During the 1960s, Leonard Lundgren and Ed Maurer flew their own planes to work sites. The city’s commercial air service was spotty back then, leaving the Austin design partners with few travel choices as their business spread across Texas and beyond.
Once, over Junction at dusk, a hail storm caught Lundgren by surprise, tore out the windshield and twisted the propeller into a U-shape.
“He was so beat up, I remember when he took his shirt off, he was purple and blue,” recalls his son, Lance Lundgren. “He was saved by auto pilot and landed the plane safely.”
Another time, when Lance was 13, he traveled with his father on a flight back from South Texas. Suddenly, oil from an unsecured cap sprayed all over the windshield, essentially blinding the elder Lundgren.
“He was cool as a cucumber,” his son, now 56, says. “He swings this sucker around and dropped it down. He remained calm and in total control.”
Lance’s sister, Jan Lundgren Patschke, believes this cool calm helped Lundgren’s team build a design firm with offices in Los Angeles and Mexico City that altered the way American motels were visualized, modernized factories and planted midcentury houses across the landscape.
“That was the way he operated in all his life and in his work,” Patschke, 62, says. “He could navigate with very powerful people.”
The name of Lundgren, who died in 2012, has popped up in the news several times lately. A 1961 West Austin house he designed was the subject of controversy when some admirers tried to preserve it against the owner’s wishes. Not long after that, his elegantly simple Adam’s Extract complex that once crested a hill off South Interstate 35 was lionized.
Other easily recognizable Lundgren local designs include the Holiday Inn on Lady Bird Lake, the first in a series of cylindrical hotels — the most spectacular of those, twin towers planned for Acapulco, was never built — and the futuristic concrete shell at a former motel on U.S. 290 just east of Interstate 35.
Not content with design, Lundgren led the way in urban planning before it became a citywide obsession, and he captained civic and business groups like the Junior Chamber of Commerce.
“I will always remember Leonard Lundgren as one of the giants who made Austin a better Austin,” said former Mayor Lee Cooke on the architect’s death. “And did so without fanfare.”
The man behind the designs
Born in Del Valle in 1918, Lundgren descended from the Swedish pioneers who populated farms in eastern Travis County and built businesses and schools in Austin. His father was a bookbinder who tried to unionize his trade before dying early; his mother, a Lundell, ran a guest house.
He excelled at Austin High School and graduated from the University of Texas after passing all the architectural tests on the first try. Eventually, Lundgren was licensed in all 50 states, quite an achievement, since each enforces a different building code.
“He always said California was the most difficult due to the earthquakes,” Lance Lundgren says. “All his round hotels on the West Coast remain standing without damage. Dad was a perfectionist. To quote him: ‘Do it right or don’t do it at all.’
Before UT, during World War II, Lundgren managed the design and oversaw the engineering and manufacturing of troop landing vehicles in Indiana. There, he weathered the rough winters with his new wife, Gene Neill Lundgren, a descendant of Georgia pioneers who had joined Austin’s Little Colony in Bastrop. The couple had dated since age 14 and married in 1941.
“He absolutely adored our mother,” Patschke says.
“She was one of the few people who could control him,” her brother adds.
Gene and Leonard Lundgren were married 56 years.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the newly minted architect was whipping out designs, including his family’s house on Churchill Drive in Bryker Woods. Many West Austin homes bear his imprint. He became known for his flair in what would be later called midcentury modern, including the exactingly proportioned Zidell House in Taylor.
“Even though this was a man dealing with architecture on an international basis, he’d come home on the weekend and we’d work on that crazy-ass houseboat we had,” his son says. “He was involved in all aspects of our lives, including Scouting and Little League sports. Even after Dad retired, he loved to go over to his rental apartment building and do repairs. He had an incredible work ethic.”
His daughter guesses that, since he had virtually no relationship with his own father, it was paramount for him to be a good provider.
“He had no pretenses,” Patschke says of the family with three children. A third daughter, Lisa Lundgren Klein, 60, lives in Austin. She picked up her father’s artistic tendencies. “He was a dad to all the neighborhood boys. He expected a lot from himself, but also from us as people. We are all very hard workers.”
It was important for the good architect to be an even better man.
“He was just a good guy,” Lance Lundgren says. “Everybody said so.”
Into the civic sphere
Lundgren understood that, for his design projects to succeed, he needed to learn the ways of business and, to some extent, politics. He befriended U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle and worked on campaigns for former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes. These friendships connected him at various times to former Gov. John Connally and President Lyndon Johnson.
These contacts could not have hurt when he landed two prestigious projects, the LBJ State Office Building in the Capitol Complex, a massive fortress of a tower, and the Texas Memorial at the Vicksburg National Military Park, which echoes the style of the state Capitol.
“Of all the hotels and residences he designed and built, I think he was most proud of these projects,” Lance Lundgren says. “Because they were commissioned by the state of Texas and bore the state seal. He loved Texas and Austin.”
Lundgren nurtured a longtime relationship with Kemmons Wilson, the Memphis-based hotelier who was among the first to take advantage of the newly constructed interstate system. His Holiday Inns offered reliable comfort with a mod flair that seemed more urbane than the older Howard Johnson chain.
As early as the 1950s, the chain was primarily identified by its huge green, gold and orange neon signs arranged around an arrow, a star and a marquee box. Lundgren helped complement the look with usually white, resort-style hotels built in solid, modern units.
The first of the chain’s cylindrical hotels was built in 1964 on what was then called Town Lake. In 1994, Lundgren told an audience gathered at that hotel about how it came to be.
“Thirty years ago, Kemmons called me to meet him in El Paso,” Lundgren said. “The purpose of the trip was to fly over various towns in Texas to find locations for new Holiday Inns.”
Lundgren, of course, flew his own plane across the state and, in Austin, the hotel owner spied a choice, little piece of land just west of Interstate 35 on the water. During a meeting about how to develop the oddly shaped site, Wilson drew a circle on a piece of paper.
He “said he had always wanted to build a round building and if we could develop a plan, he would build the first round hotel on this site,” Lundgren recalled. “Kemmons was leaving the next morning, and we had the floor plan completed, and now you see the results of his vision.”
What would Lundgren think of the blocky additions that later robbed the hotel of its soaring quality?
“He believed that, if you didn’t have something good to say, don’t say anything,” his son says. “He was a good politician that way.”
According to his children, Lundgren was offered the No. 2 position at Holiday Inn.
“He was an adamant entrepreneur,” Patschke says. “He turned down the second spot at Holiday Inn because he wanted to be his own man. It would have made him incredibly wealthy, but he didn’t want to put up with corporate culture.”
A good guy
“I tell you, he loved helping people,” Patschke says. “If somebody asked his advice about something, he’d go out of his way to help. Even sometimes if you didn’t ask.”
His children attended public Austin schools but didn’t follow their dad to UT.
“Dad was kinda scared of the hippies, so he wouldn’t let us go to UT,” Lance Lundgren jokes. “We weren’t as smart as he was, either.”
As children, they scrambled all over West Austin, particularly around Laguna Gloria, where their father had presided over the Texas Fine Arts Association when Fiesta, the city’s art fair, was founded in the 1950s.
As his children, beaming with pride, recall the Austin families who filtered in and out of their lives — and those of their parents — they piece together a portrait of a man who will be remembered as much as a catalyst as a designer.
“A true role model as well as an accomplished and loving man,” Patschke says. “When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he replied: ‘A good guy!’”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, history and culture.