The thoughtful restoration of a historic Austin home
By Jess Archer
Photographs by Leonid Furmansky
When you first walk into the Darnall House on Wooldridge Avenue in West Austin, it’s hard to put your finger on just what it is about the house that feels like a cleansing breath. But the longer you stand in the living room, the more you notice the uncluttered space and how the house flows from one room to another without visual interruptions. You become aware that the ceilings and walls are free of molding, typical vents or modern electronic devices. The entire east wall is composed of steel-framed windows that look out onto the lush Shoal Creek basin. Through the unfettered second-floor windows, you even glimpse a view of the UT campus and downtown Austin. And then you begin to understand that all this was clearly by architectural design.
In 1939, two young architects, Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger Jr., began designing a modern, international-style home for Dr. Charles and Gertrude Darnall. The Darnalls had one young daughter, named Barbara, and wanted a home designed just for their family. Fehr and Granger and the Darnalls shared a vision that the home would be the first flat-roof house of its kind in the area. Now officially called the Darnall House, it is one of the earliest of its style in the region, and thanks to its complete interior restoration by the current owners, Holly and Tadd Lanham, it is a beautifully preserved piece of history.
In the 1930s, Fehr and Granger had done design work for Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains, and for the Darnall House, they wanted to again use the flat roof and steel casement windows from that earlier project. They also wanted to locally source as many materials as possible and chose Cordova cream limestone from Texas Quarries for the exterior. Unlike most homes built today, the foundation and decks have a concrete pier-and-beam construction, built to last hundreds of years. It is a two-story, asymmetrical dwelling with an attached one-story, two-bay garage, capped by a flat roof. When viewed from the back, the metal casement windows on the rear of the house are grouped to form a ribbon-like pattern that accentuates the horizontal design.
When it came to the design of the home’s interior, Fehr and Granger were economic in their layout. The house has virtually no hallways, and the rooms flow both into one another and to the outside. In keeping with the modern international design, the layout is functional, not formal. For example, the house contains several built-ins. The designers used wood-paneled built-ins that include casework drawers for the office. On the second floor, “Barbara’s room” includes a built-in child’s desk. And in the kitchen is a cozy custom banquette with a chrome pipe table personally designed by the architects.
Charles, Gertrude (affectionately called “Queenie”) and Barbara lived happily at the Wooldridge house for 69 years (Charles and Gertrude both died in 1984, and after their passing, Barbara continued to live in her childhood home). Then, in 2010, Barbara met Derek Barcinski, an architect with Atlantis Architects who lived next door. Barcinski deeply admired the home’s design and introduced Barbara to his friends the Lanhams, who were interested in purchasing the house. But Barbara’s childhood home had both sentimental and historic value, and she wanted it preserved. The Lanhams had no intention of tearing the house down, but it took years of convincing. In the end, Barbara sold the house to the Lanhams in 2014 with their promise to have it historically designated. Says Tadd, “Ultimately, Barbara trusted us, even without a legal agreement to restore the house and make it a historic Austin landmark.”
Anyone who undertakes the restoration of a home with historic value knows how complicated it can be. For five years, the Lanhams worked meticulously with Barcinski to bring the house into a 2019 functionality and to restore or replace what had fallen into disrepair. Barcinski says of the process, “We wanted to protect the things about the house worth keeping and rehab what needed fixing.” Whenever possible, he consulted Fehr and Granger’s original blueprints, noting, “We aimed to make the house either true to form or true to spirit.”
As a mother of two small children, Holly focused on making the home more functional. The original steel deck railing on the second floor was dangerously low, and any small child could fall through its gaps. So the Lanhams raised the bars and added cables for protection. Back in 1940, Queenie had insisted that the house’s design include a cedar closet in the master bedroom for her fine clothes. But the bathroom contained only a tub, so the Lanhams pushed out the closet and built a more functional bathroom with a shower, while keeping the design and hardware in the spirit of the international, modern style.
One of the best-preserved treasures of the house is the original built-in banquette and chrome pipe table. It was very important to the Lanhams that it be preserved and in good working condition. Now it is one of their favorite places in the house. Holly says, “At the end of the day, we like to sit with the kids in the banquette and talk about the highs and lows of our day.”
The Lanhams live comfortably in their restored Fehr and Granger home but graciously open it up to student architect tours. If you’re willing to listen, the Lanhams (and Barcinski, who no longer lives next door but does still live down the road) will shower you with details about the history, rehab and materials of the house. You get the feeling they care about the place quite a lot. And if you ask Tadd why it was so important to completely restore the Darnall House, he’ll tell you: “There’s no home like it. Quite simply, the house deserved it.”