As part of our ongoing love affair with Virginia McAlester’s 1984 book, “A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture,” we’re occasionally taking a look at different architectural styles described in the book and hunting down good examples of them around Austin.
Last time, we checked out Tudor architecture, which worked out great, but this next one’s a little more complicated. The book’s section on modernistic homes covers Art Deco and Art Moderne (also frequently known as Streamline Moderne) styles, but there’s a catch — the Art Deco style, the book says, is “extremely rare in domestic architecture,” with only a few surviving houses remaining. Keeping that in mind, we’ll have to expand our reach and include some examples of the architecture from around the city that aren’t single-family homes, though we’re still using the details described in the book as a starting point.
(You really ought to grab a copy of this thing — legally speaking, we can’t exactly scan every single page from the Modernistic section, but if you’ve got the book in front of you, a lot of the terms we’re using here will make more sense when you can see illustrated examples of different styles.)
We’ll start with Art Deco, since it’s the more challenging style to find around town. I don’t know of any straight-up Art Deco homes in Austin, so if you do, feel free to send them my way. Instead, you’ll find elements of the style in several civic and commercial structures downtown, many of which were built in the transitional period between Art Deco and Art Moderne in the 1930s — meaning you’ll often find characteristics of both styles in these buildings.
ART DECO — Smooth wall surface, usually of stucco; zigzags, chevrons, and other stylized and geometric motifs occur as decorative elements on facade; towers and other vertical projections above the roof line give a vertical emphasis.
— Virginia McAlester, “A Field Guide to American Houses”
Our beloved Scarbrough Building, Austin’s first tower, was built in 1909, a tiny bit before the dominance of the Art Deco style. However, in 1931 — peak Deco territory — the building’s main entrance, surrounding facade, and lobby received a remodel, providing the most iconic visual elements of the structure that result in it often being considered an Art Deco structure, full stop.
Since the structure’s lobby (and hopefully soon, its exterior!) is currently undergoing extensive renovations, seemingly in preparation for new tenants, the above image is all we’ve got to work with for the interior, but the Art Deco influences are obvious — note the zig-zagging and geometric ornamental patterns used throughout. The illuminated arch moulding above the column on the left side of the above image is a good example of a pattern the book calls “chevron with lozenge.”
The grand entrances to the building, located on its frontages facing Congress Avenue and Sixth Street, were also included in the Art Deco renovation — what’s nice about this architectural style is how generally easy it is to spot. As you can see in the above photos, the twin golden carvings above the doorway include what the book calls “geometric floral” patterns of ornamentation, with additional zig-zagging chevron patterns visible in the carved stone borders on the left and right, as well as in the decoration around the windows on either side of the doorway.
You’ll find additional Art Deco stylings at the Dewitt C. Greer State Highway Building near the Capitol at 11th and Brazos Streets. This structure, completed in 1933, also has some elements of the architectural movement common in institutional and civic buildings built from roughly 1933 to 1944, called PWA Moderne. The ornamentation of its entrance and other stonework is a dead ringer for the Art Deco “geometric floral” elaboration described in the book. In the top photo above showing the entire building, small ornamented tower-like projections on each of the structure’s tiered rooflines gives a sort of zig-zag appearance from the ground — the book mentions that too.
Let’s move on to some Art Moderne (again, this style is frequently also called Streamline Moderne — I’m just using the same terms as the book to avoid confusion). This style’s way more fun, because there are so many great examples of it all over Austin. To aggressively oversimplify how to look for this style, I’d say you should first ask yourself, “does the building look kind of like a boat?”
ART MODERNE — One or more corners of the building may be curved; windows frequently are continuous around corners, glass blocks are often used in windows, or as entire sections of wall; small round windows are common.
— Virginia McAlester, “A Field Guide to American Houses”
Since we couldn’t find any Art Deco single-family homes, let’s start with what’s likely the most iconic Art Moderne residence in the city: The Bohn House, at 1301 West 29th Street. Built in 1938 by owner Herbert Bohn with the help of architect Roy L. Thomas, the home’s design is inspired by the look of Shangri-La in the 1937 film “Lost Horizon.” The structure is really a perfect example of the Art Moderne style — it even looks like the illustration in the book, albeit significantly grander in scale:
The use of white, the rounded corners, clean lines, curved and porthole-style windows, those iconic glass blocks — it’s really a masterclass in this particular architectural movement, and it might be my favorite single-family home in the city. Still, there are some examples of Art Moderne closer to downtown, as well.
The Austin Daily Tribune Building, also known as the Ernest O. Thompson State Office Building, is a slightly less streamlined example of a structure that bridges the gap between Art Deco and Art Moderne, with elements of both styles — as you might expect from a building completed in 1941, a fairly late period of the movement. The curved corner facing Colorado and West 10th Streets, along with the porthole windows, are definitely Moderne, while the meandering geometric ornamentation up the building’s facade near the main entrance feels like a restrained Art Deco motif. This building, hidden behind a monolithic AT&T switching tower at 920 Colorado Street, doesn’t get nearly enough love.
Opened in 1938, Austin’s Central Fire Station 1 is located at 401 East Fifth Street, atop a corner of Brush Square. It’s unmistakably Art Moderne, with the main curve facing the corner of East Fifth and Trinity Streets really driving that point home. The building has been designated historic for 18 years now, so it’s not going anywhere — though plans to revitalize Brush Square include a long-term expectation of the building being repurposed as a museum or event space, with the operations of the fire station moving elsewhere.
The Avenue Lofts, originally opened in 1948 as a state office building at 410 East Fifth Street, is a very late, but still obvious example of the Moderne style — the curves and porthole windows, though the latter were added later when the building was rehabbed into condos in 1999, just don’t lie. Perhaps even more so than Art Deco, once you know this style, you’ll see it everywhere you go.