As a young architect, Calvin Walker left Louisiana to work in the Rio Grande Valley for a year. Fifty years later, he is still designing buildings from his Brownsville office. In the interim, he worked for 30 years at various iterations of the large architectural firm SHW, rising to vice president and partner in charge of Brownsville. In 1997, he declined to relocate and started Walker Perez Associates with Carlos Perez.
When Perez retired about 10 years ago, Walker elected to continue WPA as a sole practitioner, eventually outsourcing drafting services and specification writing while his wife took over bookkeeping. Walker’s design and marketing expertise are central to WPA’s success.
“As a sole practitioner, realistically you can do all sorts of things. You can farm out all of the work or some of it,” he said. “I realized my time is more valuable doing marketing and design. I do good designs that come in on budget and are functional. I’m not trying to create a monument to myself. I’m the first to admit a design is not an award-winning building, but everything works.”
Where on the continuum was the best place for this architect?
“WPA was the right thing for the right time,” Walker said. “It allowed me to stay here and be sure my son turned out okay. I’ve adapted. I would much rather people say of me that he raised a good family. That’s the kind of wealth I cherish.”
As at SHW, Walker has specialized in public and private school architecture. “I’ve been very fortunate to get enough work from the city of Brownsville and from school districts to make a reasonable living.” His projects, with other firms and solo, are visible across the Valley: Brownsville’s Rivera High School; Eddie Lucio Middle School; Juliet Garcia, Hudson and Morningside elementary schools; and numerous schools in Weslaco, PSJA, McAllen and Donna.
Walker has repeated elementary and middle school designs, with critical changes to the brick or the front entry. “Each school should have its own identity. It was important to have the exteriors differ, especially the entry drives and site plans.”
Walker has also enjoyed working south of the border on American schools in Tampico, Monterrey, Durango and Torreon as well as Asuncion, Paraguay. American maquila managers, he said, expect schools for their children to be comparable to American schools and be accredited by American associations. “South of border labor costs are so low. You get to do some really neat things in concrete,” Walker said. “My favorite Mexican school is in Monterrey for the American School Foundation.”
Walker recalled he frequently participated in career days at schools.
“I felt it was important to talk about my profession, even when only one or two students were interested. I wanted to let them know how satisfying it is to take a blank sheet of paper, design something and then see it built.”
Walker cautioned individuals preparing to leave large companies to go out on their own. “It’s not all about independence. The things you don’t worry about as an employee become your responsibility: liability insurance, utilities, paying salaries every two weeks, marketing. Early on, there were times I would give employees checks and tell them they couldn’t cash them yet.” So he gradually downsized WPA. But he still encourages others to take the risk and go out on their own for the experience.
A president of the Brownsville Historical Association and Friends of the Library, Walker is greatly interested in historic preservation. Brownsville is second only to San Antonio in the number of historic buildings in Texas, he said, noting Brownsville has “some terrific buildings.” He also has been involved in pro bono projects such as the administration building at Sunny Glen Children’s Home.
Still busy after 50 years working on library expansions and schools, Walker has no plans for retirement. “The good thing about my profession is you can work until you drop dead. As long as I’m healthy and people are willing to pay for my services, I’ll continue to do this.”
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