Every week, our House Calls feature takes you into homes with great style, big personality, and ineffable soul. Today we celebrate Austin with a look at Kim and Ryan Battle’s home that retains its vintage charm while embracing modernism. The story of how it came about is a tale that smacks of architectural fate.
If Hugh Jefferson Randolph hadn’t taken the road less traveled to work one morning, the remodel of this 1935 Greek Revival cottage in Old West Austin might never have happened.
The architect, principal at Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects, had been contacted by Kim shortly before that fateful morning. She’d seen a house he was working on, and was enamored. She wanted to know if the project was going on the market. "I told her I don’t do generally work on spec homes," Randolph says. "But I said that I would keep an eye open for an old house that had potential to be renovated and added on to."
Shortly after, when he took a different way to work on a whim, he found himself driving on a somewhat unfamiliar street, and he noticed a Greek Revival cottage. The architecture of the place caught his eye first. "I’m from Louisiana, and I have an affection for this style," he says. "I love the simple, charming lines of it—it appeals to my personal taste."
Then he spotted the "for sale" sign in the front yard and his architect’s mind took over. "I think all architects look at properties on the market and start planning what they’d do to them," Randolph says. "It’s like an automatic mental exercise."
But, remembering his conversation with Kim, he realized that this could be a mental exercise with legs. He called the Battles, they called their real estate agent, and shortly after the house was purchased and a project was born.
At first, the birth was not necessarily greeted with cheers. Kim was eager to work with Randolph and their builder (Matt Risinger of Risinger & Company), but she was lukewarm about this particular house. "I wasn’t sure I would ever like it," she said. As Randolph diplomatically puts it, "The outside was lovely...but there wasn’t much to get excited about inside."
But as plans began to gel, excitement began to build. Together, they agreed the front exterior that drew Randolph’s notice should stay the same (the back, east and west sides of the house were substantially modernized). But behind the front door, things would be quite different and, at the same time, quite the same.
"We rebuilt the entire house, but left the footprint mostly intact," says Randolph. "We did add a 50-square-foot addition on the ground floor to make room for a master bath."
While the footprint is mostly unchanged, the stature of the building is subtly but significantly altered. The roof was raised by four feet and outfitted with new, modern dormers. The higher ceilings and additional light transformed what used to be an attic into a pair of bedrooms, a bath, and a shared media-living area to accommodate the couple’s two daughters.
The dormers and the addition reflect a new, sleek modernity in the home. Although the home’s functions happen in the same spaces ("We are eating in the same place the original family was eating 81 years ago," says Ryan), the removal of walls make those spaces open to each other. Modern details appear throughout; such as a kitchen lined with windows that run from counter to ceiling and wrap around a corner, an under-stair area that features storage and a hidden office, and raw metal accents on walls and rails.
"It’s like a balance," says Randolph. "On the outside, the modern dormers balance the modern addition on the back and sides. Inside, the old and the new are balanced as well. Not every house can carry this off, but the clean, crisp lines of the original architecture can live with modern lines."
The "old" in the house might be unrecognizable to the first owners (an accomplished family named Urbantke), mainly because the original elements the Battles highlight today were hidden from them. An example are the rustic shiplap boards beneath layers of wallpaper and drywall. Although there had been some discussion of painting the boards white, the Battles couldn’t bring themselves to do it, even going so far as to preserve the workman’s fingerprints they found in places on the wood. "I look at them and I imagine what the guys who built the house looked like," says Ryan. "They drove all the nails by hand, and they must have had forearms like Popeye."
That’s not the only "save" in the house. When the interior walls came down, the doors and hardware that separated the rooms were saved and reused elsewhere. "We used a pair of the old doors from the dining room and kitchen as closet doors in our daughter’s room," says Kim. "They had small windows in them, and those didn’t match. The carpenter asked me if I wanted to make them the same, but I said no. That’s part of the quirkiness of the house, and we love it."
Another vintage note is the fireplace. It was hidden behind the walls and revealed when they were demolished. Randolph and the Battles not only left it visible, they spotlight it with natural light. The newly exposed brick is visible on both sides of the chimney (with the surround and firebox showing in the living room and the backside stretching up to the second floor and visible on the stairway). "This is in the middle of the house, everything revolves around it," says Randolph. "Although it’s one of the things we didn’t move or rebuild, it’s the anchor that’s part modern, part artifact." The skylight that wraps around the top of the chimney floods the old bricks with natural light.
Noting that the old floors were also restored, Kim points out that reusing and repurposing didn’t necessarily translate into cost savings, due to the labor needed to restore and, in some cases, refit the items. "We love the look and feel of some of the old things in the home. We felt it was the right thing to do to preserve what we loved about it," she says. Ryan notes that when they couldn’t use architectural salvage from the house, they passed it on to someone who could.
The owners and the architect think the "new" old house reflects the city itself. "Austin is a very eclectic city, there’s a diversity of people and of architecture here," Randolph says. "Sometimes, I think having a dominant city style prevents creativity, as you end up respecting it too much. For better or worse, there is no signature Austin style—it’s eclectic. In many ways, I think this house is like the city; it respects the past, but it’s progressive."