Celebrated Fehr home is star of mid-century tour

Austin American Statesman April 3rd, 2014


Jan and Keli Sotelo lived in their mid-century home for three years before deciding what changes they wanted to make. “We waited till it spoke to us,” Jan says.

A good idea, it turns out, because the house in question is no ordinary house. It’s a landmark, a mid-century jewel-box not just designed by Arthur Fehr of the celebrated Austin firm Fehr & Granger but actually the home Fehr built for himself and his family.

The house is one of five residences featured Saturday as part of “Austin 1964,” Preservation Austin’s annual homes tour, which this year celebrates mid-century modern architecture.

Like any exemplary architect, Fehr, whose firm also designed the terminal at Austin’s Mueller Airport, built his home to push boundaries — to show what could be done when a designer has full rein.

The plan is downright minimal: two rectangular boxes meet at an angle. But the poetry lies in how they meet. Most mid-century homes showcase transparency by offering a view, not just of the inside, but through to the backyard and the hills beyond.

 photo by Paul Bardagjy | April 2014

photo by Paul Bardagjy | April 2014

The view through this house isn’t a peek — the entrance is a huge plate-glass wall that puts the whole thing on view. An innovation that was short-circuited in the 1980s (see the absurdly tiny windows in most of Austin’s vintage apartment complexes), it came earlier than most of us would guess. The home was built in 1949, the same year as Philip Johnson’s trailblazing Glass House.

If Central Austin sometimes seems to be mid-century crazy, what’s equally crazy is how this piece of art could have slipped away.

Jan Sotelo explains that getting the home was an exceedingly close call. Already over budget, the couple were forced to underbid the asking price. Shortly thereafter, the owner received offers that beat not just their bid, but the asking price, by tens of thousands of dollars.

What sealed it was a letter. The couple had already spent years looking for the right home — they’d even paid for two separate home designs from Austin architects, which, for various reasons, went unbuilt. But the second they walked into the Fehr house, “We loved it,” Keli says. So they wrote to the owner, expressing their love, and their plans to keep the house largely untouched. The owner, they know now, was Carina Gilster, an architecture buff and donor to UT’s School of Architecture. And their plea worked.

The other buyers, “They just wanted the lot,” Jan says.

That shudder-worthy thought reminds us just how easily another of our architectural treasures could easily have been wiped from the map. Luckily, Fehr’s home is slightly tucked away into the hills of Central West Austin, not quite so obvious a target, even after being featured in the magazine “House Beautiful” in the 1950s, with photographs from famous architectural photographer Ezra Stoller.

The Sotelos, who run Modern Design + Build, a company that specializes in high-design swimming pools and landscapes, have just completed a thoughtful and progressive renovation that’s not just “sympathetic” to Fehr’s design — it’s downright reverent.

The previous owner, Jan says, commissioned two re-designs, but both involved adding a second story — something fans of minimalist architecture will note has almost never improved any of Austin’s bungalows.

As it is, the home is just shy of 2,500 square feet — very large for 1949, yet several of their friends have asked the Sotelos how they “manage.” Even with two children, the house “lives large,” Jan says. Especially because the living room’s back wall is entirely made of glass. It’s also on tracks that slide completely open, leaving nothing between the couches and the outdoors.

“We call it the Terminal house,” Jan says, because so many of the home’s features use industrial quality materials, the kind you see in airports.

It doesn’t hurt that the couple designs pools for a living. Theirs is spectacular — with infinity edges that give way to an unimpeded view of the hills.

The facade got a re-skinning, with Douglas fir covering tired panels, and “charcoal” limestone blocks replacing the irregular rock wall. That wall also received two new windows — including a playful low window that exposes the feet of whoever is taking a shower.

They also discreetly added 32 solar panels, which lowered their bill to less than $50 a month.

Architect Rick Black helped Preservation Austin curate this year’s tour. “I think it’s extremely well built,” he says of the Fehr house. “It lives easy. The big space (living room) obviously is generous enough for a lot of functions to happen.”

“It’s organized very well. The bedroom wings feel very private. The master gets the most privacy and also has a great view.”

Black says another home on the tour was built by Herb Crume, who actually worked for Fehr & Granger and is still alive. Documenting their work, “That’s becoming very urgent, in the case of mid-century,” Black says, “because a lot of them are 90 years old at this point. But it is time to try to record what we can.”

And saving the homes, instead of knocking them down, is another matter. “The property is so valuable in Austin now, that it tilts toward the land value, rather than the architectural value,” Black says. “And given the needs, whether they’re real or perceived, for square footage — times have changed. The average house in the ’50s was like 850 square feet.”

“Tearing down — some of that is just pragmatic, where the houses are so rundown that it’s quite expensive to rehabilitate them, and at the end of the day you still may not have all the functions that one would want,” Black continues. “You know, I understand, but I also feel like there’s a lack of respect for the original thing, and a lack of willingness to adapt to that. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh.”

Maybe the Sotelo house was lucky being as large as it was. “People want space,” Black says. “There’s nothing inherently bad about that — it’s just, why somebody would buy a beautiful house that’s not the right amount of space for them and just tear it down. Not if it’s a beautiful thing — you can’t maintain the integrity of a 2,000-square-foot house by doubling its size.”

For Jan, this has already become a calling card for his work. And having hundreds of architecture fans pass through won’t hurt, either.

As we stood on the top of the carport (a piece of art in itself), a black car suddenly crawls in front of the house.

“Everybody that drives by does that!” Jan says. Neighbors and strangers will knock on the door. A few even leave letters, offering to buy the house for exorbitant amounts. But most just tell him, “It’s the coolest house ever! Thanks for doing that.”

“Austin 1964”

When: 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Various locations

Tickets: $28

Information: 512-474-5198. www.preservationaustin.org

more images here