James Edward Flanders' early contributions to the architecture of the southwest were a fulfillment of the needs of a people settling a country. Many were grand buildings for the time and the place. He worked in many styles and his output was prolific. Although a complete listing of his works is impossible to reconstruct, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Flanders designed in excess of 300 structures.
Flanders made the trip from first Chicago and then Minneapolis, a young man in search of a career in architecture. In Dallas, he found opportunity. Within a year of his arrival, he'd established his position in the city and had returned to his native Illinois to marry the girl he'd left behind to bring her to Texas. Texas, a word that even now brings thoughts of cowboys and heat and dusty prairies to the minds of many people. In 1877, all of those things were true and real. Dallas streets were made of one of two things - dust or mud - depending on the weather. Simple one and two story buildings lined the streets.
All of the excitement had begun only four years earlier when the T&P railroad came in from the east and Dallas became a railway crossroads. The first railroad had come north from Houston two years prior to that and Dallas then became a railway terminus - that temporary condition that occurred repeatedly along the right-of-way of each railroad as conditions or plans caused the temporary cessation of further construction. In this case, it was the lack of money. 1873 was a year of depression and the railroad barely got past the city limits of Dallas before the money ran out.
Flanders has been called Dallas' first architect but that isn't completely accurate. J. M. Archer was here when he arrived and Flanders actually formed a partnership with him, but that lasted less than a year. At least two other architects had been there before them. John Ryan and T. J. Borst helped rebuild Dallas after a fire in 1860 destroyed most of the downtown area. These two men were responsible for the few early Italianate buildings that had begun to give a small sense of order to the architecture of the town.
Archer disappeared from the scene after another couple years. By that time several other architects had drifted into and out of Dallas and a couple others had arrived to stay. Flanders' credentials as 'Dallas' first architect' come from the fact that he was the first to arrive of the architects that stayed to become a factor in the city's incredible growth that began in the latter part of the 1870's. His first commission, according to a 1925 interview, was the Binkley Hotel in Sherman. It was an impressive beginning for a young architect and he was soon designing both the homes and businesses of many of Dallas' early entrepreneurial leaders.
James Edward Flanders' career, after his apprenticeship in Chicago, can be roughly divided into four periods. The first of these began with his arrival in Dallas and lasted through 1881 as he established and built his reputation. During this period, most of his works were built in Dallas with a few excursions into neighboring townships. His subjects and designs were the results of the demands of a growing city as he built a wide variety of commercial buildings for the leaders of the town and residences for many of the same clientele.
The second period began In 1882 as he began looking to the counties of west Texas as a market for courthouses and other municipal and commercial buildings. Although the years of 1883 to 1887 were his most prolific, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the conditions in Dallas. In 1887, just after completing his largest scale work, the buildings for the first state fair in Texas, he responded to the allure of the city of San Diego, California by selling his business in Dallas to Albert Ulrich, a recently arrived architect, and moving west.
The third period of Flanders career began in San Diego, which was a boom town in 1887. However, within two years the boom had gone bust and most of the architects that moved there were forced to move away. Flanders was among them. By 1891 he was back in Dallas but he was not in the competition for commercial architectural projects. Most of the buildings he designed when he returned were institutional buildings including four of the original schools of the Dallas school system - a category of design successfully pursued by his cousin, John James Flanders, in Chicago. 1893 brought the depression that greatly slowed economic development in Dallas, but the year also brought the Chicago World's Fair that redefined architecture in America. Flanders embraced this new school of thought.
After 1900, most of his works were residential, institutional, and ecumenical. Most of the works were churches and most of the churches were Methodist. These were scattered throughout a tremendously large geographical area, from Missouri and Oklahoma to the gulf coast and from the panhandle eastwards to Arkansas. Flanders, working primarily from the Akron Plan, developing a unique style in church design. Although interpretations run from the Prairie Style to Gothic to Chatauesque to Victorian, these buildings all exhibit a common element. It is in his church designs that Flanders developed a signature characteristic - the towers - the "Flandersian" towers. Where the churches survive today, the towers boldly proclaim, this is a Flanders building! He also developed variations of a domed design and many of his later churches designs went in this direction - including his last church in Fresno, California.
Flanders retired to California in 1913 - first, a return to San Diego and then to Hollywood. He designed a few buildings there but those that are known were family buildings. He designed an apartment building and a hotel, both of which he owned and managed and occupied. He remained active in one of his great loves, the Masonic Order, and he remained active in life until shortly before his death in 1928.