Completing the Circle

When it opened in the fall of 1950, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School looked like a wilderness outpost. The campus lay eight miles west of Austin, on an oak-covered ridge overlooking the unspoiled Hill Country. At that time, only five buildings were complete and the roads were unpaved. In this raw landscape, Rev. William Brewster established a groundbreaking new school — one that would become the first co-ed Episcopal school in the United States and the first racially integrated boarding school in the South.

The progressive nature of the school began with its architecture: Brewster and St. Stephen’s co-founder Bishop John Hines of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas hired the local firm of Fehr & Granger. Arthur Fehr, FAIA (1904–1969), was a great admirer of the Bauhaus, and Charles Granger, FAIA (1913–1966), began his career as an intern with Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and later studied under Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While both men subscribed to the tenets of the International Style, they gave their work a true sense of place through material choices and a sensitivity to site. Between 1949 and 1966, Fehr & Granger designed nearly a dozen buildings for St. Stephen’s, establishing a strong foundation of regional vernacular modernism for the campus. 

St. Stephen’s enrollment has grown considerably since its beginnings, and the school now has 670 students in grades 6–12, approximately a quarter of whom are boarders. This expansion necessitated many additions to the campus through the years, but little of the architecture built after 1966 but before 2000 upheld the ethos of Fehr & Granger’s original buildings. Since then, things have changed thanks to an ambitious partnership between St. Stephen’s and Andersson-Wise Architects (AWA), the Austin-based firm of Arthur Andersson, FAIA, and Chris Wise, AIA. AWA has transformed the campus with five new buildings that channel the oeuvre of Fehr & Granger while artfully adapting the school for the 21st century. 

The new Temple Dining Hall and Booth Student Center, AWA’s latest contributions to the campus, were dedicated this fall. They combine functions that had previously been spread over four separate buildings. Together, they are among the largest buildings at St. Stephen’s — 14,000 sf and 9,800 sf, respectively — and the first to have an all-steel structure (with the exception of AWA’s prefabricated buildings that house the art department). Despite this, the Dining Hall and Student Center successfully complement both their built and natural contexts. 

Fehr & Granger laid out the 370-acre campus in three distinct zones, working with the contours of the land and stands of trees growing along the grade. At the highest point, they placed the Chapel, surrounding it with the academic core. Just down the hill, they created the residential district, and where the land flattened out, they located athletic fields. 

Consecrated in 1953, the Chapel is the spiritual heart of St. Stephen’s, and arguably one of Fehr & Granger’s masterpieces. “They sited it perfectly,” said Andersson, referring to the north-south orientation that allows the building to catch the breezes blowing across the hill throughout the year, even on unbearably hot summer days. To this day, the Chapel has no air conditioning. 

The Chapel is surrounded by live oaks, and AWA, like Fehr & Granger before them, designed their buildings to move around the trees. “Everyone is drawn to shade,” said Andersson. “The trees are an essential element of the experience of the campus.” AWA’s work preserves the extensive canopy network, allowing the trees to become the real focal point of the campus. While all of their interventions at St. Stephen’s — an addition to the Middle School, a new Upper School, the Art Building, a Residence Hall, and now the Dining Hall and Student Center — are undeniably striking, AWA went to great lengths to ensure that they remain background buildings, deferential to the surrounding landscape. 

The Chapel serves as the largest gathering space for the school community, with a capacity for 400 in its sanctuary. Grand, yet spare in its palette of stone, glass, and stucco, it is a volume worthy of the solemn rituals conducted there. From the exterior, however, the Chapel appears deceptively small. Andersson credits this to Fehr & Granger’s facade strategy. They used fin walls on the building’s short facades and clad them in small, site-quarried limestone that is laid up so that individual stones occasionally project from the face of the wall. The result is a fine but rusticated texture that plays with the sense of scale.

