Pioneer Texas Architects - F. E. "Ernst" and Oscar Ruffini - 1870 - 1917

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Biographical Information

Architects as Entrepreneurs

F. E. "Ernst" Ruffini wrote to a professional colleague in Boston that "The South is the coming country for the young man who wants to do business that will make money easily and rapidly." Even though Ernst wrote this letter in 1885, his attitude toward his profession is definitely "modern" and one that could be easily expressed by any young architect just beginning a career. Both Ernst and Oscar Ruffini were influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Gilded Age that operated as a spirit of optimism and opportunism.

The Ruffinis considered Texas as a part of the South, with limitless potential to conduct a successful practice. In fact, they were among the first professional architects to practice in Texas, viewing the state as an opportune place to further their professional advancement and improve their economic status.

Texas - Land of Professional Opportunity

Texas in the 1880's was experiencing both economic and urban growth. This combination heavily influenced the Ruffinis' decision to establish their practices in the state - Ernst in Austin and Oscar in San Angelo. As the railroad and telegraph systems expanded to include Texas, doing business with suppliers in other parts of the country became easier. As evidenced in their business correspondence, the Ruffinis relied on both of these systems to acquire materials from various suppliers, such as galvanized iron work, glass, and stone.

The rapid growth of towns and cities translated into ever-expanding markets for the Ruffinis to acquire new business. Ernst traveled heavily throughout Texas, developing potential business contacts, while bidding and acquiring jobs for new jails, courthouses, and commercial buildings. Austin, the state capital, was an ideal location for his base of operation. Oscar was limited by a health condition that curtailed the amount of travel he could do, and focused his business in San Angelo, where he became the city's most prominent architect for a period of about thirty years. In the 1880's San Angelo was a major center for the livestock business, and the railroad encouraged the city's urban development. These two factors contributed to the town's economic development, requiring banks and retail buildings to support its urban growth. In this market, Oscar prospered economically, designing residences, commercial buildings, and other institutional buildings.

Family Roots

Ernst and Oscar were born in Cleveland, Ohio. The Ruffini family was of German extraction, although the family traces its origins to the Reggio Emillia region of northwestern Italy. Ancestors of the Ruffinis moved from Italy to Germany, near Dresden, in the fifteenth century. The parents of Ernst and Oscar migrated from Germany to Chicago in 1848 in a group of 58,000 immigrants called the Forty-Eighters. They relocated to Cleveland two years later, where the boys' father worked as a furrier. The Ruffinis were an upper middle class Victorian family as evidenced by an existing photograph from the family's private collection of memorabilia taken around 1870.

There were five Ruffini children, all of whom were born in Cleveland. F. E., known as Frederick Ernst, was the oldest child, born in 1851. He was followed by a sister, Clara, a brother, Alvin, a second sister, Camille and the last child, Oscar, born in 1858. 

A thriving German-American community existed in Cleveland, and the Ruffini family was active in German cultural groups, such as the Turnverein, a popular gymnastic society that began in Germany in 1811 to promote physical fitness and free thought.

Both Ernst and Oscar were bilingual and bicultural. Ernst was a member of the Austin Turnverein, subscribed to a German newspaper, and wrote to some of his clients in German. Oscar designed and built a building to house the Turnverein in San Angelo, and was an active member of the society.

Contributions to Texas Architecture

Although the Texas State Capitol was built from a design submitted by Elijah E. Myers of Detroit, Ernst Ruffini was the "hometown favorite" and came in second to May in the design competition with his design called the "San Jacinto". It is believed that he later resubmitted this same design in the competition for the Colorado State Capitol.

Ernst Ruffini dominated the design of county courthouses in Texas during his short career. He designed eleven courthouses in nine years. An outstanding example of his design work is the Blanco County courthouse, although he may be best remembered in Austin as the architect of the Main Building (1882-1889) of the University of Texas at Austin. However, he is responsible for numerous commercial, public, and institutional buildings as well as private homes. Among these buildings are jails, schools, a Masonic temple, the Millett Opera House, and the Institution for the Insane [Ruffini Collection Finding Aid TSL]  It is a little known fact that Ernst was the "runner up" in the competition to design the Texas State Capitol building, an important indicator of the caliber of his work and of his professional standing. The original design drawings and watercolors can be viewed at the Alexander
Architectural Archive, University of Texas at Austin

Oscar Ruffini was both the first professional architect in San Angelo as well as its principal architect in the years 1884-1918. A fine example of his commercial design work is the S. Lapowski & Bros.Building. Although not an accomplished designer, like Ernst, he excelled at the technical execution of designs and plans, and was responsible for many of these while working for Ernst. Oscar was one of the founding members of the Texas State Association of Architects (TSAA) in 1886. This was the first professional society for architects in the state, founded two months after Ernst's death. The aim of this group was to persuade state government officials and boards "to give them the authority to administer examinations of competency and issue licenses." Architects felt that such licensing authority would enable them to control building design and to supervise construction.

Though neither of the brothers was a leader in the movement to professionalize architecture in Texas, they do demonstrate important characteristics of architects of their time and place. They trained through the system of apprenticeship, worked as assistants in major cities in the East and Midwest, and internalized  professional standards during their training. They chose Texas as a location that would provide them professional opportunity. It is important to understand that like most Texas architects, they saw themselves as professional businessmen who practiced architecture. They were pragmatic, entrepreneurial individuals who capitalized on the economic growth occurring in Texas, relying on expanding markets to build their business.

Page last modified: May 8, 2019