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Midcentury modern masters’ iconic works show at AIA Austin

Meet Austin’s architectural ‘Mad Men’

Austin midcentury modern bank drive-in
Austin National Bank Drive-In, circa 1961
Image AR.2009.014(171), Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

For approximately two decades, one architectural firm ruled modernism this town—especially when it came to commercial building. That firm was Fehr & Granger.

The firm was founded in 1946 by fellow architects Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger, who originally met on the site of the still-extant Bastrop State Park Cabins, designed by Fehr for the National Park Service from 1934 to 1936, when Granger was still a student working on the site. The firm went on to design some of Austin’s most well-known and celebrated modernist structures, including the Robert Mueller Airport (now redeveloped as a planned community), O. Henry Junior High School, Saint Stephen's Chapel, Austin National Bank Drive-In, and the St. Elmo-tel in South Austin, as well as their own firm’s building, which is still operational and can be seen (kind of—a lot of foliage has grown in since it was built) at 403 East 15th Street.

Fehr & Granger designed some stunning residential structures as well, including the Sneed residence in 1953 (fun fact! the Sneeds were Carly Fiorina’s parents) and the International style Darnall House, which has just been renovated and received a City of Austin landmark designation.

Whatever the function of the building, the firm used its modernist sensibilities to create structures that functioned well in the often-brutal, pre-air-conditioned Central Texas environment, in ways often compared to those of Richard Neutra. Like Neutra, Fehr & Granger paid careful attention to siting, shade, ventilation, and other important environmental factors to create a “healthy” interaction between indoors and outdoors.

From Aug. 15 through Nov. 15, the Austin History Center, in conjunction with the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, will present an exhibit of photographs of F&G’s pioneering at the Austin Center for Architecture, 801 West 12th Street. In conjunction with the exhibit, later this month the history center will showcase the work of Dewey Mears, who photographed F&G buildings, as well as many others, and was considered “preeminent architectural photographer in Central Texas in the late 20th century,” according to the center’s website.