The reinterpretation of the fin wall tradition is a hallmark of AWA’s work at St. Stephen’s. At the Middle and Upper Schools, the architects responded to Fehr & Granger’s fin walls using field stones as planar elements rather than as fins. “While the Chapel is a modern building, we recognized the construction technique of the fin walls is ancient — the fin walls are true masonry construction, and their use was specific to the layered experience of space, material, and light employed in the

Chapel,” said Wise. At the Dining Hall and Student Center, the fin wall, though used sparingly, returns to a language of dominance. In this iteration, the stone fin walls are capped with steel. This look is crisp and polished, and the limestone’s fine texture helps mitigate the buildings’ scale. “We did not want to attempt to emulate Fehr and Granger’s stone fin walls nor ignore them, but instead sought a way to mediate the new with the old,” said Wise.

The Dining Hall and Student Center anchor the south end of a new pedestrian green and serve as a gateway between the academic and residential cores. While there are multiple entrances to each building, a small, shaded plaza between them is where most visitors first arrive. From this vantage point, the formal dialogue between the two buildings is most apparent. 

The two-story Student Center, with its slender pipe columns, flat roof, and exposed metal deck, seems almost industrial at first. Limestone is found only on the north wall, closest to the Dining Hall. Most of the facade is an exceptionally smooth, dark grey Portland cement stucco, created by heavily troweling or “burning” the final coat to a silky finish. Andersson studied the “Ocean Park” series by Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) for inspiration in selecting the stucco’s color palette. The California artist’s paintings led him to choose soft greys and blues, and their light guide lines informed the composition of the building’s stucco joints. “The lines,” said Andersson, “provide a layer and a texture to the building that animate it.” 

The muted color palette is also brought inside and lends a calming air to the spaces. This is augmented by Andersson’s affinity for low ceilings — often no higher than seven feet — that break the large spaces into more intimate volumes. Occasionally, a drywall ceiling peels away, revealing metal decking and painted steel beams. This is a technique AWA has used in each of its buildings on campus. By exposing the structure, the way the building is constructed becomes the architectural experience — an appropriate move in an educational environment. 

The first floor of the Student Center holds two commons rooms, a game room, a media room, and two faculty offices. The second floor, accessed by an exterior cast-in-place concrete stair, houses the College Counseling Office and the International Office, which offers support for international boarding students. In the southeast corner of the building, a large, sunlight-filled meeting room overlooks the pedestrian green and the academic core. 

Across the plaza, the one-story Dining Hall appears dwarfed by its neighbor, though it has nearly twice the square footage. Fin walls mark the building’s two entrances and also obscure the large volume of the dining room. Andersson chose a cool blue tone for the stucco portions of the facade, and a steel pergola casts sharp, rhythmic shadows across it. As the grade falls away to the north, the Dining Hall begins to cantilever over the hillside.

On the interior, the main dining room is accessed via another of Andersson’s very low spaces. A long hallway opens first to the servery, a daylight-filled room with amenities — including a wok station and pizza oven — that outshine most schools’ kitchens. Grey is again the dominant hue, found in the polished concrete floors and complementary ceramic tile walls. The metal-deck ceiling is occasionally hidden by white “cloud” soffits over the serving stations.

The dining room is the true jewel of this new building. Daylight pours into the soaring 5,400-sf space from three sides, and slender 17-ft-tall pipe columns support the roof above. Midway down the room, three steps lead to an upper dining area. This change in height allowed AWA to create a “speaker’s platform.” Lunchtime announcements have long been a tradition at the school, and from this platform, speakers can project to the entire room. The acoustics of the room are remarkably crisp, due to AWA’s use of baffles above a perforated metal deck ceiling. Off the upper dining area are two large meeting rooms, as well as a 750-sf terrace, which can accommodate more dining tables.

While the scale of the room is dramatic, it is the view from the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows on the north wall that trumps all else. The room is designed to seat 340 diners. But maybe when the tables are removed, the entire student body can gather here and reconnect with the Hill Country view that first drew Rev. Brewster to this place.

With the Temple Dining Hall and Booth Student Center, AWA has “completed the campus in the way Fehr & Granger envisioned it,” said Christine Aubrey, St. Stephen’s director of advancement. But one could argue that they have done much more than simply continue an established building tradition. Through a respectful reinterpretation of Fehr & Granger’s regional vernacular modernism, AWA has created its own formidable architectural legacy at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. 

Brett Koenig Greig is an architect with Loop Design in Austin.

Published in Texas Architect, November/December 2013.