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A Site to Behold
Helen Thompson | Photo: Dror Baldinger | July 14, 2014
Architect John Grable transformed a dark 1940s ranch house into an airy abode with soaring views of San Antonio beyond.
For 25 years, George Becknell had a crush on a piece of property three blocks away from the Alamo Heights house he shared with his wife, Lori, and their two daughters. “Unbeknownst to me!” says Lori, the chair of the Alamo Heights Planning and Zoning Commission. George, a financial adviser, is quick to point out that it wasn’t the house he liked, “just the lot.” It was a triangular-shaped third of an acre filled with oaks, elms, towering crepe myrtles and Brobdingnagian mountain laurels—with a view of downtown San Antonio.
When the owner died and the heirs opened the house for an estate sale, Lori ventured over and asked if she could look around. “I had always thought there was too much work to be done on the house,” she says. “But once I was inside, I saw there was potential.” She called her friend, architect John Grable, who walked through the three-bedroom, three-bath house and noted that there were plenty of possibilities. His assessment—including advice to raise the ceilings—was inspirational. Both Becknells realized that higher ceilings would unveil city views that would turn out to be life-altering. “We literally ran the three blocks home,” says Lori, “and wrote up a contract I downloaded off the Internet.”
Because the site was so strong—and the house had potential—Grable’s main goal was to erase the barriers between outside and in. And there were plenty of barriers in the 1948 ranch-style house that was designed in an almost counterintuitive way. “It pretty much ignored opportunities to reveal the views as well as the site,” Grable says. The effect was more pronounced to George: “The house was claustrophobic.” There was never, though, even a suggestion that the three-level red-brick house should be razed. “We were going to recycle this old house,” Lori says. “Not tear it down.” In the process, the couple also planned to repurpose as much of the original material as possible and to reinvent the house as energy-efficient. But first, they had to decipher the cruciform floor plan and determine how to make it fit modern needs.
“The layout was pretty simple,” Grable says. Entry to the house was (and still is) through the living room, which was anchored by a view-blocking fireplace. The former garage, to the right of the living room and a level below, also blocked the view and had been turned into a family room a generation earlier. Grable’s plan kept the footprint of the house, but completely transformed its intent. The resulting 4,100-square-foot glass-walled structure boasts great views on all sides, and low ceilings have all been uplifted to new heights—14 feet in some rooms, in others 16 feet. And, Grable converted previously unused roof space into spacious decks.
“The house seems so much larger now,” marvels George. “What we look at now is beyond the boundaries of the walls.” Grable understood the effect so much glass would have—66 percent of the house—so he framed each door and window in black, as if they were picture frames. Black continues throughout as a dramatic theme—in the brick fireplace surround and lacquer cabinetry. It’s a crisp antidote to the earthier materials Grable and the Becknells opted to leave exposed, such as the original concrete support columns visible in the media room and the pebbly cement underbelly of the original foundation, now the ceiling of the lowest floor. Grable added plank-formed concrete in the stairwell walls inside and out—a horizontal theme that’s answered by the angelim wood siding and rain screen above a bridge that crosses over the pool to the front door.
“The house is all about light and shadow,” Grable says. As an antidote to the nuanced light—already dappled as it works its way through the trees and into the house—Lori decided to introduce color via the furniture and art. Easy to do, because the couple had gotten rid of all their old furniture. “I wanted to start over,” George says, “with a modern house and no clutter.” Lori shopped with house plans in hand, purchasing new pieces at Nest Modern, Scott + Cooner and Design Within Reach. Most of the items she selected—rugs, sofas, chairs and chaises—are shades of neutral. But she also picked orange for accent pillows, a round rug in the living room, and the dishes. “I never used orange much,” she says. “But I chose it because it’s the color of sunshine.”
The benefits of sunshine are well-known, and between the orange interior accents and the near-constant access to natural light, the Becknells’ house seems to have made everyone happy. “If you are looking for heaven,” says George, “this is it.” His opinion is shared by passers-by, whose remarks Lori sometimes overhears when she is gardening near the street. “I hear a lot of chatter as people run or bike by,” she says. Comments are always positive, but run from the emphatic and unprintable—as uttered by a teenager on the phone—to the better expressed, “This is the best house I’ve ever seen.”
Alamo Heights, San Antonio
John Grable Architects Inc.
American leather sofa in living room
Eclipse sectional on deck
Platner coffee table in living room
Appliances in kitchen
Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams
Jeanie chairs in master bedroom
Scott + Cooner
Flexform sofa in media room
LC4 Le Corbusier chairs in upstairs family room
Dining table on deck
Range in kitchen