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Out on a Ledge
By Helen Thompson | Photo: Andrea Calo and Taggart Sorensen | April 12, 2016
A transformational renovation in Austin by Specht Architects reveals the rock-solid history in a neglected house.
If the Anna Karenina principle could be applied to houses, it would confirm that every unhappy house is unhappy in its own way. In the case of a 6,014-square-foot house built on a 45-foot-wide limestone ledge 60 feet above Lake Austin, the dwelling was unhappy in many ways. One among the plethora of reasons was that the 1970s-era modernist rectangle had been deprived of attention as well as visitors for at least 10 years before its current owners stepped inside.
Just walking over the threshold, in fact, was an act of bravery for the professional couple. With only the flat gravel roof of the structure visible to passing motorists, access to the entrance 20 feet below street level was via an external ramp. The excursion downward led past rotting railroad ties, broken windows, ruined mechanicals and overgrown foliage obliterating the lake view. The good news was that the dwelling, which sat on bedrock, was structurally sound.
The sight of the crumbling hulk thrilled the couple, who have renovated two other derelict houses. Both are inquisitive collectors, fascinated by discovery and improvisation. The glass-fronted structure’s potential was immediately obvious to the wife. “We saw cross light everywhere,” she says, “and the possibility of good old-fashioned cross ventilation.” The couple couldn’t resist. “I can see things in my mind’s eye as they will be,” she says, “not as they are. I saw what we could do straightaway.” And besides, her husband loved the site.
The project-loving couple called in Austin- and New York-based architect Scott Specht, a modernist who has a stylish way with obstreperous design problems such as the ones this house posed. “It was an unusual house, to say the least,” Specht understates. His challenge was twofold: to make the house livable, but also to stir in the couple’s love of modernism with their passion for Italy. The process would require merging streamlined style with earthy sensuality. Specht began devising changes that would reveal a better way to live in the eccentric building designed by an architect whose specialty was motels.
“Our big move,” Specht says, “was to create a new entrance at street level.” A glass and stucco pavilion next to the off-street parking pad served as the architect’s solution to the problem of allowing entrance to the house without risking life and limb. “Now,” he says, “everyone comes in at the roof and works their way down a stairwell into the living room.” The entry is the top of a compact three-story tower; its mate is at the other end of the house, where Specht situated bedrooms for the couple’s youngest children. “I treated the center of the house like a glass bridge,” he says.
As Specht was clarifying the floor plan, the homeowners were adding their own touches. The two are vivacious acquirers of oddments big and small. To them, an industrial neoprene green wheel the size of a dinner plate exudes the allure of a precious antique (a few years ago, they purchased eight of the casters that now support the kitchen island). Prescience also led the couple to source from a quarry in Rome gray and white peperino, a volcanic composite of granite and sandstone, which was used for the stair treads, the countertops and the generous kitchen island. Most of the interior doors were found in rural Italy and were used in their rustic condition, while the hardware throughout represents the sleek elegance of contemporary Italian design. Elena Ceccarelli, an architect living in Umbria, Italy, provided all the services needed to get the materials ordered and delivered to the site.
Another long-ago acquisition—3,600 square feet of sediment-soaked oak pilings sunk for 200 years in the Boston Harbor—resulted in the planked floors now installed on the first and second floors. A local supplier was able to provide reclaimed post oak to add in, as the original supply ran short. Furnishings are just as innovative—a confab of Le Corbusier-inspired seating with an Italian sofa, an American empire settee, an ancient monk’s table and an industrial-chic dining table designed by the wife.
If there is a single instinct motivating the homeowners, it’s their zest for creation. The revelation, not the idea of perfection, engages them. “We want something that’s handsome and does its job,” says the wife. “We don’t want something that’s too finished.” There’s no danger of that at this work in progress: The couple purchased the house in 2002 and have been tweaking it ever since. Construction is currently underway on a room-size patio that extends outside the lower level of the house, carapaced by steel support beams for the parking pad above. There are further plans afoot for the deck, a spot that already provides much pleasure for the nature-loving homeowners. “It is as if we are living deep in the country instead of so close to downtown,” the wife says. “The variety of the house’s interior harmonies and the rarity of its surrounds are things that we never take for granted, not for a single day.”
Builder and Master Welder
Geothermal Heating and Cooling
Masonry and Master Stone Mason
Red wall in living room
Fabrizio Nardi, with F.lli Tessicini
All interior stone
Sofa in living room
Endicott Clay Products
Interior tile flooring
Celine Wright light in entry
Lighting systems throughout
Wood floors throughout
Chairs in dining and living rooms
All plumbing fixtures
Wood flooring in bedrooms