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The Nightstand | October 2014

The fact that there's a new coffee-table book titled Hill Country Houses, with image after image of smartly designed homes, isn't something to take for granted.

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After all, the Texas Hill Country, to its first 19th-century Anglo settlers, was more of a "trap" than a verdant vacation spot, as Robert Caro writes in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of LBJ. Many Hill Country cabins were built in a "dog-run" layout: two rooms separated by an open corridor that acted as a breezeway to attract the flow of air through the entire structure. (According to Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach, the term "dog-run" comes honestly--"the corridor was hardly the most sanitary of spots," he told Caro.) A tidbit from Caro's research reveals what life was life for the early Angol settlers: "The walls of these cabins, visitors complained, were so full of holes that they did little to keep the wind out," he writes. "Rutherford Hayes wrote that he slept in one through whose walls a cat could be hurled 'at random.'"

Well. A visitor to the Hill Country these days is in greater danger of being crowded out than of having to spend the night in an unintentionally breezy cabin. Purists may not like the fact that Cyndy Severson, the author of Hill Country Houses, takes the broad view of what constitutes the Hill Country, with one of the nearly 20 houses featured in this elegant book located as far east as Washington County. The geographical liberality, however, allows her to write about one of the most stunning homes in the book as well as a crucial aspect of Texas' architectural history: Spanish Colonial design.

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The real showstoppers here, though, are the houses nestled deep in the scraggly land west of Austin and San Antonio. Severson is careful to note when architects of homes like one on a working cattle ranch in Guadalupe County named Big Tree Camp make innovative use of local materials or do a particularly seamless job of integrating a home into the landscape, as is the case with a house near Boerne, built by Billy Johnson and Craig McMahon, former Lake|Flato architects.

For occasional visitors to the Hill Country who know only the stolid German architecture of Fredericksburg, Hill Country Houses offers a nice surprise. The houses featured in the book are strikingly modern. Some of their architects manage to give a nod to the area's early design aesthetic while laying a claim that the Hill Country is as fine a spot as anywhere else for progressive architecture. (In fact, judging from Hill Country Houses, no well-heeled residents of the Hill Country have anything to hid, so ubiquitous is the presence of glass in their homes.) Fehrenbach has noted that life for early Hill Country residents was "hardy, dirty, terribly monotonous, lonely, and damagingly narrow." The evidence presented in this lovingly detailed and beautiful book, though, suggests that life in today's Hill Country is just the opposite.

Credits

Claiborne Smith photo courtesy of Kirkus Reviews

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