Empty nesters deciding to downsize is a familiar story. However, one couple in Austin gave their tale a plot twist by eschewing anything conventional for a new home. The pair put their hobbies—primarily gardening and traveling—at the fore and pulled design inspiration from some of their favorite moments together. “We’ve always loved exploring Mexico and Central America and the secrecy of what might exist behind the wooden doors you see while walking down the streets,” explains the wife. “Plus, we wanted to bring the outdoors inside—making an accessible exterior space we would use on a regular basis.”
To realize this dream, the couple hired architect Charles Travis, who had designed their previous abode. “They wanted something in town that was more manageable for the two of them,” he recalls. In turn, what Travis sketched was a Santa Barbara-style residence and casita featuring all the timeless trimmings—stucco, clay, tile—but with an emphasis on modern lines. (A case in point: squared windows and doorways as opposed to arches.) “Much of our recent work has been about breaking houses down into multiple forms,” he says. “This project continues that tradition with a completely detached casita for guests. We created separate structures with well-defined spaces and connected them with a beautiful garden.” Working with builders Christopher Yokley and Scott Draker, Travis “turned the house in on itself,” he continues. “This is a city lot with neighbors on three sides, so creating an outdoor room gave the owners privacy and a wonderful exterior living area.”
From the street, visitors enter through large antique doors into a paseo, or covered passageway, that leads directly toward the courtyard (where the husband can often be found with his bucket and secateurs) and the main house just beyond. “The courtyard was a primary design element,” the architect notes. “It’s the ‘glue’ that holds everything together.” Working with designers Marcus Mohon and Autumn Mohon, Travis further defined the exterior with a central fire pit that comprises comfortable seating and a pergola sheltering a 12-foot-long dining table. While the couple envisioned a home that lives for two, they also love to entertain and desired a place they could use for as much of the year as possible.
Inside the residence, meanwhile, exists an abundance of dappled light, with windows remaining large and relatively unadorned thanks to the privacy afforded by the courtyard. Benefiting from this, the airy living room occupies the center of what is essentially a great room. Yet, Marcus rethought the familiar flow of kitchen to dining room to living room by centering the sofas and pushing the dining table to the far end. “It’s not a huge home, so we didn’t want it to feel like an apartment,” he explains. “Our clients use the kitchen counter and breakfast nook just for themselves, which allowed us to create a destination dining area that’s not too far away to bring food when company visits.”
Marcus, whose project manager was Stacie Grimes, selected furnishings that speak the same language as the architecture—beautiful yet approachable. “There should be a delicate balance of dynamic and comfortable. Rooms need to beguile, and I think the eye dances here,” he muses, noting the influence of boutique hotels like Portrait Roma, a historic property in Rome. “This house was so artfully designed by Charles that it reveals itself slowly. There’s procession. There’s romance.” At the back of the abode is the primary bedroom, and another surprise. Gone is the light and bright feel of the courtyard, replaced entirely by a dark, dramatic hue on the walls and ceiling “that transforms itself throughout the day, sometimes having bronze, chocolate or indigo undertones,” Marcus notes. The wife was immediately smitten: “I trusted him completely, and the color makes it a perfect room for sleeping, which is a plus we weren’t expecting,” she says.
“It was always about being soft and understated,” chimes the architect. Regardless, the residence continues to garner more than a little attention. “People stop, call, leave notes—so many are fascinated by the house,” laughs the wife. Like all those homes the couple admired on their travels to Latin America, this one enchants passersby as much as it does its lucky occupants.