Mid-Century Modern Architecture
By Steve Sadowsky, Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Austin
The end of World War II brought sweeping changes to the American architectural landscape. New building materials became readily available, tract-house suburbs were built in increasing numbers, and architecture exhibited a much more modern appearance. An influx of architects from Europe also began to influence the course of American architecture. Founders of the 1920s Bauhaus movement such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius emigrated to the United States to escape Nazi oppression, and brought with them their concepts of clean lines, angular compositions, and simple forms. The tenets of the Bauhaus blended with American architectural traditions, particularly the older Arts and Crafts as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School, and evolved into what we call today “Mid-century Modern” architecture.
While this article will deal primarily with architecture, “Mid-century Modern” also applies to many style philosophies of the post-World War II era, including furniture and interior design, which complemented the new architectural vocabulary. Mid-century Modern houses are generally characterized by a low profile, horizontal composition, the use of modern materials, particularly large expanses of plate glass, including sliding glass doors, angular shapes, open floor plans, and innovative design, especially for the roof, with oversized flared eaves and butterfly roofs as new forms that identify the style. Most Mid-century residential buildings are one-story, but many have changes in elevation within the house. They are distinctly different from their ranch house counterparts in terms of their complete lack of reference to earlier styles, such as the Colonial Revival. The idea behind Mid-century modern design was to create a new, fresh architecture, which, by its seemingly outlandish details, did not invoke the past. In fact, some of the best-known examples of Mid-century modern architecture focus on a complete break from the past – the terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport is probably one of the most futuristic designs of the style, and has been called “Jetson-esque” for its resemblance to outer-space architecture depicted in the 1960s television cartoon series.
Taqueria Los Jaliscienses on US 290 East at Sheridan Avenue has a lotus-blossom roof, one of the more innovative and futuristic rooflines in Austin. The original windows for this mid-century Modern commercial buildings have been replaced recently.
Mid-century Modern architecture also reflected a new social philosophy in that the buildings strove to mesh the outside environment with interior living space. Large expanses of glass framed by thin structural members invited more contact with the outside, with the hope that residents would embrace a more active lifestyle if they were not hemmed in by solid walls that kept them from full appreciation and enjoyment of their surroundings. Open floor plans also promoted a more casual and integrated living experience in Mid-century Modern homes – larger spaces could be used for a variety of uses, rather than more traditional floor plans which designated certain rooms for particular activities.
Modern construction techniques allowed architects to experiment with forms and materials. Steel framing, first used in Chicago skyscrapers at the turn of the century, was employed for Mid-century Modern buildings, and provided a means for creating the walls of glass and open floor plans that typify the style. Natural light was very important in mid-century modern design; many buildings have glass in the typanae of roof gables to allow more natural light into interior spaces.
Austin, which had a large surge in population after World War II, is well-blessed with mid-century Modern architecture in a variety of building types: houses, churches, schools, and commercial buildings. The best-known examples are architect-designed, but housing development companies also built tract residences in mid-century Modern styles. Several of the most prominent architects in Austin in the post-war era specialized in mid-century Modern buildings, including:
Louis C. Page, Jr., whose own house on Kenmore Court is now a city historic landmark, and has the trademark use of innovative materials and large expanses of glass overlooking a verdant yard;
Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger, who designed many mid-century Modern houses in West Austin, including Granger’s own in Judge’s Hill, and the old Robert Mueller Airport;
A.D. Stenger, who custom-built many houses in South Austin, especially in the neighborhood west of Zilker Elementary School;
John Saunders Chase, Austin’s first African-American architect, whose masterpiece is the David Chapel Baptist Church at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Chestnut Avenue; and
Leonard Lundgren, who had many residential designs in West Austin, but is probably best known for the round Town Lake Holiday Inn, which was the tallest concrete building in the world at the time of its construction in 1964. Lundgren was one of the first native Austin architects to have a global presence, and his design sensibilities began here.
The 1961 Sellstrom House, a Mid-century Modern masterpiece designed by Leonard Lundgren for a prominent UT professor, was demolished in 2013 by an owner who objected to the steepness of the driveway. The house featured the flared eaves, use of stone and wood siding, and large windows, all hallmarks of mid-century Modern style.
Mid-century Modern architecture is found in almost every section of the city, with concentrations in Tarrytown along Scenic Drive and Balcones Drive, on Highgrove Terrace just west of the Mo-Pac Expressway, the Stenger houses in South Austin, and in the suburbs of Rollingwood and West Lake Hills. Windsor Park in northeast Austin and the neighborhoods east of Manchaca Road in South Austin are defined by their mid-century Modern tract housing, mostly built by the Nash Copus Corporation in the late 1950s.
Join Preservation Austin for its annual Homes Tour on April 5 featuring some of the best mid-century Modern designs in the city. Mid-century Modern buildings are definitely worthy of our civic attention and appreciation – they represent innovative design, a look toward the future, and reflect a unique chapter in Austin’s architectural sophistication.