To reach them, a guest would have to walk down a circular staircase into what appears to be a cave, then down more steps to the apartment itself. Built in 1968 as part of Black Bluff, here lived Bill Cody, fabled Laity Lodge director and namesake of the Cody Center for the arts. It has since served many leaders as a spot of needed privacy away from administrative duties.
The one-bedroom Lanier Apartment stretches alongside the Frio River, and generous window seats line the entire length of it, made of commercial tile. At least a third of the tiles on the window seats have been customized with signed works by Lavernis Royal, the artist responsible for most of the plaques at the Lodge. His signature—and his story—are easily overlooked.
Lavernis Royal (1935–2008) was employed by H-E-B for over 40 years in the Signage and Design department. Most likely, Mary Holdsworth Butt hired him to create these flourishes, one of many design decisions that make Laity Lodge so original. She specifically avoided Scripture in public spaces that might feel off-putting to non-Christian guests, but Mr. Royal’s tiles at the bottom of Black Bluff are explicitly Christian illustrations of Biblical symbols, Bible verses, and poetry, providing a hidden haven for a minister experiencing the “holy depletion” of pastoral care. Gospel reminders were needed here—stalwart yet meek.
Portrait of the artist as a young Texan
Art history does not tell us much about Mr. Royal himself. He was married and had two children. As a young man, he won a state-wide competition for “Mr. Future Teacher of Texas.” He was a Sunday school teacher at St. John’s Baptist Church in Corpus Christi and an active member of the N.A.A.C.P.
And he was a versatile artist, skilled in calligraphy as well as sculpture, including his 26-foot-high bronze and copper mobile of seagulls in the atrium at the Nueces County courthouse, built in 1977.
Long before, Mr. Royal was a trailblazer, a Hall-of-Famer at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, part of the first class of an estimated 30 Black students to integrate this school in Corpus Christi in 1952, two years before the Supreme Court decision barred school segregation in Brown v. the Board of Education. According to Harper’s Magazine, Del Mar College’s integration of Black students went smoothly. It is hard to know how much we should trust that source from 1950s America, but Mr. Royal was immediately elected to leadership in the student council. He went on to study at Texas Southern University, which at the time was a burgeoning hot spot for Black artists.