Burdette Watts Keeland, Jr. was an influential Houston architect. He was well known for his design work, his service as an educator, his long tenure on the City of Houston Planning Commission, and his community involvement with the Park People and other groups.
Keeland was born in Mart, Texas on February 2, 1926, but moved with his family to Houston six months later. He attended Lamar High School, graduating in 1943. He enrolled at Texas A&M University briefly before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1944. He served with U.S. occupation forces in Japan and was discharged in mid 1946. After another short stay at Texas A&M, he enrolled at the University of Houston in the architecture program. In 1947 he married Margaret Scott ("Margie"). From 1950 to 1957 they had four children: Margaret, Burdette III, Ruth, and Bonnie.
Keeland received a Bachelor's degree from the University of Houston in 1950. He began teaching design there in 1954 and was an influential member of the faculty until his death in 2000. He was briefly on the faculty at Rice University and served as lecturer and guest design critic at other noted architecture schools in the United States and Mexico City. Professional organizations recognized Keeland's distinguished teaching career on several occasions. He received outstanding educator awards from the American Institute of Architects, Houston Chapter, in 1987, and the Texas Society of Architects in 1993. In 1992 he was honored at the University of Houston Architecture Alumni Association's Burdette Keeland Roast. In 2000 he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the University of Houston's College of Architecture.
His long career at the university was also significant because of his association with Howard Barnstone. An important Houston architect, Barnstone was Keeland's close friend and colleague until Barnstone's death in 1987. In the early 1950s he introduced Keeland to Houston art collectors and philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil and to New York architect Philip Johnson. These relationships had a profound effect on Keeland for the rest of his life. In 1959 Barnstone was also instrumental in Keeland's admission to the graduate architecture program at Barnstone's alma mater, Yale University. Of his many accomplishments, Keeland was perhaps most proud of his role in 1981 to secure for Philip Johnson the commission to design the new building for the College of Architecture. (Among the oversized memorabilia in the collection is the large construction sign for the building, given to Keeland when it was completed.)
In 1964 Mayor Louie Welch appointed Keeland to the Houston Planning Commission. Keeland became chairman in 1981 and served in that capacity until 1991. On January 31 of that year the city honored him by proclaiming the day "Burdette Keeland Day." He was a tireless advocate of the benefits of urban planning, including land-use zoning, a position that was not always popular in the city.
Keeland was a prolific designer and had a successful practice, particularly from 1950 to 1980. Although he never obtained state licensing as an architect, he was well respected by his peers. Over several decades his projects were published consistently in national and international magazines and won a number of design awards.
His career as a designer can be broken into several periods. In the 1950s, influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Keeland's work followed the Miesian aesthetic of flat-roof pavilions defined by an exposed steel frame. While several examples of this period survive, the best is the Meyerland Parade of Homes House (1955) on Jackwood Street, designed for homebuilder W. K. "Buck" King.
His year at Yale from 1959-60 exposed him to the ideas of other nationally-known architects, such as Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn. As a result, in the 1960s his work was less predictable, as he explored a number of other approaches to modern architecture. An important example of his work of this decade was his Essex-Houck office building (1961; demolished 1990s), an homage to Louis Kahn.
During the 1970s Keeland moved from architectural design into real estate development, as he adopted the model of a design-build practice. He developed several townhouse complexes in his Kirby Drive-area neighborhood of Houston. They are remarkable for their sensitive scale and relationship to the street. However, his most significant building of this period was the large 4101 Greenbriar office building (1975), which he designed and developed in partnership with other investors.
He also designed the proposed 4141 Greenbriar Building (1983) to be built next door, but Houston's economic depression of the 1980s halted the project. There was little private or commercial construction in the city during this time and Keeland's professional practice suffered. A highlight of the period, however, was his remodeling of his family's residence at 2907 Ferndale St. (1986) with its three-story tower and fanciful supporting column.
In 1986, Keeland suffered a heart attack, the first of a series of health problems to slow him in the last decade of his life. During the 1990s he undertook several residential projects and helped host a number of fund-raisers for the College of Architecture. At two of those, in 1994 and 1998, he welcomed his friend Philip Johnson as guest of honor.
After architecture, Keeland's greatest passion was cemeteries, an interest he developed on a trip to Milan in the late 1960s. There he was inspired by a graveyard filled with interesting and varied funerary monuments. For the rest of his life he studied and documented cemeteries around the world and collected material for a book on the subject, which was never published. He advocated an enlightened approach to these places, suggesting that the living treat them as park space. Keeland invested some of his creative energy in designing headstones and monuments, a number of which were executed for clients. He created a line of designer tombs for a Texas monument company. His largest project was an addition to the Cedarvale Cemetery in Bay City, Texas in the early 1990s. In 1994 his unusual interest earned him feature stories in a number of regional newspapers and a profile in Texas Monthly magazine the following year.
Burdette Keeland, Jr. died on May 26, 2000.