Salvaging two South Austin gems

Old structures renovated by modernists Charles Umlauf and Seymour Fogel cherished by Austinites.


Highlights

In the 1940s and ’50s, two old buildings were transformed into residences and studios by key Austin artists.

Two modernist but stubbornly rustic retreats are preserved, one in private hands, the other in public.

Two barnlike stone structures once stood abandoned in South Austin. One rested on a hill with a view of the city; the other, located farther south, spread out on lush flats near a creek and railroad tracks.

Separately in the 1950s, these old buildings were transformed into residences and studios by important Austin artists who were friends — until they were not.

Miraculously, both these partially modernist but stubbornly rustic retreats have been preserved, one in private hands, the other in public. While their separate histories have been told, their connections are still being made.

The onetime friends were sculptor Charles Umlauf and muralist Seymour Fogel.

Umlauf, who died in 1994, was a longtime University of Texas teacher and a prolific maker of flowing figures, many of which can be spotted all over town. He is best known these days as the namesake of and chief artistic contributor to the city-owned Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, just east of Zilker Park. Others remember him as the artistic mentor of late actress Farrah Fawcett while she studied at UT.

Fogel, who left Austin in 1959 and died in 1984, is less well remembered locally, despite his cultlike status among fans of midcentury modern Texas art. Perhaps his most visible legacy in Austin is the gorgeously preserved large mural inside the Starr Building, originally home to the American National Bank, now smartly occupied by the McGarrah Jesse marketing agency at 121 W. Sixth St.

According to Katie Robinson Edwards, who wrote the authoritative history “Midcentury Modern Art in Texas,” Umlauf arrived in Austin in 1941, three years after the founding of UT’s College of Fine Arts. Fogel joined him as a peer in the art department in 1946.

The artists shared similar tastes and enthusiasms, especially regarding the transformative power of public art. By the late 1950s, however, it appears that the two strong-minded men had grown apart. Some suggest their break contributed to the return of the muralist to the New York area, which meant leaving his family home, Southwind, in the hands of a series of charmingly eccentric residents.

“They started out as friends,” says Paisley Robertson, current owner and spiritual caretaker of Fogel’s barn-turned-house on Kinney Road, which she has conserved. “Fogel either quit or was fired from UT. Same as J. Frank Dobie. Somehow forced out. Gayle, his daughter, says it broke her mother’s heart. And Barbara Fogel was never the same.”

Two houses alike

This newspaper has profiled the hybrid structures previously. In 2008, Charles Ealy reported on Fogel’s Southwind, a 19th-century barn painstakingly transformed into a residence and studio in the 1950s.

READ: Our 2008 story on Southwind

In 2011, this reporter delved into Charles Umlauf’s house, built in the 1950s on the site of an old stone structure — perhaps a farmhouse, but some locals remember it as a horse stable — and a separate studio perched above what is now the museum.

It came directly into the hands of the city of Austin after the death of his widow, Angeline Umlauf, in 2012. Museum leaders, including Edwards, the museum’s curator and Nina Seely, its executive director, are studying its possible roles for their campus.

FROM 2011: A peek at Umlauf lands not often seen

Both Fogel and Umlauf liked big projects. They brought to them big personalities and a high degree of competitiveness. Both habitually entered competitions for commissions, angled to join major art collections, and once managed to place winning pieces on the same wall of building adjacent to the UT campus: Umlauf’s part is a brick relief of hands, Fogel’s a sophisticated mural.

Though they both broke into the art business in big cities, Umlauf and Fogel sprang from very different cultures.

Umlauf came down to Austin from Chicago, where he had trained, at the insistence of San Antonio patron Marion Koogler McNay, namesake for that city’s McNay Art Museum. His muscular, streamlined works echo the populist style of American art during the Great Depression, much of it commissioned as part of the New Deal.

Fogel was a New Yorker who had worked with Diego Rivera, perhaps the most famous muralist of his day, on controversial art for Rockefeller Center that was later destroyed.

“He was a big deal,” Edwards says of Fogel. “He was something of a radical socialist. He wanted to give art back to the people.”

Before Fogel left town, he contributed to the domed design of Palmer Auditorium, which was later completely renovated into the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

His friends the Umlaufs had steered him to that empty barn on Kinney Road. Correspondence between the families indicates they were respectful of each other, even if not always warm.

Why did Fogel leave?

“You hear that Umlauf was the one that fired him at the behest of higher-ups,” Robertson says. “He was loved by students, but not by the faculty. He didn’t have time for ‘How’s your mama?’ And you needed to have time for ‘How’s your mama?’ in Texas in 1954.”

The Umlauf story

Products of the Upper Midwest, Charles and Angeline Umlauf raised six children, several of whom became civic leaders in Central Texas.

They purchased what has been described as a stone farmhouse at Robert E. Lee and Barton Springs roads. As detailed in 2011 and 2012 American-Statesman stories, the couple then built a modernist family house around the stone walls, later adding a spacious studio for the sculptor.

