By Claiborne Smith | June 25, 2015 | Home & Real Estate
The art of preserving historic homes is even more crucial in a rapidly changing city.
Whether at work, home, school, or a party, everyone in Austin talks about how quickly Central Texas is changing. For every person who is excited about a new restaurant or hotel, there is someone mourning the loss of yet another Austin institution. A steady drumbeat of anxiety pulsed through the most recent mayoral and city council elections as over and over, citizens asked one crucial question of the candidates: If we elect you, are you going to change this place even more?
It’s true that the architectural landscape of downtown Austin is being revamped quicker than the eye can take stock. But look deeper, in neighborhoods both near downtown and far from it, and the picture is both more subtle and more vibrant. Central Texans are taking the area’s history to heart, respecting it while they boldly remodel or restore old homes. They want to honor the original character of a house and the people who lived there before they did, while also putting their own stamp on it. It turns out there are actually houses in which the old Austin lives perfectly in sync with the new.
But the details of exactly how modern homeowners wrestle with history reveal that everyone’s notion of the past, and just how present the past should feel in a home, vastly differ.
Emily Little, one of the principals of the architectural firm Clayton & Little (1001 E. Eighth St., 512-477-1727), is arguably the most respected architect in Austin working on historic preservation projects. She studied cultural anthropology as an undergrad and approaches her home preservation work almost like an anthropologist would: knowing that the decisions about which old wall or roof to keep (or renovate) reveal “who we are and how we live,” as she puts it. Austin is growing so rapidly because people are drawn to the essence of this city’s character. “That’s why I’m excited about keeping and playing off the history,” she says, adding that although her firm rarely does pure restoration, it is constantly updating old Austin homes like the Josephine House (now a restaurant) and the Byrne-Reed House at 15th and Rio Grande streets, which now houses Humanities Texas. “It’s how that history weaves into and grows into what’s happening now” that matters, she says.
The owners of a house in the Fairview Park section of Travis Heights have hired Little repeatedly over the past eight years to advise them on how to best retain the character of their home while incorporating their own design ideas and making more space—over the course of Little’s work on the house, the couple had two more children. Built in 1907, the W.H. Davis house, named for its original owner, is barely noticeable from the street. Once you’re inside the home, though, it opens itself up in an inviting, striking way. The front hallway, which seems like it goes on for miles, is composed of long horizontal pine shiplap boards that give the room an almost rural, Texas vernacular feel. “The thing that was so cool about this house was all its imperfections,” the owners say. “That’s what makes an old house beautiful, and that gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted to.”
W.H. Davis was deaf and taught shop class at the high school at the Texas School for the Deaf. Some of his students seemed to have worked on the house because there are still notes Davis and the students wrote to one another on the shiplap in the front hallway, including details and instructions about building the house. When the current owners decided to paint the hallway in a high gloss white (“the high gloss really brings out all the imperfections,” they say), they left untouched the boards that feature the notes Davis and his students wrote. “It’s a quirky old house,” they say.
The owners hired Little at various times to remodel the house: to make more room in their attic for their growing family; to turn their outdated kitchen into not only a functional space but a standout heart of the home that’s stunningly designed; and to add on a large screened-in porch and playhouse. Throughout all the changes, the owners maintained a reverence for both the past and their modern aesthetic in an uncanny way. The living room that once likely featured formal wallpaper now sports alluring, slate-gray paint. But the windows in that room have been left entirely bare: no shades, drapes, or curtains. That design decision puts the focus back on the “bones” of the house: its admirable, historic proportions. The kitchen backsplash is mirror—a definite nod to modernity without the sterility of so much contemporary minimalism.
The owners of the Davis house say it was a “blank canvas” they could redesign with their own ideas. But what if you’d bought a 19th-century plantation built by your great-great-great grandfather who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto? Add to that the fact that your grandmother’s cousin had to sell the house in the Great Depression and you had detailed memoirs from a relative about the home’s interior. You had also listened to your grandmother talk “incessantly” about the place. Wouldn’t you feel some obligation to honor your family’s history?
That’s not a blank canvas, then, but a vanished one that Libby Sartain wanted to recreate just as it would have looked in 1857, when the home was built. In 2004, she and her husband David were able to buy Ancient Oaks in Bastrop. When they bought it, the proud but crippled house was just 10 years away from demanding an entirely new foundation and one of the chimneys had already fallen down—the other three had separated from the house. Fortunately, they were able to add a 3,500-square-foot addition to the original Ancient Oaks house that is entirely new construction, where they live.
The desire to create a museum-quality restoration in the original part of the house resulted in the carpet in the parlor featuring copious images of roses, a design that would be considered too frilly for most modern tastes. The rolled shades in the parlor feature exquisitely painted scenes of Venice, the Alps, and the Pyrenees, a popular design in the mid-19th century. Sartain’s decorator, Austinbased Candace Volz of VOH Architects (1105 W. 42nd St., 512-476-0433), who specializes in historic design, found an artisan in California who was able to mimic that old look.
Sartain’s rehabilitation of her family’s ancestral home has been exacting and painstaking, but the past is very difficult to recreate to a T. “We tried to make it look like the family had continuously lived here for 150 years,” Sartain says, but there were no bathrooms as we think of them today or electricity in 1857. Modern bathrooms now exist at Ancient Oaks, and to rebuild their rickety chimneys, Volz reused as many of the bricks from the originals as possible since those bricks were made on the property. Then came the question of what kind of mortar to employ. Sartain’s architect, John Volz, Candace’s husband, wanted to use mortar from the period when the house was built and conducted several tests; however, after much discussion, they decided it wasn’t practical.
Similar accommodations had to be made with interior design. Because of Sartain’s reverence for the house’s history, Candace told her that popular colors in the mid-19th century were aqua and pink, which the owner did not favor. Candace worked around that obstacle: They also used brilliant red and sage green during that period, “so Candace could work with my tastes, but keep it as authentic as possible,” Sartain recalls.
New residents move to Austin because of the city’s personality, as Little points out. But “if you begin to remove the neighborhoods that define Austin, there’s no ‘there’ there,” says Kate Singleton, the executive director of Preservation Austin (500 Chicon St., 512-474-5198), a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. “As the city grows, it’s always important to hang onto some of the neighborhoods that define what the city is,” she says. Preservation Austin’s annual home tours are a popular way to explore this heritage. Its 23rd iteration this spring was themed around decades: The Austin Through the Ages tour featured an 1870s castle, a 1920 Craftsman bungalow, a 1930s Revival-style home, a rare 1940s example of the Art Moderne style, a 1950s ranch, and an example of 1960s Midcentury Modern.
Living with history in your home is a process of minute, daily negotiation. Austin is transforming so quickly with the infux of new residents that it can be difficult to remember that the past is still here. But once you realize how many Central Texas homeowners are creatively reckoning with history, this place feels a little bit more like the Austin everyone says they miss.
PhotograPhy by Lindsey derrington (CastLe); Casey dunn (W.h. davis home, JosePhine house), Whit preston (stenger); Lindsey herrington (streamLine moderne); tom hurt architecture (river road)
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