Feature: Austin Architecture
The legacy of mid-century modern architecture in Austin
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Leonid Furmansky
Historic photographs courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library
It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons, but there’s no denying the allure and current popularity of Mid-Century Modern architectural design. On the residential side, Austin homes that have managed to maintain their original modern elements command a high price in today’s market. The interest in careful renovation and updating of such homes has never been higher. Mid-Century Modern commercial buildings are also seeing their share of attention, something local architectural historians and enthusiasts have been advocating for a long time now. One of the most important office renovations in recent years is that of downtown’s 1954 Starr Building, originally designed to house American National Bank. This iconic jewel endured years of neglect (even landing a spot on Preservation Texas’ list of the Most Endangered Places) before it was thoughtfully renovated to serve as the offices of ad agency McGarrah Jessee.
Be it residential, commercial, educational, or ecclesiastical, our city’s rich legacy of Mid-Century Modern architecture wouldn’t exist without the creative interplay between the pioneering architects, who realized after World War II that they were in the right place at the right time to usher in new ideas, and the clients, who were not only willing, but interested in straying from the architectural norm of the day.
According to Ingrid Spencer, executive director at AIA Austin, the time was right for a “third-wave” of modernist architects: the Americans who had traveled, gaining exposure to influences around the world, and studied under the European modernists who’d moved to the U.S. to work and teach. Among Austin’s most prominent and prolific architects of the time were Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger. Though ten years apart, both men graduated from the University of Texas. They first met in the 1930s while they were working in Bastrop for the National Park Service, but it wasn’t until 1946 that they became partners.
“After World War II, the way people lived was very different and architecture had to address that,” says Spencer. Austin was full of opportunity and the population grew by large numbers. “The city was booming, as was the demand for housing. So, the time was right for architects like Fehr and Granger to introduce new ideas.”
Instead of homes with lots of small rooms and parlors for formal entertaining, living spaces were opened up and designed more for family gathering; a greater connection between rooms was established to accommodate the informal way people were increasingly wanting to live.
For more on Mid-Century Modern, check out these two exhibits now showing in central Austin and online:
“Fehr & Granger, Architects — Austin Modernists”
August 15 – November 15
Austin Center for Architecture at 801 W. 12th St.
Open Mondays – Thursdays 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Fridays 8:30 a.m. – noon, barring any scheduled meetings of AIA Austin (call or check the online calendar before going)
“Mid-Century Austin: Photographs by Dewey Mears”
August 29–January 14
Austin History Center at 810 Guadalupe Street
Open on Sundays from noon – 6 p.m. and Tuesdays – Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (closed on Mondays) or visit the exhibit online at library.austintexas.gov/ahc/online-exhibits
Women’s changing roles, in particular, initiated some of the biggest design differences. The kitchen, which had previously been cut off from the rest of the house, now occupied a more central space with greater flow into other rooms.
Along with other Austin architects working in the modern style, such as A.D. Stenger, Roland Roessner, and John S. Chase, Fehr and Granger were sensitive to the environment and climate in which they worked. And, authenticity was key. They made great use of the region’s abundant natural materials, such as limestone, and they had a preference for showing the rock in its raw state and working with local craftsmen. Consistent with the tenets of modern architecture in other places, the new generation of Austin architects placed an emphasis on connecting a structure’s interior to the natural surroundings of its exterior. This was achieved by taking advantage of the latest technology allowing for larger windows, which not only brought in more natural light but also created a bigger view to the out-of-doors.
As for the clients, a number of Austin’s first modern structures were the homes of the architects themselves, says Lindsey Derrington, president of Mid Tex Mod, a volunteer organization dedicated to raising awareness of modern architectural design in Central Texas. Such first drafts served as powerful tools of persuasion to help clients understand the new style and see what living in a modern house might be like.
Over time, modern designs grew in acceptance and commissions for modern homes, schools, and churches began coming regularly. For some architects, however, getting the work was harder than it was for others. Derrington explains, “One reason we see John S. Chase’s work primarily in East Austin is that he couldn’t get work in other parts of the city. Chase was the first African-American architect licensed by the State of Texas.”
In fact, he was also the first African-American to earn an advanced degree in architecture at the University of Texas. Despite his qualifications, Chase couldn’t find a firm that would hire him, so he moved to Houston to teach at Texas Southern University and started his own firm. He would subsequently design dozens of notable buildings across Texas, including two Mid-Century hallmarks in Austin: the Phillips House and the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
Mid-Century Modern design is sometimes described as inherently optimistic. Its clean lines, contrasting materials and respect for nature seem to give it a sense of stability and integrity, while piquing one’s curiosity about what lies around the next corner, behind the translucent screen or the stone wall. Whether those things account for its upsurge in popularity, or there’s another indefinable attractant at work doesn’t really matter. In Austin, it’s an architectural heritage worth celebrating.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2017