Steve Chambers, AIA: A Hill Country Architect Reflects on Blanco River Stone Homes

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In the early 1920’s, stone weekend homes were designed and built in the Texas Hill Country on small ranches and rural property. As urban dwellers used the improved highways and automobiles to retreat from Austin and San Antonio, the area drew some residents, but many more vacationers and weekend visitors. Because of its natural beauty, relatively high altitude, cool rivers, and wildlife, Wimberley was known as an attraction for artists, musicians, and sportsmen.

We recently spent time visiting with friends who own two 1920’s vintage stone cabins on the Blanco River. As an architect who specializes in designing homes, I spend a lot of time studying historic structures. And although I have visited these properties previously, on this occasion I spent more time examining the details of these quaint masonry structures. The owners’ sensitive renovation of these river cabins provides modern comfort, yet shares the rustic ambiance and charm of early Texas cabin life. A close observation of the stonework reveals the masons’ attention to detail and their artistic whimsy. Though most likely not directed by an architect, the crafstman’s inclusion of various exotic and contrasting stones: petrified wood, geodes, quartz, and a blend of various colors and textures of local limestone, is aesthetically pleasing. One can still see the ‘hands of the masons’ in the tool marks around corners and openings where they cut the stone and finished the edges with bush hammers and other tools to blend them in with the native stone surfaces.

Whitetail doe watching us from Blanco River

The construction of the buildings is a curious combination of wood framing and masonry. It appears that a 2×4 framework, apparently without sheathing, was built and then masonry added to the inside and outside, in some cases extending through the wood framing. The end result is a wood structure braced by stone that resembles a solid masonry building.

While many lavish weekend houses have been added in recent years to the landscape of this Hill Country retreat, they pale by comparison for those of us who seek a built environment that introduces us to the authenticity of the past rather than sanitizing it. Few capture the honest character as well as these craftsman-built 1920’s homes.

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