Austin couple build house for the rest of their lives

Jan 12, 2018
Katelena Hernandez Cowles and James Cowles balanced their personalities throughout their Tarrytown home. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman

Cut straight to the crucial tip: Talk to your designer. And listen. You probably won’t be sorry.

Fourteen years ago, Katelena Hernandez Cowles and James Cowles talked and listened to Heather McKinney and Brian Carlson of McKinney York Architects. And they could not be happier with their pliable three-story Tarrytown house built above a dry creek for the couple and their two children, Celia and Gabriel.

Instead of limiting their ideas to the wants and needs of the time, they collaborated with their architects to cook up a house that they can adapt for the rest of their lives, taking into account inevitabilities such as maturing children, aging parents and life’s hard-to-predict thunderbolts.

Take their tall, airy living room flanked on two sides by hanging art and on the other two sides by a long, open kitchen and a tree-friendly deck with a fireplace. At first, the creative and energetic family furnished this inviting central room with four cozy, double-wide chairs equipped with wheels, since the room’s function fluctuated wildly.

“When kids were young, we’d clear the chairs out of the way to set up huge wooden train-track layouts and had group painting sessions with long rolls of paper, science experiments, paper airplane battles from the balcony down into washtubs on floor,” says Katelena, 46, an artist and educator. “The kids learned to ride bikes and to roller skate in a circular pattern around the central staircase. The Brazilian cumaru wood flooring was so hard it was indestructible. We finally resealed the main floor 11 years later.”

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The couple — James, 48, is a financial planner — made sure that this same room functioned for socially fluid events to benefit Austin Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Austin), Women and Their Work, Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin Opera, Girlstart and Hospice Austin, among other nonprofit groups.

“For museum events, we took down our own art and replaced it with pieces they wanted to buy for their institutions, or maybe themed pieces,” Katelena says. “It was easy because so many of the walls have plywood backing behind them, so touch-ups and repairs are simple, lighting is flexible and positionable.”

As Katelena returned to making her own art, she also used this central room as a studio, supplied with a sewing machine and a serger to manipulate fabric. In 2011, she created “Comfort Sessions” as an outgrowth of her Lullaby Project, itself a response to the daily grind of motherhood and the sleeplessness that arose from a brain injury.

“I built a dress on a form with 100 yards or 50 pounds of red polyester fleece,” Katelena says. “There were piles of fabric all around. Then I was able to lay out and stitch together 180 pillows for a spiraling ‘nest.’ In the piece, the audience lay on the nest. I unrolled the dress as blankets and for two hours I sang lullabies.”

At a certain point, the room’s rolling chairs were swapped out for the makings of a conversation pit.

“As the kids got older — and louder — and visiting groups got bigger, we wanted to make it both quieter and cozier,” Katelena says. “My parents’ house in the late 1970s had a conversation pit that I thought was the coolest thing in the world. I wanted to create that feel in the room.”

Today, one can still rearrange the unit furniture, but not as easily as before.

“The one thing we don’t have in the living room is the TV,” says Katelena, who moved the television upstairs to a small, color-saturated space that formerly served as Gabriel’s bedroom. “We are not TV-obsessed, and besides, we can always use a laptop or an iPad these days.”

What they wanted

When the couple first talked to architects Carlson and McKinney at the McKinney York Architects offices, Katelena said she liked taller, lighter shapes and spaces. James, for his part, preferred smaller, darker, cozier arrangements. It eventually dawned on them that they were talking, in a sense, about each other.

“If they can have a good marriage,” McKinney said at the time, “we can make that into a good house.”

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“Parts of both personalities were designed into each area,” Carlson says. “The library, office, guest room and TV room are more Jay, while the living room, staircase and hallways are more Kati.”

Katelena — 5 feet 6 inches — is the daughter of a former Navy nurse and doctor. An effusive bundle of warm energy, she was born in Italy but grew up mostly in Houston and attended that city’s famous High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

James — 6 feet 2 inches — grew up in Spokane, Wash. Quiet, calm, usually smiling, he’s clearly the less outgoing partner in this love match, the one who likes to retreat to a small office in the basement decked out with his ancestors’ dark wood furniture.

The couple met in French class at Yale University and ended up in Austin because James later earned his graduate law and business degrees from the University of Texas.

“We hung around each other for six years,” James says. “Then we married. Then we had six years of hanging out before the kids. Even though Katelena and I seem very different, we both come from large families that gather often.”

