This 1956 midcentury home was originally designed and built by noted Austin architect Arthur Dallas Stenger. Although the house remained standing relatively unaffected by the passage of time and the bone structure of the building was very much intact, new homeowners commissioned Rick & Cindy Black Architects to bring the iconic home to modern standards. Today, the architects shine light on the Stenger 56 Project.
Can you tell us a bit about the story of this house/project and its owners?
This is a renovation and addition to an A.D. Stenger house built in 1956 in the Zilker neighborhood, very near the beautiful Barton Springs. The original house remained mostly unchanged until our client purchased it in 2009. She first completed initial maintenance issues and updated kitchen appliances, and then hired us to design the renovation and master suite / dining room addition in 2015.
These Stenger houses are recognizable and sought after in Austin neighborhoods. They’re relics of an expressive craft and exemplify a renegade approach to building, which is felt through Stenger’s inventive carpentry and structural details.
What did your clients ask for in their brief?
Our design directive was to expand the footprint to include a new master suite, enclose the carport for a larger dining area, and establish a cohesive vision for the finishes and millwork that was built upon A.D. Stenger’s original ideas.
What was your approach for the project?
It’s fun to work on a project when the house has such good bones to begin with. The original house is a simple rectilinear form with a logical layout: the entry gives way to an open living, dining, and kitchen space, cleverly partitioned by a screenwall of narrow shelving. The bedroom wing feeds off to the left down a traditional hallway. Each room has at least two or three exposures of daylight, with clerestories accenting the fireplace in the living room.
We proposed to locate the master bedroom on the opposite (right) side of the house to give it some privacy from the other three bedrooms and to create a more pleasant journey to the new master suite. The path leads around the dramatic freestanding stone fireplace, through the new dining room (former carport, now enclosed) which functions as a transition space. The master bedroom sits perpendicular to the main house, providing a view to the backyard landscape.
Which is your favourite/most important feature of this house and why?
We love the tapered fireplace and clerestory window, exposed rafters in the living room ceiling, open trellis detail at the front, and the way the house sits just perfectly among a grove of huge live oaks.
What materials have you used and why?
The new materials take their cue from the old, but elevate to suit our modern age. Stenger built these cool slanted drawer fronts, so we replicated that look but with high-end drawer glides and built in finger pulls so the operation was much nicer. The finishes were kept to natural stone and painted wood to complement the original color of the limestone fireplace and flagstone flooring.
One detail we wanted to get right was the enclosure of the carport. Part of the success of the dining room was thanks to reusing one of the steel casement windows facing the street. This window was removed from a back bedroom since that one needed better sizing, and the result is a seamless transition from old to new along the front elevation of the house. The landscape was updated and driveway redirected so as not to point to that old carport.
What was the first question you asked yourself when you got the assignment?
What can be done to expand the feeling of space without becoming overscaled? What details will we come up with to match the quirky inventive features of this midcentury relic? And lastly, how can we prepare our client for the maintenance surprises that will come up during construction?
How important was the contribution of your clients, if there was any?
Very important! Our client informed the color tones (mostly serene greys and whites) and advocated for ergonomic quality and beauty in each fixture. We spent a lot of time researching lighting and plumbing fixtures that would fit the character of the house but feel good to operate.
Have you found any inspiration in the mid-century period while designing the house?
Yes, our favorite midcentury projects make the most of natural daylight, incorporating the design of clerestories, skylights, and window walls that frame the natural landscape. The fireplace hearth was an important feature as well, and often helped shape and divide living space. Back then, cabinetry was often made on site and built-to-fit, so we have been inspired by partition walls that incorporate niches or shelves, all made from solid wood.
We’ve had the opportunity to renovate mid century projects in Austin by A.D. Stenger, Emil Niggly, and Barton D Riley. Other local mid century architects we admire include John Chase, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Roland Roessner, and George Walling.