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How to modify a classic midcentury modern home

The Hime family is rehabilitating a gem designed by Roland Roessner.

When Tracey and David Hime stumbled on the arresting house on Balcones Drive, they were reminded of a humorous picture in a book about midcentury modern homes.

“It looked hyperefficient,” David says of that staged domestic scene. “In the kitchen, a woman cooks and cleans while a man makes fishing flies.”

Their 1950s house, precisely perched above a small creek, was designed by distinguished Austin architect Roland Roessner. It appeared almost perfect for their downsizing plans after three grown children had moved out of their roomy Northwest Hills home.

“To me, it felt really cozy because it was small, it was efficient with no wasted space,” Tracey says. “I mean, the washer and dryer and hot water heater were in kitchen. How efficient is that! You didn’t have to chase your way around the kitchen.”

And yet, as with so many buyers considering a midcentury classic, it didn’t exactly fit their needs. How could they open it up a bit, create a master bedroom and a place for guests to stay over?

Not surprisingly, too, Tracey didn’t really want the washer and dryer in the kitchen.

David’s cousin, commercial architect Milton Hime, recommended a designer who would be supremely sensitive to the urge to preserve the best about the slim house while transforming it to fit current needs.

Enter Emily Little.

Little and Burnish & Plumb project manager Brent McDonald, a master of recycled and rediscovered materials — as well as Mark Ashby Design for interiors and Mark Word Design for landscaping — embarked on a project that could be a model for those wanting to preserve Austin’s midcentury gems.

“Their appreciation of this architecture drove the project,” architect Little says of the Himes. “Roessner understood this land. And the footprint of the house stayed pretty much as it is, except for the added guest house.”

A trace of history

After World War II, when the neighborhoods of Highland Park West, Colorado Foothills, Balcones Park and Balcones Park Edgemont were strung along the ridges, canyons and native oaks near Mount Bonnell and Camp Mabry, young families rushed in.

“When their parents found out, they wondered why they wanted to live on an old mule track,” jokes preservationist and media expert Julian Read, who has lived near the Himes’ under-rehabilitation house for 49 years.

His home and the one next to it — the second, sadly, slated for demolition — were also designed by Roessner. The latter was built in 1957 by Dr. Seldon Baggett. Along with others, Read vainly pleaded with the Austin Historic Landmark Commission to save the house next door. “If you have a home with character, it’s a shame to lose it. It’s part of our collective heritage.”

By chance, architect Little grew up not far away. Her father was a physicist at the University of Texas — professors and other white-collar types often commissioned the midcentury houses here and in West Lake Hills, Barton Hills and East Austin — and the pavement ended at her house.

“There were three more houses on a dirt road, then just woods,” Little says. “We had all of Mount Bonnell as our playground. It was a blast. Kids everywhere. It was like living out in the country.”

Unlike the homes built in cookie-cutter subdivisions, these structures were often fashioned with novel open plans and sleek lines by local design leaders, including, besides Roessner, Leonard Lundgren, Barton Riley, J. Eugene McKee, John Chase, A.D. Stenger, Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger, whose gems are scattered around town.

The Himes are related by marriage to Granger, one namesake of the Fehr and Granger firm. Granger studied at UT and at the Cranbrook Academy, whose notable students and faculty from the same period included Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames.

“Fehr and Granger were very influential in Austin’s midcentury modern movement and designed such notable public buildings as Mueller Airport (terminal), O. Henry Junior High School, St. Stephens School Chapel, etc.,” says David, an orthodontist whose practice is located just up the street on Balcones. He thinks that the Cranbrook connection “puts Granger at the epicenter of design and architecture in the 1940s with the most notable designers/architects of what would come to be known as midcentury modern design.”

The couple’s peripheral relationship to Charles Granger — he died in 1966 in a car accident — didn’t influence their decision to purchase and rehabilitate the Roessner-designed house.