James gathers regularly around the country with 75 relatives; Katelena, often, 40. This helps explain the social functions of their house, especially the capacious kitchen, which includes high and low service areas for the up-and-down couple, as well as multiple cooking zones. In these wide-open spaces, 10 to 14 people might gather for the holidays, while 50 to 70 can congregate for events and parties.

“For the event here after Celia’s quinceañera last year, we had about 100 people from both sides of the family,” Katelena says. “So it can happen.”

Once she settled in Austin, Katelena headed the education department at the Austin Museum of Art and curated exhibitions while she was there. She later worked as an independent curator — one reason all the bounteous art in the house seems just right — then became known as the Comfort Artist (comfortartist.com) while raising the kids.

That effort includes two gap years while Celia, 16, and Gabriel, 14, pursued independent studies. Not fooling around, Gabriel chose the Cold War as his gap subject.

“I always really liked this house when I was a kid,” says Celia, who shows an affinity for theater as well as academics. “And I like it now because it has a lot of available space for different tasks and friends. We can all be together, but there are also places to get away. The place comes with good acoustics for concerts. My great-grandfather sang mariachi, so he often brings his own band.”

Gabriel has shifted his home headquarters to the east end of the upstairs hall and has claimed the interior balcony as his “annex” for games and his expanding library of history books.

“Now I’m so much farther away from everybody else and I have my own bathroom,” he says. “I like the openness of the balcony part of my area. But if you put a sheet on the glass railing, nobody knows I’m there.”

People into design

After talking at length with Katelena and James, Carlson concentrated on finding a balance, not only between the couple’s personalities but also among the needs of their growing family (Gabriel was in utero at the time).

“It was clear that they wanted social flow,” Carlson says. “Everything we designed maintains movement, so nobody feels trapped.”

Bookcases and big windows as well as art were high priorities for both clients.

“If it’s not an art wall, make it a window,” Katelena said. “If it’s not a window, make it a bookcase. If it’s not a bookcase, make it an art wall.”

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Another crucial element was flexibility.

“There’s a big fridge that’s for storing just about anything,” Carlson says. “Then a smaller fridge for specific meals.”

The Cowles family insisted on recycling, so some of the stones for the garden hardscapes came from construction sites, while a central metal column in the house was rescued from a junkyard. The cumaru hardwood for the floor was harvested sustainably. The rainwater collection system, solar panels and super-efficient insulation contributed to the home’s five-star green status.

The island in the middle of the kitchen is so big they call it a “continent.” It comes with a Silestone quartz countertop so it’s easy to clean and does not stain.

“The honey-drop Italian pendant lights were relatively expensive,” James says. “But Kati never had an engagement ring, so she decided that made up for it. The whole area is terrific for laying out potluck and buffet dinners, our preferred entertainment style for family and friends.”

The family started out with an unusual lot surrounded by mature trees.

“When we first approached the architects, they asked, are you attached to any of these trees?” Katelena recalls. “We said, ‘Yeah, all of them.’ We did trim some of them, but we didn’t cut down any trees or cut any major limbs.”

The house is built on a slightly shorter and slightly wider footprint than the stone farmhouse that was here before, the original house in the area.

“We loved that little house and wished we could have kept it,” Katelena says. “But the foundation just wasn’t sound — the old piers were 6 feet into clay soil, while current ones are 20 feet into limestone – and the house had moved 8 inches from original site.”

Before they transferred the old house to East Austin, the Cowles family threw a party for the owner of the previous 25 years, Betty Peterson, and her friends to toast it goodbye.

Ever since, the Cowleses’ house has seemed in a constant state of change. Art moves around. Books move around. Cabinets are repurposed. Rooms are reassigned. The original dining room, for instance, is now the shared library.

And luckily, much of the house is adaptable for aging, illness or injury. The bedroom on the ground floor was designed with a walk-in shower, grab bars and a low sink, while a dumbwaiter in the kitchen makes it easier to bring up groceries from the street-level basement.

All this helped out during the period when Katelena was recovering from brain injury.

“Even the house’s location worked well,” she says. “We were within walking distance from the kids’ school, the library, the post office, the grocery and toy stores. And it was simple to live only on the bottom floor and to walk everywhere. That’s a compliment to Tarrytown, but also to the design of this house.”