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By Helen Thompson | Photo: by Dror Baldinger | April 13, 2017
Details and decor make a personal statement for a modern house in a historic San Antonio neighborhood.
If there are two design concepts preordained to clash, they would be “modernist” and “cozy”—the oil and water of architecture. And yet, a San Antonio residence deftly sidesteps the incompatibility potential embedded in those two notions. The result is a light-filled four-bedroom, 4 ½-bath steel, glass and stucco house that radiates an engaging hominess. The adroit mix of oppositional ideas is the product of a collaboration between San Antonio architect John Grable, designers Rhonda Grubbs and D’Ette Cole, and a style-confident client.
Homeowner Susan McGee, the president of a money management firm, is something of a bellwether of housing trends. She raised her three children in San Antonio’s Alamo Heights but downsized after they grew up and moved out. McGee relocated to a zero-lot-line house in the Sonterra golf community north of town, but after a few years, the busy executive decided she needed a bigger home. “My kids are married and now come home with their own kids,” she says. “I couldn’t fit all of them into my house.”
When the peripatetic money manager found a piece of property in Alamo Heights’ quaint cottage district, she purchased it and contacted architect John Grable to design a house to fit the long, 50-foot-wide corner lot. “The cottage district,” says Grable, “is a collection of one-room-wide cottages built in the ’20s.” His challenge was going to be interesting—how to place a modern house in a setting of nostalgic dwellings (some of which are Sears catalog kit houses sold mostly through mail order by Sears, Roebuck and Company between 1908 and 1940).
McGee arrived in Grable’s office bearing examples of houses and materials she liked, all of them expressing modernism in some way—flat roofs, glass walls, lots of windows, squared-off profiles, big overhangs and sliding glass doors that invite easy access to the outdoors. “We saw something in the images Susan brought to us,” says Grable. He drew up a plan that celebrated glass and metal but that elaborated on them with artisanal lyricism. Big overhangs morphed into slatted arbors that jut out above the windows; a square profile—topped by a second story that Grable positioned at the back half of the house—references the Craftsman silhouette common in the neighborhood; and a porch stretches along the front of the house. “The house is friendly and on a human scale,” says the architect.
The interior of the 3,000-square-foot dwelling tells the same story. Living room, dining room and kitchen are open to each other, and all face into a courtyard around which the house is built. “That was important,” says McGee. “My daughter lives in Los Angeles, and I like the way the backyards there are used as rooms.” There was nothing McGee wanted more than to be able to move in, out and through her house with ease.
She engaged Dallas interior designer Grubbs to help assemble furniture and accessories. “Susan has a tremendous sense of style,” says Grubbs, “and she also has a fabulous collection of shoes.” What that signaled to Grubbs was that her client was alert to color and shape, and that those elements would figure into the pieces she selected for the house. The designer took her cues from McGee’s sartorial flair. “She always wears something very understated,” Grubbs notes, “and then layers it with a great handbag, beautiful shoes and a piece of jewelry.”
A case in point are the living room’s bookshelves. “‘Books are clutter,’ I told Susan,” says Grubbs. McGee agreed but replied, “Yes, and I read them.” The conversation highlights one of Grubbs’ precepts. “I design for the other 360 days of the year—not the five days when family comes home for the holidays,” she says. “I want to focus on what happens when you come home from work every day, kick off your shoes, and sit down and have a glass of wine.” That’s also the reason Grubbs suggested two dining tables. For those holiday dinners, the tables can be put together, but McGee uses them separately most of the time—one as a library table where she stacks books and magazines; the other as an intimate dining venue.
More was needed, but Grubbs advised her client: “You should get in this house and live in it.” McGee complied and a year and a half later concluded that her house seemed cold. “I travel a lot, and it’s my refuge,” she says. “I want to walk in, sigh and say, ‘I’m home!’” At that point, though, Grubbs had moved to her family ranch and was occupied with making it livable. At the recommendation of her contractor, Trey Siller, McGee stopped into GOODgoods, a funkily stylish home decor and design store. The owner, D’Ette Cole, is well-known for her decorating derring-do. She was a pioneer in the junktique movement, and she co-founded Uncommon Objects in Austin and Clutter in Warrenton. She was also the in-house designer at Fredericksburg’s Red. Cole moved to San Antonio in 2010 and set up shop in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.
“I loved D’Ette’s store,” says McGee. “I told her I’d be happy if she made my house look like that.” Cole demurred: “I knew it needed to look like her house.” She introduced a Kate Spade rug into the living room—its colorful marbled pattern wildly invigorating to the space. She also added a goat-legged side table and hung a pair of primitive wood hay forks on the wall between the sofa and the bookshelves above. Cole layered the house with witty flourishes—especially in the master bedroom, where she covered one wall in malachite-patterned wallpaper, painted the wall behind the bed inkberry gray and framed the windows in an off-white linen vibrant with silvery starbursts.
“This house was already spectacular on the big level,” says Cole. “Now it’s spectacular on a hold-in-your-hand level too.” The architecture seems to merge with the details, endowing the house with what Grable calls “poetry.” McGee got her glass and steel house, but she got it her way, minus the sterility characteristic of modernism. “My house is warm and inviting,” she says. “It’s modern but has a great sense of individuality.”
John Grable Architects
Ironside Building Group
Three Graces Interiors
D’Ette Cole Design Solutions and GOODgoods
Goat-legged table in living room
COLE & SON
Wallpaper in master bedroom
DESIGN WITHIN REACH
Chaises around swimming pool, Hans Wegner chairs in dining room
Hardware in kitchen and bath
Curtains in master bedroom
Rugs in living room and master bedroom
Sofa and rug under stairwell
Stix light in kitchen
Chunky planters around pool
WESTERN WINDOW SYSTEMS