“But as we dove deeper into the process, guided by Emily and her team, we came to appreciate what these midcentury modern homes tell about our city’s cultural past,” David says. “And how tied in we were to the entire 20th-century movement. Austin was not some reluctant participant, but rather was leading the way.”

Tackling the project

“It was the best phone call from the Himes that I could gotten,” Little says. “I always loved this house.”

Tracey remembers the email that Little sent when they agreed to work together: “This is a red-letter day.”

Native Austinite Tracey Hall Hime, daughter of Frank Edward Hall, who owned Lone Star Meat Company in East Austin, grew up in Old Enfield at a time when Tarrytown, to the west, was considered the platinum address.

“I never thought much about houses until I was old enough to buy one,” she admits. The first that she purchased was in Olmos Park, a 1920s development in San Antonio. “That was a cool house once owned by the mayor of Mexico City as a vacation home. It was a Spanish-style built around a courtyard and had no air conditioning.”

The couple moved into a 1998 home in Northwest Hills in 2008, needing the extra space for three daughters, now in their 20s. “That’s a big house,” she says. “With them all gone, we don’t even use the upstairs.”

Time to reduce.

“We thought we’d want to live more centrally,” David, a San Antonio native, says. “Driving all over town, we saw this house one day. The image from the street caught both of us, a little box jutting out over the ledge, nestled into the branches of old oak trees. Tracey calls it her little treehouse.”

They put their money down in 2013. The Himes were fascinated by the story of the family that built it. Dr. Lansing Thorne — two other Thorne brothers, also doctors, lived nearby — had one child, Ellen, who helped the Himes and their project team piece together, with the help of photos and two sets of original plans, how the house looked when it was built in the 1950s.

Why two sets of plans?

“Because they thought they could not have children,” Tracey says about the Thornes. “Then she ends up pregnant, and they make a another set of plans.”

With Little and team, they found ways to tweak the Roessner classic, which unfolded around open, faceted spaces.

“I always wanted the inside of our house to be modern,” David says. “We turned two bedrooms into a modern master suite. We are building out the exact layout of the public spaces, but better.”

Among the improvements: Repurposed bathtub and sink that were in Ellen’s room, added office and utility room and, of course, new appliances.

“If we could keep the same windows, we would, but we wanted energy efficiency,” David says. “We wanted it not to be an old, leaky house.”

Little says that in a true preservation effort, nothing would have changed, but that wasn’t this project, which instead tried to keep the character-defining elements.

“There are those who will not be happy with some things we’ve done here, starting with the windows,” she says. “The Himes are looking at a 50-year investment in their lifetime. There were numerous decisions to be made to ensure the long-term life of this house.”

The Himes also took advantage of sustainable energy systems, insulation, solar panels and fresh wiring.

“Energy usage is projected at $6 a month,” contractor McDonald says. “It’s sealed as tight as possible. We put in waterproofing membranes that are self-healing when you drive a nail through them.”

Recycling not only cuts down on the house’s carbon footprint but also preserves some original looks.

“We reclaimed the four-square stamp framing and the brick, which came from a Houston dry press plant that closed, but Acme Brick found a close match for replacements,” McDonald says. “Also the redwood siding as well as the tub, sink and structural steel.”

The house hid some surprises.

“We found Mrs. Thorne’s silver service hidden away in the back of a cabinet,” Tracey says. “It hadn’t been touched.”

That find and others were turned over to Ellen, who lives in New Mexico.

Not everybody understood the Himes’ grand project.

“Our daughters and mothers walked through and were skeptical when they first saw it,” David says. “But they are beginning to understand our vision.”

Longtime preservationists, Little and Read see far more than an individual house in transition.

“This is not a restoration — it’s a rehab,” Little explains. “It would either stay where it was entirely or move into the future.”

“There has to be a native interest in history, too” Read insists. “If there isn’t that, you won’t be driven to do the right thing. You need a recognition of how this can happen, how a house can be repurposed totally, combining original charms with sensible improvements.”

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