The Voice for Texas Architecture

Woods High School

“Making use of his own will in his contact with his environment, he (the child) develops his various facilities and thus becomes in a sense his own creator. We should regard this secret effort of the child as something sacred.” —Maria Montessori

In education reform circles, excitement about new approaches to learning that go beyond the standard lecture-and-learn model is peaking. Even the U.S. Department of Education, never the first to board any sort of cutting-edge train, touts a quasi-revolutionary vision of student-led learning: “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.”

There’s money at stake, too. In 2012, more than $1 billion in venture capital funding flowed to educational technologies that enable such student-directed learning (up from $146 million just a decade earlier). Given the excitement, it would be easy to look at educational strategies that prioritize less seat time, more independence among students, and flexible pacing and be wowed into thinking there’s something fundamentally revolutionary going on. But doing so would betray a misunderstanding of the history of education in the 20th century.

Go back 108 years to Maria Montessori’s first school in Rome. The school embraced, and Montessori popularized, the ideas of self-directed learning, flexible seat-time, and other instructional techniques that have gained new currency in the age of education apps. Under her influence, the ideas spread far and wide. By 1962, those ideas gained a toehold in the greater Houston area when School of the Woods opened its doors in Spring, Texas. Located in the pine forest, the school was named not after the trees, but after Ernest and Hilda Wood, who were among its founders. The couple influenced the institution’s adoption of the Montessori method, including its adherence to multi-age classrooms to foster peer learning, guided choice of work activity among students, and provision of uninterrupted blocks of time in which to do it.

The physical environment of the school reflects the Montessori philosophy. Donna Kacmar, FAIA, of Natalye Appel + Associates says a new high school building, now under construction after a decade of fundraising, follows suit. “We investigated different learning environments and how to connect the architecture to the Montessori curriculum,” she notes. Scheduled for construction this year and designed some years back by Appel + Associates, Architect Works, and James Ray Architects, the structure employs several key design elements to foster independent learning. The community space is at the heart of the program. Fluid and varied, the space is contiguous from the open-air gymnasium through the classroom wing; it continues to the wooded site beyond. Plan and sectional variety support simultaneous and complementary learning activities among students: Performance, gatherings, and group learning can take place while other students engage in individual work, reading, or simply thinking.

Changes in scale and light quality, and attention to materials and acoustics, are all carefully deployed to support learners with multiple intelligences, and to reflect the schools’ educational and philosophical priorities. Seamless indoor-outdoor environments, apparent in clusters of classrooms, patios, and balconies, encourage awareness of the natural world. Daylighting, natural ventilation, and rainwater harvesting are a physical embodiment of school’s environmental agenda. When completed, the new high school structure seeks to embody Maria Montessori’s view of the reciprocal relationship between education and the environment. “Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment,” she wrote. School of the Woods High School is designed to facilitate such experiential learning at its richest.

Ashley Craddock is the guest editor for Texas Architect magazine.

This article is online content for the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect.

Q&A with David Adjaye

Before she died in 2007, artist, collector, and philanthropist Linda Pace commissioned David Adjaye to design her Foundation’s new gallery, called “Ruby City.” TA contributor Patrick Michels talks to the architect about the gallery design, his experience working in Texas, and what advice he has for architects in our state looking to create meaningful public spaces.

David Adjaye – courtesy Adjaye Associates

How did you become involved with the Linda Pace Foundation, and how does this building reflect Linda Pace’s influence? 

I came to San Antonio in 2007 to meet with Linda, and she shared with me a sketch she had created of an idea that came to her in a dream of a “Ruby City.” That vision, of a jewel-like structure sited on San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek, was a powerful inspiration. During the trip, we explored the Foundation’s property and the extraordinary San Antonio Missions. The architecture of the Missions informed the design — particularly with respect to the vaulting and skylit gallery. We were also motivated by the topography of the site and the wider project to rehabilitate the area into a vibrant new urban park and cultural campus. So the design for the building also became about creating an important civic moment for the city.

Describe a few of your favorite features in Ruby City’s design.

One feature we are enjoying is the opportunity for experimentation with materials in order to create a red building. We have been exploring techniques of embedding fragments of recycled red glass and other reflective materials to achieve sparkle into our ruby-tinted concrete.

What constraints did the space or its surroundings create that you had to respond to?

The building is located on Camp Street, one of several properties of the Pace Foundation, which can best be understood as a campus running from South Flores Street to the San Pedro Creek. It will be the third property developed — the first two being Chris Park and LPF offices on South Flores. The entry to the new building is from the west facing San Pedro Creek, which is currently under development to create a new urban park with pedestrian and bike paths leading from our site to downtown San Antonio.

What kind of experience will visitors have inside Ruby City, and how were those design decisions influenced by the content of the Pace Foundation’s collection?

