O'Neil Ford, architect, son of Bert and Lula Belle (Sinclair) Ford, was born at Pink Hill, near Sherman, Texas, on December 3, 1905. His creative bent was nurtured by his parents, who sought educational opportunities for their children. He attended a progressive elementary school in Sherman, where drawing was incorporated into every phase of the curriculum. After Bert Ford died in a railroad accident, Mrs. Ford moved her family to the university town of Denton. Neil assumed the responsibilities of breadwinner at twelve. He developed a flair for persuasive showmanship to obtain jobs for himself and his younger brother, Lynn Ford, who gained fame as a wood-carver and cabinetmaker, and sister Authella (Mrs. Roland Hersh), skilled in working with copper. He perfected this technique throughout his lifetime to bring in jobs for his architectural firm or to lobby for favorite environmental or political causes. During his high school years Ford haunted the library at the nearby college, where the librarian encouraged his passion for reading. He entered North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) in 1924, but economic pressures forced him to abandon his efforts to get a formal education after two years. Ford subsequently enrolled in an architecture course from the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. His lack of university training became part of his mystique. In 1924 he and an uncle traveled through the Alsatian and German communities of Castroville, Brackettville, and Fredericksburg. Ford was deeply impressed by the simplicity and beauty of the German vernacular architecture, and the experience decisively influenced his later work.
In 1926 Ford entered the office of Dallas architect David R. Williams, a leading spokesman for Texas vernacular architecture, where he served his apprenticeship. Flamboyant, extravagant, and often outrageous, Williams became Ford's role model. He responded to Ford's abilities as a designer, and together they produced a number of fine regional houses of native brick, wood, and stone in north central Texas. Ford was deeply influenced by the tradition of the English Arts and Crafts Movement and the works of Greene and Greene in California, especially their attempt to synthesize architecture and visual arts. In an attempt to carry on this tradition he enlisted the help of his brother, Lynn, to carve doors, mantels, and beams; artists Jerry Bywaters and Thomas M. Stell, Jr., also collaborated on many projects, stenciling walls and making mosaics. During the Great Depression the young architect worked on WPA projects and with the Rural Resettlement Administration. Ford formed his first partnership in 1937 with Arch Swank in Dallas. Their major job was the Little Chapel in the Woods on the campus of Texas Woman's University, Denton, constructed by National Youth Administration trainees with interior craft elements by college art students. The restoration of La Villita by the Work Projects Administration precipitated Ford's move to San Antonio, where he took Jerry Rogers as his partner (1939–53). Their research into building systems including the Youtz-Slick lift slab and stressed concrete was put to the test in 1949, when they received the commission to design a new campus for Trinity University in San Antonio, along with Bartlett Cocke and Harvey P. Smith. From 1953 to 1965 O'Neil Ford and Associates did a number of projects for burgeoning Texas Instruments, both in Texas and abroad. Among the firm's best-known works for TI was the Semiconductor Building in Dallas (1958), which made use of a new structural system made of thin concrete shells known as hyperbolic paraboloids, developed by Mexican architect Félix Candela. In 1967 Ford formed a partnership with Boone Powell and Chris Carson. Bright young people fresh out of architecture schools were eager to work in this innovative office, and Ford's best work was accomplished in collaboration with talented youth. Campuses for Skidmore College in New York and the first phase of the University of Texas at San Antonio are notable examples of the firm's work during Ford's final years.
O'Neil Ford devoted much energy to serving causes outside his profession. During World War II he was a flight instructor in the United States Army Air Force. In later years he was often called upon for advice on historic preservation, the environment, aesthetics, and quality education. In 1968 he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on the Arts. David Rockefeller, Jr., invited him to serve on the American Council for the Arts in Education (1975). Ford was a member of numerous professional, civic, and social organizations. He was a liberal Democrat. Honors garnered in his later years included election in 1960 to the College of Fellows, American Institute of Architects, and honorary doctoral degrees awarded by Trinity University of San Antonio (1967), Southern Methodist University (1973), the University of Dallas (1976), and Skidmore College, New York. The first endowed chair in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin was named for Ford. Ford married Wanda Graham in 1940; the couple had four children. Wanda Ford served as president of the San Antonio Conservation Society (1955–57) and played a prominent role in the community. O'Neil Ford died on July 20, 1982, in San Antonio.