Perched high on a hill above the trees but within walking distance of downtown is a house that embodies the radical transformation of the city of Austin.
On one side, it’s a simple, white, traditional artisan with columns and a dormer window, overlooking a still funky, historic district. On the flip side, it’s a glass-lined contemporary with a low roof, an infinity pool, and views of the ever-changing Austin skyline.
“You wake up knowing where you are,” says Sylvia Sharplin, 58, a real estate agent who renovated and built the 300-square-foot, four-bedroom home with her husband, Dan Sharplin, 58, a contractor.
Dan and Sylvia Sharplin in the outdoor living area of their home overlooking the Texas State Capitol.
Casey Woods for the Wall Street Journal
It took the Sharplins more than four years, over $ 7 million and lots of tea to create their new home.
It started in 2015 when their youngest daughter was a high school graduate. They wanted to replace their big house in the Austin suburbs with something smaller that was within walking distance of shops and restaurants. They wanted to buy in Clarksville, which is where they lived, an area west of downtown, when they moved from Monroe, LA to the University of Texas at Austin in 1986 to graduate from the University of Texas.
They were checking out a small shabby maisonette when Mr. Sharplin looked up the steep, weedy hill and saw a woman in front of another little shabby house.
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“What kind of house is that?” Mr. Sharplin asked the broker. He rose and approached 81-year-old Mrs. Joan Huntley. It turned out she owned both homes that had been in her family for over 50 years. “He kissed my cheek,” says Ms. Huntley. “It was very adorable.” A series of conversations followed with several congregations over tea on the porch of the House of Lords.
First, Ms. Huntley, who grew up on the property, said she was not interested in selling. Then she suggested that the Sharplins buy both homes to create a large, coherent age community. When the Sharplins said no, she suggested renovating the House of Lords and allowing her to live with them. After five months, when all Ms. Huntley’s concepts were exhausted, the Sharplins convinced Ms. Huntley and her sister to sell both properties to them for $ 2.3 million, which they did in March 2016.
Mrs. Huntley lived in the house for an additional eight months. Since the Sharplins had to include a dollar amount in their lease, they charged her $ 1, which Ms. Huntley paid in a silver dollar (“grin,” Ms. Sharplin says.) Meanwhile, they gathered their architect and contractor and began the design process. When Mrs. Huntley failed to clean up all of the “collections”, mostly magazines and books, that had accumulated around the house, the Sharplins took care of it. They threw some away, donated some, and kept some, including select Life Magazine covers that they had framed and hung on the stairs. “At that point we became friends,” says Ms. Sharplin. Mrs. Huntley agrees. “We connected,” she says.
Then the real work began. They knew they would just tear down the lower, two story house as it was in such poor condition and not old enough to be considered historic. But it turned out that the upper house, built in 1915, was also in poor condition – worse than initially thought, with failed pipes and a hole in the roof.
“It fell apart, a derelict bungalow on a crumbling hill,” says James LaRue of LaRue Architects. “I thought you just couldn’t save this thing. But then the city said you had to save this thing. “
Because the house is in a historic neighborhood, the Sharplins had to assure the Austin Historic Landmark Commission that their renovations and additions would maintain the historic style and character-defining exterior features such as windows, doors and entrance details, roof shape, porch, fireplace, and tidiness. The extension could not visually overwhelm the existing building,
The point of no return came when the couple received offers for the structure and foundation work. It would cost about $ 1 million before any work on the house structure itself was even started. “That took our breath away,” says Mr. Sharplin. The couple huddled together and decided not to compromise. “We basically talked ourselves into building the house we really wanted to build,” Sharplin says. The final construction cost for the project was approximately $ 5 million, including approximately $ 310,000 for the pool and $ 183,000 for the architecture fees, which included weekly on-site meetings for most of the building.
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The finished house has two different characters. From the front, it’s white, clean, simple, and traditional, with a tapered metal roof, teak porch with a beadboard ceiling, dormer, wood paneling, restored columns, and rebuilt original windows. Seen from the city center, it’s a new, contemporary stucco with a low roof and sliding glass walls. These elements were allowed because the addition is lower than the original facade and cannot be seen from the main entrance.
“I smile when I look at the house,” says Ms. Huntley, who now lives in a one-bedroom condominium in a community north of Austin that she loves. The facade reminds her of her home, and she says the addition is a “graceful interpretation” of modern change in the city. “The house has a soul,” she says.
The entrance area is designed to look traditional, with hidden doors that open to reveal an office on one side and a guest room on the other.
Casey Woods for the Wall Street Journal
The transition also takes place inside. The entrance feels like an old house, with a narrow hallway and wooden floors. But behind the walls there are doors that slide open on one side to an office and on the other to a guest room. At the end of the entrance hall, the room opens into a large room with 14 foot ceilings. The room contains living and dining areas as well as a kitchen. The entire wall of the living space is made of glass with sliding doors that lead to a limestone terrace. At the edge is the long, blue infinity pool.
Behind the kitchen around a corner, a long hallway leads to the master bedroom which has access to the pool. The house also has a gym and a one bedroom apartment for children, friends or future carers.
The Sharplins completed the house in February 2020, just before the pandemic broke out, and just in time for two of their three children to move in temporarily. That wasn’t the plan.
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“It was purposely designed so that our children would not come home and live with us again,” says Ms. Sharplin. Your children have since moved on. “Now,” says Ms. Sharplin, “we are finally alone.”
Except for all the people who knock: every few weeks they get an offer to buy their house. When a bidder told them to state their price, the couple had a series of conversations.
Mr Sharplin said he had come to the conclusion that there was no price because the sales contract would come with a divorce contract. “I would have to cut the house in half,” he says.