Meanwhile, Angeline published poetry and acted as ambassador for the family trade.

“Angie was Charles’ gracious public face,” Nelie Plourde, former director of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, told this reporter. “We used to tease Angie that she didn’t so much sell his sculptures as place them for adoption.”

In 1985, the Umlaufs donated their house on the hill, along with the studio, the surrounding 2 acres and 168 pieces of sculpture, to the city of Austin for an expected future museum. At the time, the Umlaufs planned to stay in the house “until we are through,” as Charles Umlauf said.

Late philanthropist Roberta Crenshaw persuaded the State of Texas to swap 6 acres below the hill with the city of Austin. That land, formerly fish ponds, became the museum and sculpture garden in 1991.

Standing atop the crooked hill above, visitors peer southeast into the shady Barton Heights neighborhood, northeast down to Lady Bird Lake, northwest to lower Barton Creek, southwest to the museum. A granite staircase — overgrown with vines and no longer safe — once connected the upper and lower properties.

When the Umlauf kids camped out on the cliffs, only the occasional car crossed the wooden bridge over Barton Creek. The family’s ranch-style house, with its pale mahogany paneling and support beams, looks right out of the 1940s and ’50s. Yet one can easily pick out the original stone walls and fireplace inside.

Family lore dates this part of the building to the 1920s, when two women lived here and left it, for a while, a “haunted house.” Yet the limestone construction methods point to an earlier period, perhaps the middle of the 19th century.

According to Nelie Plourde, “Bubi Jessen with Jessen Architects did the remodel, in exchange for Umlauf’s cast stone ‘Poetess’ sculpture, which the Jessen family later gave to Laguna Gloria.” The statue is now on long-term loan to the Umlauf museum.

Aptly, Charles and Angie Umlauf’s ashes are spread beneath tall cedars at the southwest end of the hilltop. A simple memorial marker is attended by sculptures, some of them religious in nature, including a portrait of Pope John XXIII, whom Umlauf admired.

The Fogel story

Paisley Robertson told Ealy that she found Southwind by eerie happenstance in in 1994 (see box).

Neighbors told her that a painter named “Señor Foley” had lived there a long time ago, perhaps garbling the name of Seymour Fogel. She figured the man was a house painter. But at the Austin History Center, Robertson discovered that a great artist had made the property his home and studio.

She also ran across a Statesman article from the 1950s stating that the house had been an entertainment hot spot.

Originally part of the Isaac Decker grant, like much of South Austin, the land was sold to George Peter Hachenberg, a Civil War surgeon, who built a stone and wood barn there in the 1880s. Robertson collected scraps about Hachenberg’s life and his inventions. When the doctor died, the property passed to his heirs, who sold it in 1952 to Austin jeweler Charles Ravey, Ealy reports. And by the end of that year, after the property had changed hands yet again, Fogel was the new owner.

Fogel and his wife, Barbara, removed the barn’s second story, retained the original first-story stone walls and reused wood from the second story to panel the interior. Ealy describes the result as a large house, studio and gallery with open rooms, concrete floors and a bank of windows on the south side looking onto a screened porch.

Because the house was oriented to take advantage of the prevailing breezes, Fogel named it Southwind. He entered into a productive period of creativity there, and his wife, accomplished in her own right, held salons that attracted the intellectual lights at UT, including the visiting poet T.S. Eliot.

By the 1960s, the Fogels had sold the home. Someone else owned it for a short time before Mildred Denman Ferguson and her five sisters and her mother, who lived there for the next 30 years. The Ferguson women, whom Robertson calls “cowgirls from Gonzales,” were quite social.

During that time, Ealy reports, many changes were made to the house. Orange shag carpet covered the red concrete floors, and much of the character of the original house was “updated” for the 1970s. That was how it stayed until Robertson came along, shortly after Ferguson died, without a will.

After buying the house for $129,000 — and then just $10 for the 1/2 acre back lot in a sweetheart deal — Robertson contacted Fogel’s daughter. Their letters reveal more details about the property’s heyday. Robertson, whose social resources are formidable, began to return the house to the way that Fogel had envisioned it.

Southwind was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and named a city of Austin historic landmark. Robertson installed sculptures in the spacious backyard and, like her predecessors, threw lots of parties.

When Ealy contacted her, Robertson was trying to sell the house and protect it from the development mushrooming around Southwind. At that time, she went with a third-party conservation easement, not unlike the deals struck by the Texas Nature Conservancy and the Hill Country Conservancy, which allow future owners some flexibility, but legally protect the property from some kinds of development.

“This is my home,” Robertson told this reporter about her time there. “It was meant to be my home. We belong to each other. In a time when things are built for economic considerations first, and this house was designed and built by an artist, he was very Zen about it. It connects the outside and the inside, and these giant spaces. People aren’t used to being in spaces this large. Fogel took into consideration everything. I wake up every morning and go, ‘Ah!’ Austin has grown up around it. And I’m determined to keep it — or the essence of it — the way that it is.”



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