Lavaca Eclectic: Two Cases of a Contemporary Vernacular

By Phil Zimmerman, Assoc. AIA

Cool alleys and shaded side streets weave through a patchwork of bright, turn-of-the-century revivals and bungalows. Agave and prickly pear push from every weathered crack; oak and palm peek around every peeling fence and caliche stone carriage house.

The rich character of the Lavaca neighborhood south of downtown San Antonio has been steeping for well over a century. It quietly boasts some of the city's most historic structures: properties unassuming in scale and composed of a dense massing that often creates tucked-away courtyards and hidden gardens. The roots of the community reach back to its diverse working class of artisans, laborers, and shopkeepers. Lavaca's development over time has manifested a cultural and architectural palette that is earthy and utilitarian, pared down to a simple expression of local materials and vernacular form, along with relaxed function and embodiment of place.

Restored Historic Structure

Reflective of the eclectic character of its surroundings, the Hooper/Abad residence by Poteet Architects is a compact collection of spaces organized around a cleanly restored historic structure and central court. Typical of the oldest homes in the Lavaca neighborhood, the modest caliche stone building has been rendered to its original and most straightforward form. 

4 Lavaca Street Residence

Hooper/Abad Residence – photo by Chris Coooper 

A small, modern addition lightly saddles the existing structure. Humble and elegantly plain, this annex is composed in the language of a bungalow outbuilding with its shiplap siding and simple cubic volume. A slight steel and glass connector completes the project's street-side edge, and a final new wing to the rear of the property encloses a quite central courtyard.

1 Lavaca Street Residence

– photo by Chris Coooper 

-photo by Chris Cooper

The Hooper/Abad residence thoughtfully reflects the roots of the neighborhood in its distinct presentation of a beloved Lavaca historic architectural typology. Its modern aesthetic, careful massing, and scale are meticulous yet casual; its materiality offers a refined restraint appropriate to its setting.

New Construction

In seemingly abrupt contrast to the provenance of their surroundings, two metallic profiles rise sharply from the Lavaca neighborhood at 110 and 114 Biering Street. The twin two-story residences by designer Hilary Scruggs and her firm Operative Ventures retain the familiar form and proportions of the gable-roofed steel sheds, garages, and workshops that are pervasive throughout the community's existing architectural fabric. 

Front Day

The residences at 110 and 114 Biering Street in San Antonio – courtesy Operative Ventures

A skin of perforated aluminum sheets wraps the building's facades, serving to heighten a formal clarity that is both modern and strangely vernacular. True to the utilitarian lineage of the neighborhood's founding members, these metallic cloaks function to provide shade for the buildings' envelopes and apertures. Screened privacy is also lent to compact entrance foyers and passages that lead to a shared central court.

– photo courtesy Operative Ventures

Night Front Porch

– photo courtesy Operative Ventures

The Bering Street residences are simultaneously a modern design response through clear formal and material expression and a curious nod to Lavaca building typologies through their simple cubic composition and gabled standing seam roofs.

As the Lavaca neighborhood has aged, it has gathered a community that is as vivid as the assemblage of homes and outbuildings it has collected over the years. Its current members range from artists and software engineers to multigenerational descendants and corporate transplants. The breadth of this diversity extends architecturally beyond the eclectic organization of historical residential taxonomy, and into an accepted emergence of exceptional examples of contemporary architecture. These projects are yet another layer within the rich, strange, and wonderful Lavaca neighborhood in San Antonio. 

Phil Zimmerman, Assoc. AIA, is an intern architect at Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio.