Mid-Century Merges with Contemporary Design in River Oaks
Architect John Cryer III, FAIA, and Edna Ramos, a retired commercial pilot, met 21 years ago and have been married for 19. John moved to Houston in 1972 after graduation from LSU. He started his career at the former Caudill Rowlett Scott, (CRSS) and through the growth years became executive vice president of the Architecture Division. John joined Page Southerland Page, Inc. (or Page, as it’s known in architectural and design circles) in 1993 as board member and senior principal, later also becoming president of PSP Architects-Engineers, Inc.
Currently, John is pursuing his passion for sculpture as a student at the Glassell School of Art and continues to do consulting work for Page. Recent notable projects include designing the built architecture for both Discovery Green Park and the new Buffalo Bayou Park. In addition, he is president of the board of Preservation Houston and serves on the board of the Hobby Center for Public Policy. Edna, who was born in Mexico, flew for American Eagle and also for major corporations such as Burlington Resources and Halliburton, among others.
Together the couple has worked on the transformation of downtown Houston with John leading many of the historic restoration projects such as the Rice Hotel, Texas State Hotel, and Commerce Tower. Edna was one of the founders of the Downtown Midtown Residents Association, and has been an active volunteer and board member of the Downtown Management District for more than 13 years. Her volunteer efforts include having been a board member of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, among other organizations.
The couple designed and lived at Keystone Lofts for more than 13 years and prior to that in a small Montrose condo — both of these under 2,100 feet. So what kind of project does a creative couple with this sort of collaborative résumé take on in their retirement? They give up condo living to design a home – just the reverse of moving from a single family home to a high rise. John says it is always every architect’s dream to design their own home, so with that philosophy in mind, one could say they are “living the dream.”
Initially, their quest for a home began with a search of existing properties that were well designed and a goal of finding a mid-century style. They also wanted to be close to downtown. This portion of River Oaks contains some of the most important mid-century homes and was a pioneering enclave in the 1960s. They loved the neighborhood and the context of some of the beautiful mid-century homes designed by McKee and Kamrath.
In 2011, an opportunity came about to purchase the property at 940 Kirby, and initially they thought that the home could be restored. Unfortunately, the house designed by the late Houston architect Wylie Vale had major structure problems, so the decision was made to demolish and build new. While the existing house was donated to Habitat for Humanity, the couple salvaged some of the materials so that they could utilize them in the new house as a way to pay homage to Vale.
The couple’s vision was that their home should be contemporary with lots of natural light. Their must-haves included a nice lot with trees; a small, but very open and contemporary design on a single floor; and utilize nontraditional materials for residential construction. By River Oaks standards, the home is small being only approximately 4,000 square feet.
“Because I wanted the home to be designed as commercial construction in steel or concrete,” said Cryer, “finding a builder that would work with me and help find quality sub-contractors to do the work, we chose G.T. Leach. They had constructed some of the high-rise condo buildings that Page had designed and offered the kind of flexibility to help procure the unique aspects of the house.”
Much of the inspiration for design was derived from the mid-century homes in their neighborhood on Tiel Way, along with Cryer’s architectural expertise. He explained, “The starting point for good design always begins with an understanding of the site and its context.”
Cryer’s architectural instincts were on point. In 2014, this home won an award from the Society of American Registered Architects (SARA).
Other elements of the home are equally notable. Simplicity and clean design allow for elimination of clutter — true cornerstones of mid-century and contemporary architecture. The house utilizes a horizontal “Norman” brick, a style often selected because of its linear effect in the wall. The longer slender brick draws out the horizontal lines in a building. It has a more elegant look and feel. Additionally, horizontal corner glass was installed, a design detail that can be found on some of the classic mid-century homes.
The home is laid out on a grid of 5-by-5-foot terrazzo, a pattern that is repeated throughout the interior design, from the windows to the bookshelves to the cabinetry. And one of the most important interior design features is the lighting, both natural and fixtures. Each was given equal status in order to properly accentuate the unique architecture.
The house is completely open with very few doors. And the few doors they did incorporate are barn doors, which can just as easily disappear as appear. Even the walls don’t fully extend to the ceiling, so the roof seems to float over the home’s interior spaces. As well, the home is a four-sided house with each façade unique and connecting to the outdoors. The house is designed in structural steel and essentially has no wood, except for the portion of the house with a cypress ceiling.
The landscape is important and all spaces within the home connect to the outside. From no room in the home is another home or street visible — only beautiful landscaped vignettes.
Edna pointed out that they opted out of including an indoor fireplace and chose instead to include it as an outdoor deck feature. “In Houston, a fireplace is really more functional outside anyway.”
Only a glass wall separates the deck from the kitchen, where the same material is used on the kitchen floor, only finished rather than raw, and providing another example of how the home’s design flows harmoniously from indoors to out.
Also distinctive is that while the home is not designated for LEED, it was designed to a high degree of sustainability standards. High performance, low-e insulating glass was used throughout, along with a roof water collection system to irrigate the landscape. The home pioneered the use of “grasscrete” as a permeable material for the driveway and parking. It was the first house in the City of Houston to obtain approval for this material and design concept as permeable cover. In addition, the use of LED light fixtures, high performance HVAC equipment, and the highly insulated structure significantly reduces energy consumption.
Aside from the home’s unique design elements, the couple simply loves it here. Edna said, “Our kitchen is in the center of the house and becomes our family space and hub of entertainment along with the deck. And, too, our outdoor patio that connects to the master bedroom is a wonderful experience in both the morning and the evening. It is just so nice to walk out on this patio. And the guest room is a homage to John’s parents which includes the bedroom suite that they bought when they were married in 1947.”
Asked about any plans for future home projects, the couple declared that they had none at this time, but that they do envision the future installation of solar collectors on the roof.
John added that he realizes that his being an architect was an invaluable asset. He said, “Utilizing the experience and knowledge of an architect in the home-building process will greatly enhance the value and the design of any home. That combined with a quality builder is extremely important.”
Though they enjoyed the process probably more than the average homeowners due to their experience in the industry, the couple feels immensely satisfied and proud of their home. Edna said, “We’ve really achieved our dream here, and our plan is to not leave until we leave this world.”
Text by Cheryl Alexander
House Photography by ShaunLin Hon, Skyworks Photography
Architecture by Page Sutherland Page, Inc.,John Cryer III, FAIA
Construction by G.T. Leach Landscape Design by Johnny Steele
Interiors by Page Sutherland Page, Inc.,John Cryer III, FGAIA
TOP IMAGE:All lighting was carefully selected to become part of the architecture of the house and was provided by Lesco Architectural Lighting in Houston. The “Enigma” pendant light is by Louis Poulsen. The compass rose in the terrazzo flooring of the expansive room off the entry is reflective of the nautical/aeronautical aesthetic throughout such as the door hardware, A/C vents, etc…