The building is conceived as a loop, with a specific choreography attached to the significance of Camp Street. A grand stair off the lobby slowly steps upward in a space for Linda’s private life. It culminates at the second floor at a window overlooking Chris Park (a park Linda built in memory of her son). From there one can move through the three gallery spaces, each with a lantern oriented to a different sky position. The last gallery before descending back to the lobby overlooks the entry plaza and San Pedro Creek. From the lobby, one can move out of doors to the sculpture court on the south side of the property. A 24-ft canopy provides a shaded entrance and gathering place in front of the building.
The design of Ruby City is really about creating an experience that moves away from the idea of a picture gallery or an archive. Equally, it eschews the idea of the rarified object or a sense of the galleries becoming temple-like. Instead, it offers a relationship between the production and the reception of art, more than the framing of art. In this case, I have tried to access the specific narrative of what the work is part of, or what the setting of the work should be, and how this might resonate with universal questions that transcend time and culture. So the building is about an engagement with people, an engagement with a discussion of art and authorship, and an engagement with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world.

You’ve always made a point of studying the places where you work, even visiting every African nation to study the continent’s architectural variations. What do you find unique about the landscape and predominant architecture of Texas?

The architecture and history of the Missions is highly specific, and the design of Ruby City references the historic Spanish tropes of these frontier buildings. More broadly, the marshy landscape and humid climate of San Antonio suggest an architecture of light balanced with the need for shade and a celebration of greenery.

What lessons can your work offer for architects in Texas who want to create meaningful public spaces?

All of my civic buildings aspire to offer a complex framework for social engagement. My hope is that this building will equally extend the civic realm of San Antonio with a space that is inclusive, energized, and uplifting. The concept has been driven by the Pace Foundation’s belief that art is essential for a dynamic society — and it was very much this quality about my other work that presented a synergy between myself and Linda.
Patrick Michels is an Austin-based reporter and staff writer at the Texas Observer.

Q&A with Tere O’Connell, AIA

When the City of Austin decided to use East Austin’s historic Dedrick-Hamilton house as the basis for a new African American Cultural Heritage Facility, the job fell to Austin preservationist Tere O’Connell, AIA, to unearth details of the home’s history and how best to preserve it. O’Connell spoke with Texas Architect about the ever-changing priorities that drive demand for preservation work, and the challenge of preservation in a community where so much history either is lost or was never officially recorded. The interview was conducted by Patrick Michels.

Historic preservation architect Tere O’Connell, AIA – photo courtesy Tere O’Connell

From a preservation standpoint, what makes the Dedrick-Hamilton House so special?

I’ve been involved with this house for much longer than the duration of the project. I started becoming involved with historic preservation issues in the neighborhood in 1990, back when I was with the Texas Historical Commission. I fought for a very long time to keep houses in the neighborhood from being demolished and had many contentious meetings, and I even got called into a state representative’s office and was told to stay out of East Austin.

So I knew about this house from all of that work. We lost so much in all of the surrounding neighborhood, and that house just miraculously stayed present. When we were doing some identification work, I think James Hamilton was still living in the house. It was in really bad shape then, so I think the city condemned the property and took it over. When the city decided to make it part of the African American Cultural Heritage Facility, that just made a tremendous amount of sense to me because I really believe that it’s important to keep historic buildings integrated with the community. I think it’s a better solution than moving them to a collection of buildings that might look okay together at the moment, but they’re kind of a fabrication of what was there historically.

So I thought it was really cool that they wanted to preserve this house and build a new facility around it. I’ve known Al York for years and I knew [McKinney York Architects] would do a fabulous job of designing the new building, and they asked me to consult on the historic building. It was just a great opportunity to keep a historic structure integrated in its original location. It’s basically a representation of what was there all along the street originally, a reminder that this used to be a row of single-family houses.

Dedrick-Hamilton House before restoration – photo by McKinney York Architects

You wrote the report for the city on the house’s history. How did you research that?

Most of the research came from the Austin History Center. The rendering of William Dedrick that’s in that report from the Knights of Pythias Parade on Juneteenth — that was such an incredible find. I don’t know how I found that. It was such an incredible stroke of luck. There aren’t adequate resources on African American history and you have to really scour any potential documents to see if you can find something that you’re looking for. I just really lucked out in finding this rendering of him, in a children’s book of all things. I remember the feeling when I found it. Doing historical research, especially in an underrepresented community, you just have to dig in a lot of different places to see what you can find. I feel like I got really lucky for both his rendering and the photograph of Sarah Dedrick in the Community Welfare Association photograph from the J. Mason Brewer book “A Historic Outline of the Negro in Travis County.”

