The historic Goodall Wooten House, an 1898 mansion standing at the corner of West MLK Jr. Boulevard and Rio Grande Street just north of downtown Austin, might look a little out of place compared with the modern growth of the West Campus neighborhood around it — its Greek columns and monumental symmetry, typical of the historically-minded Classical Revival style of new American wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, makes the site a perpetual favorite wedding venue and generally classy architectural backdrop alongside numerous green spaces.
The Hotel Ella, operating out of the house since 2013, has enjoyed both the original looks of the Goodall Wooten House and its more modern infrastructure in the rear, including a 1980s office annex added during the site’s period of use as a drug rehabilitation center that now contains 38 of the facility’s 47 total hotel rooms, along with a two-story parking garage built in 2002.
In a briefing last week to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, representatives of the hotel including Drew Raffaele of land use law firm Drenner Group, along with Jacqueline Dudley and Nathan Wilcox of Dallas-based architecture and construction firm the Beck Group, outlined plans for the Hotel Ella to construct an expansion replacing these non-historic structures behind the original Wooten mansion, providing the site with significant additional space, raising the hotel’s total room count to 213 and integrating 172 parking spaces into a below-grade structure.
The historic house on the property would remain unchanged in these plans, but members of the Historic Landmark Commission still had some concerns about the approximately nine-floor addition behind the mansion intruding on its aesthetics, “photobombing” the main southern elevation of the original structure by copying its materials and ornamentation too closely. It’s a problem we see with modern additions to historic properties all the time, and one that tends to confuse people.
A lot of folks would probably assume a new addition to an old building ought to look complimentary to the appearance of the original structure, to avoid “clashing,” and that’s sort of true — but really, preservation standards dictate the priority is for a new structure to look sufficiently different from the old, so no one mistakes the addition for being part of the original. What’s important is for the new addition to appear as neutral as possible against the primary features of the property, to retreat from view with setbacks and otherwise avoid visually overpowering what makes the site historically important in the first place.
The project will likely receive some cosmetic refinements before seeking its certificate of appropriateness from the commission, but it’s a good example of how design is shaped by the presence of a historic building — in this case, the addition looking so stunning and monumental is actually, in the eyes of the commission, not great news. We do hope the folks at the Hotel Ella and Beck Group manage to find a balance without scrapping the most impressive elements of this design, since there’s nothing quite like it in West Campus at the moment. We’ll look forward to seeing the tweaks.