In Austin’s richly diverse and energetic East Side neighborhoods, a rebirth is taking place. The addition of the Heywood Hotel on East Cesar Chavez Street represents the latest addition to a burgeoning and thriving East Side culture. Nestled comfortably among the barbecue joints, tacquerias and local shops that have so far eluded big-box homogenization, the hotel builds respectfully on the neighborhood’s considerable charms.
The Heywood was not content to swoop in and plant a modernist statement on its admittedly little piece of prime real estate, a 1200-sf arts and crafts bungalow located conveniently close to downtown but tucked comfortably into its unassuming, small-scale context. Instead, owners Kathy Setzer and George Reynolds wanted to join the East Austin community they loved for its unique qualities and contribute to its entrepreneurial spirit. They commissioned Austin’s KRDB to transform the little house into a fine boutique hotel that is an invigorating yet responsible and respectful member of its established community.
For the team of client and architect, integration was a key driver for the project — integration into the existing fabric of the neighborhood, integration of the house’s existing craftsman architecture with a modern sensibility, and integration of interior and exterior to create a memorable spatial experience.
In addition, Setzer and Reynolds wanted to achieve a “Palm Springs” mid-century aesthetic, which — given the bungalow’s immediate proximity to its neighbors on either side, and its typical 50x150 urban lot — would require considerable imagination. KRDB Principal Chris Krager recalls, “We had to find a way to integrate a modern aesthetic organically into the existing framework, rather than imposing a new style onto it.” Not to mention finding a way to carve seven guest rooms, a public lobby, an outdoor gathering area, and sufficient parking out of the space available.
To establish the project’s feasibility as well as its potential, Krager prepared a plan, which was carted around to countless planning commission meetings and presented to the East Cesar Chavez planning team for input. “Every inch of the site is used in some way,” he says. “We had to begin with the multiple, competing requirements such as parking, ADA, Subchapter E, and IBC, which were often in conflict on this small site, and come up with a scheme that didn’t just meet requirements, but created a special environment.” Meanwhile Setzer and Reynolds worked on the economics of the development and conducted a door-to-door public relations campaign in the community. “We wanted to make sure that our neighbors supported the project,” says Setzer. “It was important to us that we set an example of how to accomplish this kind of project the right way. And as longtime East Austin residents, we wanted to make sure our neighbors understood our intention to run a neighborhood-oriented business.”
Achieving consensus among the neighborhood and approvals from the City of Austin was challenging. But Krager, who has built a reputation for innovative and progressive approaches to development and building, was undeterred. The project ultimately required twelve administrative variances and conditional use approval from the planning commission. “There were overlays on overlays,” Krager says. Architects and owners presented the project’s unique ambitions and qualities and successfully showed how it complied with the neighborhood association’s voluntary design standards. Once approvals and financing were in place, attention turned to the design of the spaces.
Achieving a mid-century aesthetic within the skeleton of an arts and crafts bungalow required a thoughtful touch. Krager drew from his experiences at boutique hotels in places like Istanbul and London, where small existing structures are woven into historic fabric and make the most of the available resources. “For me, those kinds of hotels are the essence of travel,” he says. They provide a powerful connection to the place you are visiting, allow you to meet other travelers as well as locals, and give you an intimate, personal experience.”
The design solution is organized around three public spaces that consider the rhythms and needs of visitors and help create connections among people as well as place. The first of these spaces begins as guests approach the hotel through a landscaped forecourt that sets the tone for the architecture.
From the street, the hotel maintains its bungalow appearance; only the signage clues passersby to its function as a hotel. The lobby’s double-height ceilings create a bright and airy centerpiece, and custom casework gives the relatively small space a comfortable efficiency. Long-leaf pine flooring and the original eight-inch baseboards warm the space, which is furnished with easy mid-century pieces and rich textures. Two guestrooms are located off this lobby, the only ones to be incorporated into the original footprint of the house.
A staircase opposite the front entrance draws the eye upward, reinforcing the verticality of the space and rewarding guests with the unexpected revelation of a second-floor courtyard terrace. This is the second floor of the new addition, which is mostly obscured by the original house and connected to it by a small bridge and green roof. The addition’s ground floor provides covered parking. The remaining five guestrooms are gathered around this second-floor courtyard. From the street, the only suggestion of this addition is provided by the front-most guestroom’s small balcony, which overlooks the driveway and street beyond. “KRDB made such clever use of space,” Setzer says. “The property as a whole feels easily two or three times its actual size. Our customers love that the space is organized really well.”
Each room is unique in both décor and plan, responding to allotted space with a creative use of its roughly 260 square feet (the largest room is 300 square feet, the smallest 230). To provide desired privacy, Krager placed windows to frame small views or steal glimpses of the cityscape as well as the sky to connect guests to the larger city beyond. East- and west-facing walls are burnished CMU, which is left exposed on the interior. Very few walls are shared between rooms and even the two downstairs rooms (in the original house) have no rooms above them. Reynolds fabricated the built-in beds and desks himself, customizing each to the room’s size and needs. Long-leaf pine flooring ties the new construction back to the original house.
Skylights enliven the quality of interior light and even within the limited-space bathroom are given special attention. Custom vanities and cabinets (also built by Reynolds) are wall-mounted to use the space well, and floor-to-ceiling tile and skylights create a luxurious atmosphere. Setzer and Reynolds, along with interior designer Kasey McCarthy, selected the mixed-period, minimalist vintage furniture that was unearthed at flea markets, thrift shops, and Craigslist. “The result is a fresh combination of vintage and modern,” McCarthy says. “The goal was to be homey and welcoming, and not at all intimidating.” They carefully restored and reupholstered the pieces, adding rich textiles and colors to warm the spaces and provide a sense of whimsy and casual comfort. “Our theme was warm minimalism, and a focus on incorporating local handmade items, like pillows, vases and ceramics from neighborhood artists. Everything about the business — from the design of the building to the way we operate the hotel — is focused on providing a special and handcrafted experience.”
The success of the Heywood, open since December 2011 and enjoying high occupancy rates, extends beyond the walls of the building. As an urban infill and adaptive reuse project, its seamless integration into the fabric of its existing neighborhood was not simply a by-product of its establishment. From the outset, it was one of its goals. For Krager it is successful on mutiple levels — an example of architecture interwoven seamlessly with its function and the community in which it resides, as well as the creative reuse of existing building stock. Krager sums up the project well: “Creating an architecture/urbanism that respects the history of the community, while providing the kind of fabric we will want and need in a fast-growing Austin, is one of our primary challenges as designers,” he says. “I feel we were successful with this at the Heywood.”
Formerly Assoc. Publisher of TA, Canan Yetmen is principal of CYMK Group in Austin.
Texas Architect, May/June 2012