The Good Eye: Hitting Home

Preservation Austin knows there's no place like midcentury modern

The escalators at the historic Starr Building
The escalators at the historic Starr Building (Photo by Amy Gentry)

There comes a time in the life of every child of Austin when homeownership starts to sound like a good idea. Driving or biking through the old neighborhoods where one has rented in the past, seeing the broken bottle art and the lawn ornaments and the toilets festooned with baby-doll­-head luminaria and the recumbent­ bicycle­-powered generators and the plastic unicorns wedged into tree branches 50 feet off the ground, one thinks, If these people can own houses, so can I.

Knock on any of these doors, and, if a homeowner you should find therein, ask how much he paid for his 1,000 ­square feet of home. The numbers may surprise you. Not so very long ago, that South Congress bungalow went for less than a hundred grand. The listing off Burnet? A musician bought it from his friend in 1980 for a couple hundred bucks and a souped-­up Ducati. The owner of the limestone Hyde Park cottage started housesitting for a UT professor back in '75, and he just never came back. She thinks he is now the leader of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult in Honduras. Each of these properties is now worth a cool zillion.

Well, weirder times were more affordable for everyone. Even Austinites of color managed to buy homes and create community on the shifting clay east of I­-35 in spite of Austin's segregationist city plan – homes that are now being scooped up, gutted, yellow­ door-­painted, and flipped for half a million, with assurances to the buyer that there are many private school options available. As a Gentry myself, I have always been peculiarly aware of my role in the process that is our namesake. Now, thanks to the population boom, the housing shortage, and the city's perpetually incentivizing growth without devoting equal or even barely adequate resources to public transportation, I can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods I have myself participated, in a first­wave sort of way, in gentrifying. As karma goes, it's fairly mild.

At the moment, however, what I need is some serious housing porn. It was in that spirit that I attended Preservation Austin's lecture on mid­century modern architecture, presented at the historic Starr Building Downtown as part of the lead­-up to the "Austin 1964!" Home Tour on April 5.

The first course in the architectural feast was the Starr Building itself, an airy, modern structure which introduced Austin to both modern architecture and escalators in 1954. These shiny twin motor­stairs to the future were, at the time of the lecture, roped off and frozen in permanent staircase mode; still, you could imagine riding them upward as the candy-­colored angles of the giant abstract lobby mural by Seymour Fogel crowned the marble horizon ahead. A brief introductory lecture by Robert Summers discussed Fogel, who apprenticed under Diego Rivera, painted WPA murals throughout the Depression, and, most importantly, hung out with my eyebrow heroine Frida Kahlo before moving to Austin in the Forties.

We moved on to the main course, "When Mid­-Century Modern Came to Austin" by architect Riley Triggs. Triggs focused on Austin-born and -educated architects like Arthur Fehr, Charles Granger, and A.D. Stenger, who translated the high-modernist international style into the Central Texan vernacular by way of soft, craggy limestone and smooth, warm cedar. The "Austin 1964!" Home Tour will focus on five of these homes, whose transparency, simplicity, use of natural and site-­specific materials, and blurring of indoor and outdoor spaces speak to the high ideals of the international style.

Meanwhile, the exclamation point in the title hints that these buildings also partake of the raucous spirit of a year that saw the Civil Rights Act signed into law, the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the theatrical release of The Incredible Mr. Limpet, in which Don Knotts turns into an animated talking fish who helps the Navy track down and destroy Nazi submarines. Add in Don Draper slouching around in well-cut suits, poking his secretary in the rump with a martini swizzler, and 1964 looks like one hell of a year. Just don't Google the price of a Stenger house after the tour. You're happier not knowing.

The "Austin 1964!" Home Tour and Lecture will take place Sat., April 5. Tickets are $28. Information and tickets at

For more images of Austin's stylish Starr Building, see photo gallery.

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Austin style and fashion, architecture, Austin 1964!, Preservation Austin, Starr Building, How Mid­-Century Modern Came to Austin, Riley Triggs, housing market, buying a house, home

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