Life in a Midcentury Modern Oasis: The Cranfill Apartments in Austin, Texas
In 1958 and 1959, influential Modernist architect Harwell Hamilton Harris designed what many consider to be one of his best buildings, the Cranfill Apartments in Austin, Texas. Before leading the University of Texas at Austin’s architecture school in the early 1950s, he apprenticed with Modernist pioneer Richard Neutra in Los Angeles and admired Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. Harris made his reputation by using warm, natural materials to make Modernism more approachable, and creating spaces that connect with the outdoors.
The three-unit, redwood-clad apartment complex, located eight blocks from the university, surrounds a courtyard with an enormous live oak tree as its focal point.
“You get this relief from the world in the middle of the city,” says architect Ernesto Cragnolino, who currently lives in one of the units with his wife, architect Krista Whitson, and their three children. “You wake up in the morning and on one side you have an amazing elm tree and on the other side an amazing oak tree. It’s fundamentally engaged with nature in a very powerful way.”
The building’s original owner was Thomas Cranfill, an English professor at UT-Austin. Cranfill lived on the same street, in a house also designed by Harris. He commissioned the project as an investment and as housing for his partner, photographer Hans Beacham. Cranfill died in 1995, and Beacham lived and worked in Unit #3 (shown) until his death in 2004.
Cragnolino formed a corporation to buy the property after Beacham’s death, to protect it from the risk of being purchased by an unsympathetic developer. He spearheaded its transformation into condominiums, updating the mechanical systems and roof as well as restoring much of his and Whitson’s own Unit #3. The couple has spent 10 years there and recently sold their unit to a buyer who plans to maintain its original features, including exposed redwood surfaces, concrete block walls, and a double-height living area with a mezzanine-level bedroom.
The kitchen of Unit #3 contains the original appliances, plastic laminate countertops, and painted Douglas fir plywood cabinets. Cragnolino and Whitson also replaced the existing carpeting with white oak flooring, as Harris had initially specified. Many of the Cranfill Apartments’ residents have been design professionals, drawn by the units’ clean, mid-century lines and flowing floor plans.
“It was every architect’s dream to live there,” recalls Lisa Germany Ziegler, Harris’ biographer.
A well-preserved, covered wooden walkway leads to the apartments, which sit behind another building and are barely visible from the street. This gradual progression from public to private space is characteristic of Harris, whose work in Austin consists of only four buildings. In 2013, the Cranfill Apartments’ significance as both a Harris-designed project and an elegant example of warm, California-inspired Modernism led to its designation on the National Register of Historic Places and as a local Historic Landmark.
The Cranfill Apartments will be featured on a homes tour on April 5 held by Preservation Austin.