The Old House, and the New

Simultaneously private and public, houses are particularly charged repositories of aspiration and association. In the best projects, an architect responds to a client’s wishes by designing a work whose integrity is rooted in a frank engagement with the circumstances of daily life, the facts and figures of the commission, and the material and technical possibilities that architecture offers at that moment in time. When these concerns are harnessed by a strong idea and executed by a steady hand confident enough to leave room for the unscripted, the results are often felicitous, and occasionally revolutionary. 

Jim Poteet’s renovation of, and addition to, the Condon Residence in San Antonio is not revolutionary, but it is excellent, and it belongs to modernism’s best tradition of identifying the particulars of the task and then expressing a core idea forthrightly. Poteet’s attention to detail, insistence on technical perfection, and respect for history come together in this unusual project to make a work that is compelling because of the unsentimental, honest ways it brings together old and new. 

Poteet’s brief was straightforward enough: create a house for a couple and their four young children; provide comfortable spaces for out-of-town guests and others that can be used flexibly for work and play. The challenges and opportunities lay elsewhere. The Condon Residence stands on one of the best pieces of property in San Antonio — three lots put together at the quiet end of a bucolic King William District street. The house faces the San Antonio River; Walsh-Burney & Moore’s 1928 pony-truss Arsenal Street bridge is visible from the living room. Through east-facing second-story windows, you can see some of the San Antonio skyline. But the house has not always afforded such views. The story of the Condon Residence begins in 1896, when the main part of the house was built on a large lot in what was then a northern suburb of the city. The property was at the southwest corner of East Elmira and Lexington Streets and had originally been part of a Spanish land grant. Early in its life, the house was faced in yellow brick and had white columns and balusters; it had a one-story porch that wrapped from its north-facing front around the east side. Bought and sold several times in its first fifty years, for a short period the house was used as a restaurant and nightclub. In 1951, the City of San Antonio acquired the property and sold the structure to Domingo Ramírez, who moved it to its present location. Authorities then plowed Interstate 35 through the old site. 

Ramírez transformed the house considerably, removing the side porch, stuccoing the exterior walls, adding an ashlar chimney, and building a large Irving Gill-esque arcade across the front. Another half-century later, in 1998, new owners turned the arcade into a two-story porch and clad the building in clapboards in an attempt to make it look more like some of its neighbors. By 2011, when Poteet’s client acquired the house, water damage and systemic rot had left little to salvage. The architect stripped the house to the frame and rebuilt the foundation and roof. 

Even as he pulled it apart, Poteet studied the building’s history and used it as his point of departure to create an innovative blend of new and old that materially acknowledges various aspects of the house’s past. His crucial realization was the importance of restoring the wraparound porch. Doing so allowed him to shift the main entry of both the property and the porch to the northeast corner of the house, a move that subtly but insightfully orients the house toward the city and the bridge. The new side porch functions as a veranda and introduces a strong longitudinal axis that tightens the design as a whole, and 

announces that something important lies deep in the site. Double doors open from the dining room and kitchen, and wide steps lead to a large yard and an elegant lap pool surrounded by a sleek glass fence. Poteet also simplified the lines of the front porch, as he did throughout the original house, without compromising any grace. The building’s essential tranquility and unifying colors are introduced on the exterior in the gray stucco walls, white trim, and perfectly aligned, gray wooden floorboards on the porch. 

The spacious entry hall quietly but firmly communicates the governing principle of the house. With its crisp lines, white walls, restored woodwork (painted gray), an exquisite original wooden floor (the orange tones of which the architect muted somewhat), three slightly repositioned windows, and a new skylight, it is a case study in how to clean up history and not lie. No faux historic details detract from the clarity of the space or the richness of its materials. The living room and dining room, arranged enfilade, to the east, are of the same sprit. The kitchen, anchored by an enormous island, is beyond the dining room. In this sleek space, appliances and cabinets disappear behind meticulously crafted panels of gray-stained veneer and aluminum. Spaces to contain what is never quite tidy — car keys, backpacks, school artwork, even coffee grounds — are tucked at the kitchen’s perimeter. 

Upstairs is a large media room that can become a guest suite. Located down the hall and upstairs on the third floor in a converted attic, the children’s rooms are conceived as pairs with shared baths. At the south end of the wide corridor on the second floor is the entirely new loft-like master suite. Here, warm and cool are held in delicate balance. Natural-finish cypress, picked up from the exterior where it forms part of a rain screen, clads the ceiling and enriches the room’s complex geometries and clerestory window. Exposed gray steel trusses remind the viewer that this is all new, and poetically recall the bridge just beyond the yard below. Large windows open the room to views of the garden; opposite, gray leather panels form a built-in headboard on the bedroom side of the bathroom core. While the bedroom seems spacious because of its ceiling and windows, it is intimately scaled and also feels tucked away. Its relative smallness, the built-in bookshelves, the way the bed — its head anchored in a niche — relates to the windows, and the luxurious approach to materials and views together recall Edgar Kaufmann, Jr.’s bedroom in Fallingwater and, more generally, modernism’s legacy of thoughtful planning for everyday life. 

Stairs at the far end of the room lead to a gymnasium below. Across the yard is a separate office/guest house with a terrace for outdoor cooking. This building resembles the new wing of the house in its materials, form, and fenestration. Looking back at the main house from the yard, one can perhaps best appreciate Poteet’s vision. He connects old and new using color, rigorous geometries, and the roof, but otherwise steadfastly maintains the distinctions between the original house and the additions. The new wing is set back slightly from the main volume, and at a considerable distance from the edge of the porch. Respect for the old is conveyed, not through imitation, but through forthright expression of what is different and a willingness to yield. This is admirable. 

Dr. Kathryn E. O’Rourke teaches architectural history at Trinity University.

Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Texas Architect.