• The architects replaced a solid double door with a single frosted glass door flanked by side lights, which created a luminous entry space to the house. Photo by Kyle Humphries, AIA.

Project Harrell House
Architect Murphy Mears Architects
Design Team Kyle Humphries, AIA; Kirby Mears, AIA; Walter Murphy, AIA
Photographer Kyle Humphries, AIA

Formalism, one of the major trends in the American Modern architecture of the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, borrowed from the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome — axial plans, symmetry, colonnades, a preference for light colors, and even, tentatively, some of its ornament — just as the various schools of the Beaux-Arts had at the turn of the century, when the nation was in a similarly expansive mode. Modernist purists said it was heresy, but it was a big hit with clients. When designed with a light touch, Formalist buildings tiptoed just on the edge of kitsch.

In Houston, Harwood Taylor, design partner at the firm Neuhaus & Taylor, was particularly associated with Formalism. Its clear sense of order and monumentality — tendencies suppressed for decades in the modern architectural scene — seems to have appealed to him and to his clients, who were tired of the purposefully informal, small scale that pervaded the design of modern buildings at that time.

Today, as many Formalist buildings are approaching the 50-year mark, they are starting to be reappraised as distinguished works of architecture. The Harrell House of 1963, designed by Taylor, was one of his most consistent efforts to use the language of Formalism at a residential scale. The Harrell House was recently sympathetically rehabilitated by Murphy Mears Architects, whose careful changes, made after thoughtful study, substantially improved and perfected many aspects of the original design.

During the early ’60s, Neuhaus & Taylor was in flux as the firm expanded and gradually stopped designing the small projects it had done in its first ten years. The Harrell House, in tony River Oaks, designed for an oilman, was one of their last domestic works. Its exterior, defined by an insistent colonnade on a 7.5-foot module, suggests the tension between the architect’s growing preference for large-scale commercial work (he would go on to design the first iteration of the Galleria for developer Gerald Hines a few years later) and the domestic arrangements of a house. Though not large by River Oaks standards at about 5,000 square feet on one level, its ambiguous scale, resulting from the absolutely symmetrical elevations, seems commercial rather than residential. In fact, when Murphy Mears asked the archivist of River Oaks Property Owners if the organization had any of the old plans in their files, the archivist jokingly replied, “You mean for the old post office?”

Needless to say, as Murphy Mears began their work, many were surprised that so much effort was being put into retaining what was generally considered to be an insignificant building, if not an eyesore. Fortunately, that is not what the new owners, a young couple with two small children, thought when they purchased it in 2009. They decided to live in the house as it had been modified, with the addition of lots of crown molding and dark-stained wood paneling, for a time (which turned out to be several years) before remodeling it. 

Although the footprint remained the same, the architects made several plan changes. The largest was to switch the front-facing kitchen and dining area with the two children’s bedrooms that had originally faced the backyard. The other major plan change was to shrink the master bedroom by a few feet to add space to the master bathroom, which was opened up and given larger closets.

The latest architectural interventions are deliberate and understated. The overall aesthetic is stark, and the interior color scheme is nearly all white and pale gray, which is an effective complement to the excess of the exterior’s suburban stoa. On the street-facing elevation, the architects replaced the original solid, double entry doors that were flush with the exterior wall with a single, very wide frosted glass door flanked by frosted glass side lights. This new entry wall was recessed from the brick facade by about four feet, and the inset side walls were clad with sleek white-painted steel panels manufactured by George Sacaris, a well-known metalworker in Houston. In the living room, a set of closets originally placed in front of the entry area was removed. In its place, a millwork screen of closely spaced white-painted wood panels that conceals structural columns, a television, a fireplace, and a storage closet was installed. Flooring in the public areas consists of large, rectangular pieces of pale gray ceramic tile. The new kitchen is furnished with super-minimal, prefabricated German cabinets in white and silver. 

The architects and clients worked with Meedi Hidalgo, an interior designer at Kuhl-Linscomb, to select new furniture for the house — again, stark, minimal, and mostly in tones of gray and white. They also coordinated landscaping and extensive paving with Tim Hansen. The results included a new pool and extensive paving whose dimensions were based on the column grid module of the house. New brightly colored and sculptural artworks by Nicola Parente, Lisa Ludwig, Jacob Hashimoto, and Robert Graham contrast with the restraint of the architectural and interior design.

Thanks to technical advances in architectural construction that were used extensively in this rehabilitation — new, miniaturized lighting fixtures; concealed air-conditioning registers; zero-detailing door and cabinet hardware — the Harrell House now looks tauter and sleeker than was possible when it was new. The architects should be commended for working within the building style to refine the original design intent for the house, rather than supplanting it with their own style. As such, this project should serve as a model for an appropriate way to approach the difficult task of modernizing modern buildings.

Ben Koush is an architect and writer in Houston.

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