We did find historic wallpapers, and we found historic patterned linoleum under the plywood floors that was very colorful and very vibrant. Very deteriorated. But all of those artifacts were saved, and they tell us the way they decorated the house. The house was extremely deteriorated at the time when we started the work, and there weren’t any documents from the family in the house. Architecturally speaking, of course, we had the physical clues from the house. I could tell the age of the materials based on the window profiles, an older profile that was typical of the period when it was constructed. They analyzed the paint history of the building and found that yellow color down close to the surface in many locations. That’s how we came to that color [for the exterior paint today]. Patterned linoleum was a really popular thing at the turn of the century, and it’s hard to find somebody who can recreate that now, but it would be really cool if they wanted to go back and do that.

Austin’s African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, designed by McKinney York Architects working with Tere O’Connell – photo by Thomas McConnell

I heard a story about having to chain the house together for support when the time came to move it to install its new foundation. Structurally, what were some of the challenges this project presented?

The structural integrity of the house was really compromised. It was probably the most deteriorated building, starting out, that I’ve ever worked on. The floors were completely caved in. The roof had been breached for a long time, a lot of water had come into the building over the years. There was a lot of rot, a lot of deterioration. Fortunately, the contractor who did the work, James Nolan, has a lot of training and experience working with historic structures. That’s another key factor in a successful restoration — having a contractor who is not dissuaded by the challenges that a historic building presents. Fortunately, we had that in James. A lot of times, a contractor will look at a building like this and say, “I can’t do anything with that.” When really, we all know that you can. So attitude is a good part of the solution.

The bracing system that the structural engineer designed to support the house while it was being lifted and the foundation being replaced was also really important to its success. There was a lot of structural intervention that needed to take place because it had just taken on a lot of water for so many years. Historic wood is naturally more resistant to decay and rot than modern wood — if the house had been built of the kind of wood you can get today, it would’ve sunk into the ground with the kind of exposure to the elements that this building survived.

How often are you working with a public client like this, and when you work with a private client, what’s different in terms of how much leeway you’re given or the resources you get?

It’s pretty hard to generalize. I just made the transition to private clients last year and started my own firm, and now I do only private clients. They hire me because they want to preserve their house. Public architecture restoration is a whole different ballgame. There’s different sources of funding and different goals for the project depending on the sources of funding, and a different level of responsibility to the taxpayers, making sure that things are a good value and a good expenditure of public funds. It just has a whole different character to it than working in the private sector.

Midcentury modern architecture in Austin is gaining appreciation, says O’Connell. Pictured here is the Charles Granger home, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. – photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commona CC BY-SA 3.0

What preservation and restoration work out there right now is especially interesting to you, either in Austin or around Texas?

In Austin, one of the things we’re really focused on is increasing interest and appreciation for midcentury modern architecture — A.D. Stenger and Fehr and Granger and the architects of the 1950s and 60s. That style of architecture is just coming into a new level of appreciation when for the last 15 years people have been demolishing those houses. Now I think a new appreciation of that architecture is forming, and that’s the way it is with every cycle of architecture. It’s kind of like fashion, things go in and out of style. A building that is 40 to 60 years old is the most out of style, and if it can survive that time period and get to the other side, then there’s an increased appreciation from that next generation for that architecture.

We’d really like to see, in Austin, a lot more opportunity for local historic districts to preserve the character of our neighborhoods. In Austin they’ve been very good at recognizing individual landmarks — all the big grand houses, or a lot of them, are recognized as Austin landmarks — but what we’re losing is the fabric of our neighborhoods. If you go to any landmark commission meeting in Austin, there’s just one demolition after another of these cute little average houses that form the fabric of our neighborhoods.

How much of your work comes down to the tastes and the demands of the time we’re in right now, and how much are you able to affect preservation based on your own sensibilities and long-term planning?

To really affect change, you can work through making public comment and meeting people and trying to inspire them to appreciate the architecture that they have. And we’ve had some success with that. There was a big case a few years ago, the Red River House on 38th Street, and the owner really wanted to tear it down. And we garnered the whole community to come out and say why this house was so important, why it was such an icon. Engaging the community and helping to convince owners that their house is worthy of preservation, that’s something I’ve been really involved in, but I haven’t really garnered enough chutzpah to go stand in front of a bulldozer or something.

This interview is online content for the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.

At Home on the Border


Participants in the 23rd Annual Building Communities Conference of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects began the two-day conference at South Padre Island with a daylong preconference tour on September 24 that focused on the domestic architecture of the border city of Brownsville. Guided by the City of Brownsville’s Heritage Officer Roman McAllen, Assoc. AIA, and Downtown Manager and Brownsville Film Commissioner Peter L. Goodman, the 40-plus tour participants cut a cross section through the architectural history of this border city of 180,000 people.

