Austin Homes Tour: The Art of the Craftsman Style

John Ruskin's ghost will be nearby, eating breakfast tacos and smiling

The American Craftsman style, Wikipedia tells me, is a style of American architecture, interior design, landscape design, and applied and decorative arts that began in the last years of the 19th century.

The American Craftsman style, my wife tells me, is the most lovely manifestation of residential simplicity and handworked elegance in this country’s history – and she’ll be glad to see as many examples of these classic structures as a person can fit into an afternoon.

The American Craftsman style, the good people of Preservation Austin tell me, is the focus of the 27th annual Austin Homes Tour this Saturday, a tour that celebrates seven stunning Craftsman-style homes citywide, homes now enhanced with creative updates and additions showing a seamless adaptation to modern life.

You want to guess, reader, whose leisure-time activities are already planned out for Saturday, April 27th? I’ll give you a hint: It’s the same journo who recently talked with Preservation Austin’s Lindsey Derrington, to get some background on this tour of specific architectural beauty.

Austin Chronicle: How long has Preservation Austin been doing these particular tours?

Lindsey Derrington: We’ve been doing this tour since 1993.

Chronicle: The Craftsman tour?

Derrington: No, but we have an annual homes tour, and every year we focus on a different theme or different neighborhood in Austin. We try to present a more comprehensive view of the city’s history. Since I’ve been here, we’ve done Allandale, Brentwood, and Crestview, focusing on Austin’s postwar growth. Last year, we did Cherrywood, Wilshire Wood, and Dellwood – which is also a lot of postwar heritage – but these year it’s Craftsman, so it’s all over the city, and it’s focusing on the style of architecture rather than a specific neighborhood and how it developed.

Chronicle: Is this the first themed tour, then, as opposed to neighborhood-based?

Derrington: Well, we did a homes-and-gardens tour at one point. So, over the past 27 years, we’ve done thematic tours – but not since I’ve been with Preservation Austin. In 2015, right before I started, we did “Austin Through the Ages,” and we showed a home from the 1890s, and one from the 1920s, and on up.

Chronicle: Ah, cool, a temporal sequence. But is this the first Craftsman-specific tour?

Derrington: Yes!

Chronicle: And did this come about because of the current exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, or is that just a happy coincidence?

Derrington: The Ransom Center approached us. One of our members was on their staff, and she thought it’d be a good way for people to go to the exhibition and learn about the big-picture Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and the United States while having us feature the style on this year’s tour in Austin – to literally bring it home to people. We thought it was a great opportunity to reach the Center’s audience, and for them to reach ours, because clearly it’s people who are interested in history and that kind of interesting cultural heritage and all the stories within it.

Chronicle: Are there any of the Craftsman-style homes in Austin that are of, ah, national prominence? Like, people might come from Seattle or New York to see this one example – or is it of more local importance?

Derrington: I’m gonna say local importance. It was a really popular style nationwide, even though what we think of as Craftsman style originated in California and, through patternbooks and Sears catalogs, the style spread all over the country. So there are Craftsman-style bungalows in Chicago and other places, though the style itself is supposed to be very conducive to hot climates, with sleeping porches and much more of an indoor-outdoor way of living. So the most important examples would be in California, like Greene & Greene and the Gamble House, those iterations of the style.

Chronicle: My wife’s really interested in the whole Craftsman thing, and she wanted me to ask you about Inglenook fireplaces. Where there’s a built-in fireplace and then two, ah, two seats on either side, facing the fireplace?

Derrington: Well, a lot of the homes on this tour do have built-ins: built-in bookcases, built-in sideboards. It was an essential part of the style, because they were trying to reshape the way we live, and they wanted interiors to be a total aesthetic composition. Basically, you’d have built-in furniture so people aren’t bringing in their curlicue Victorian, mass-produced stuff. I don’t know about that exact configuration, but all the homes do have a prominent fireplace, which was part of the Craftsman aesthetic – like, they have a living room, instead of a formal parlor, so everyone can gather around the fire. We have a really good range on the tour, too. One of the homes is from 1936 and it’s really small – it’s definitely a late-style Craftsman home – and there’s another one that was built for an assistant attorney general, and it’s much grander. The homes are all the same style, but there are a lot of different ways that style is expressed, with houses for working-class people to houses for the wealthier families.

Chronicle: Is there a particular house on the tour that, if a person had time to see only one of them – like, “Oh, I have to fly to Lisbon for a film convention that day and I can just see one of these buildings!” – could you pick out just one?

Derrington: I’m gonna not give you the answer you want. Every single one of the buildings is gorgeous. They’re all very different in the way they were built, in the expression of the style, and they reflect the personality of the owners. All of the homeowners on this tour, whether they’ve lived in the house for three years or 25 years, the fact that they love their houses really shows. So … I … can’t: That would be doing a disservice.

Chronicle: Well, sure – it’d be like choosing a favorite among your children.

Derrington: Yeah! And I’d have a mutiny amongst my homeowners if they saw it in print.

Chronicle: Were all the homeowners already members of Preservation Austin? Or – how does that work?

Derrington: Well, a lot of them are. But we put out a call online – we have a submission form through Google Docs. We put out the call to AIA Austin, so the architects who worked on the homes will maybe see that and convince their clients to submit. In other years, we’ve done outreach to neighborhoods, because we always want to expand our community and our audience. When we were doing the post-war stuff in North Central Austin, and in the East Austin area, we had to do a lot of driving through neighborhoods and seeing houses, looking them up in TCAD, and sending letters – because those are, unfortunately, outside of our usual pool of people who think of their homes as historic. Which is part of the reason why we have tours there: “Your house is very important and tells an important story about how our city developed and grew.” But this year it was a little bit easier. People with Craftsman-style homes have been in the capital-H Historic category for longer.

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