort Worth. This effort culminated in the publication of her book, “Cowtown Moderne: Art Deco Architecture of Fort Worth, Texas,” published by Texas A&M University Press in 1988.
Judy Cohen’s work is particularly relevant as the debate between the future of two Fort Worth landmarks, Farrington Field and Texas & Pacific Warehouse, has been renewed. On one side are those who want the buildings renovated; the other side wants them demolished.
The UTA exhibition offered visitors a view of structures that have been preserved, those that are endangered and those that were lost in the debate.
In addition to Judy Cohen, her children, Dr. Dan and Jane Cohen of Yardley, Pennsylvania; Dede and Dr. Brian Kaplan of Houston; and Steven and Amy Cohen and their son Will of Arlington were in attendance for the opening reception. Daughter Dr. Dana Cohen-Paine and husband Bill Paine of Plano were able to tour the exhibit the next day.
At the opening reception Dr. Kathryn Holliday, architectural historian and founder of the David Dillon Center for Texas Architecture, gave a video lecture, “Nowtown and Cowtown.” She explained what Art Deco is and discussed its emergence in the architecture of the 1920s, a reflection of emerging technology. In Fort Worth, the downtown Art Deco buildings that emerged in the 1920s were strongly influenced by the oil and railroad industries and their desire for Fort Worth to be recognized as a “now town not a cow town.” Influencers at the time wanted the town to be modern and for the buildings to reflect that those industries’ operations were advanced. Halliday explained that by the 1970s what was considered modern in the 1920s seemed out of date or not so modern anymore.
“The aviation building is slated for destruction and goes down in 1978. And this is what leads us to this conversation about now town and cow town that Judy Cohen was such an important figure and really bringing forward after the demolition of the aviation building in 1978 or the Transamerica building, as it was called in the newspaper at the time,” Halliday explained.
Judy Cohen’s research and book were pivotal to the preservation process. “We would not have the T&P Warehouse, we would not have Will Rogers Coliseum, we would not have so many of our art deco landscapes still, if it weren’t for her efforts in the wonderful book that really put on the map that Art Deco architecture Fort Worth wasn’t just an incidental, it was an asset for the city.”
Halliday said that the two most prominent buildings currently endangered, Farrington Field and T&P Warehouse, were examples of what the Art Deco movement meant to Fort Worth at the time they were created, “the ability of craftsmen working together with architects and construction workers to make a landmark for the city that transformed it right from cow town into now town at the moment that it was built.”
If you didn’t get a chance to see the exhibition in person, a virtual exhibition is available at https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=awyJt9xPns6. The virtual exhibition is fully outfitted with labels and captions and features the research of Judy Cohen and photos of Don Cohen. Judy Cohen donated treasured antiques from her Art Deco collection for the exhibit.
Curating the exhibit was Cheryl A. Mitchell, UTA assistant professor of practice and art historian and collections specialist at the UT Arlington Fine Art Collections. Mitchell paid tribute to Judy Cohen. “Without her and her husband, Dr. Donald Cohen, none of this would be possible. It was beginning with their research and their books and their photography that all of this has been really safeguarded for the future generations,” she said.