The tour began at Market Square in the heart of downtown Brownsville. Carved out of a standard city block, Market Square is home to the Brownsville City Market House of 1852 (plus many additions and some subtractions), the oldest city hall building in Texas. Participants got to see the preservation work performed on the ground-floor market stalls by Brownsville building conservator Lawrence V. Lof and then walked a block and a half to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral of 1859 to inspect the first phase of restoration by Volz O’Connell Hutson Architects of Austin, completed in 2014. The tour also stopped at the Market Square branch of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, the Dallas-based nonprofit community design center, where [bc]’s Jesse Miller, Assoc. AIA, talked about the firm’s Brownsville projects, including the Belden Trail rail-to-trail conversion.

Roman McAllen led the group to what may be the oldest house in Brownsville, a three-room wood cottage built by the English immigrant William Neale, possibly as early as the mid-1830s. Now owned by the City of Brownsville, which is obligated to move it off the site it has occupied for the last 65 years, the tiny, side-gabled house appears to be a Mississippi Valley Spanish cottage, its three side-by-side rooms and front veranda tying it architecturally to such houses as Hope Farm in Natchez, Miss. From the Neale cottage, the group moved by bus through downtown Brownsville to the West End neighborhood to visit the Kowalski-Dennett House of 1893, the work of Brownsville’s foremost late-19th-century architect-builder, Samuel W. Brooks. Set in a walled garden, the Mansard-roofed house is fascinating because Brooks organized its thin wings in a T-shaped plan, shaded by galleries, to take advantage of the prevailing southeast breeze. Participants ventured a few blocks farther to the Casa de la Higuera, facing Washington Park. This is a pair of houses—one a 1920s bungalow, the other of indeterminate age—which Roman McAllen recycled for an extended family. Functioning as both designer and builder, McAllen took advantage of Brownsville’s status as the “ship breaking” capital of the United States to retrieve and reuse salvaged rails, metal cabinets, a workbench, lamps, and aluminum and teak components in the smaller of the two houses, ingeniously economizing on both expenditure and space. The larger of the two houses contains an impressive collection of art by contemporary border artists.

A drive through Brownsville’s late-19th and early-20th-century neighborhoods brought the tour to Palm Boulevard, the divided, palm-tree-lined thoroughfare that leads to Los Ebanos Estates, Brownsville’s

first garden subdivision, developed in 1927. Palm Boulevard and Los Ebanos mobilized infrastructure and landscape to reinterpret the flat, hot, humid borderland as an exotic tropical paradise. Tour participants visited a Monterey style house in Los Ebanos set on an intensively landscaped site backing onto Town Resaca, an oxbow lagoon that meanders through the center of the city. The house was designed in 1937 by Brownsville architect A. H. Woolridge. There, and at the next stop, a spectacular mid-century Modern house faced with limestone and mahogany designed by Page, Southerland & Page and completed in 1951 on a small estate in the 1950s neighborhood of Río Viejo, tour participants witnessed the ways the natural landscape of the Lower Río Grande Valley was re-orchestrated in the 20th century to produce seductive, Eden-like settings of water, sky, and vegetation, even in the center of Brownsville.

The last two stops were located on Resaca de la Palma, which winds through the north and east sides of Brownsville. One was a country house built in 1941 as a winter home by S. Miller Williams, Jr., a co-founder of what is now the Williams Co. of Tulsa. Located on a 12-acre estate, the house was designed by Brownsville architects Frank E. Torres and A. H. Woolridge as a regionalized, streamlined version of a Mexican hacienda. The one- and two-story house is faced with white-painted adobe brick. It consists of two parallel bars — one the family wing, the other a guest wing — that frame a central patio (now containing a swimming pool). Steel casement windows, a screen of glass block, floors of pale blue tile or polished terrazzo, and thin roof plates with tailed rafter ends indicate the house’s 1940s vintage. Just across the resaca, participants visited a house nearing completion designed by Origo Works of Brownsville. Founding principal Javier Huerta, AIA, talked about his efforts to shape living spaces in Brownsville that work with site, climate, and view to accommodate modern family life. Rather than a hermetically sealed, climate-engineered box, Huerta’s Hackberry House rides above the sloping ground on a platform, which permits breezes and water run-off to pass beneath the house. The carport can be used as overflow space for outdoor entertaining. Deep eaves reach out to shade south-facing openings. And the two-story-tall living and dining room can become a completely open-air space by raising garage doors that will enclose its big-scaled openings.

One tour participant joked that the 2015 BCC tour began with the oldest house in Brownsville and concluded with the newest. The tour demonstrated not only the richness and diversity of Brownsville architecture but also the ways in which generations of architects have planned and built to spatially frame what seems most distinctive and rewarding about living on the lower Río Grande border.

Stephen Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.

This article is online content for the January/February 2016 issue of Texas Architect.