The architecture is about an unfolding experience and an understanding of the site,” says architect Tobin Smith of the residence he recently completed for homeowners Dacia and Lanham Napier and their children. “As you progress into the house at entry level, you soon find yourself hovering in the trees.” Situated in one of San Antonio’s oldest neighborhoods, the 3-acre property appears to be in the wilds of Texas, an impression owed to its precipitously sloping topography that merges into a rocky wet-weather ravine.
The homeowners learned about Smith through a friend, initially consulting with him about remodeling the property’s original residence. Working with the architect, they eventually decided to build anew, to better position the main living spaces in the most dynamic place where the site could be experienced and appreciated with the most intensity. “The great room of the original house looked across the ravine—the short dimension of the site—to the neighbors’ backyards,” Smith explains. “The new living-and-dining room is rotated 90 degrees from the original and straddles the ravine, addressing the long dimension of the site with no hints of neighbors.”
Dacia was involved in every step of the process. An avid art collector and nature lover, she assembled a team of professionals committed to her passion for both the site and art. Smith first recommended landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck, known for connecting people with their region through outdoor spaces and landscapes. Ten Eyck then suggested designer Mark Ashby, a virtuoso of understated style. Art consultant Alexis Armstrong of Armstrong Art Consulting was already onboard: “We had been working together for years as Dacia assembled her own art collection,” says Armstrong. Builders Jeff Truax and Jim Truax and lighting expert Christina Brown of Studio Lumina also signed on to round out the team.
The group faced inherent challenges, which they overcame with striking results. “Because of the ravine, the site was very difficult to build on,” says Jeff Truax. The meticulously calibrated modern design conceived by Smith, who worked alongside project manager Kenny Brown, also required absolute precision. “The roof, doors, windows, walls and ceilings—all the parts of the house—had to fit within an eighth of an inch,” Jeff Truax explains. The main body of the copper-limestone-and- glass structure parallels the ravine on the hillside. Because the home is dug into the hillside, only the second story is visible at street level, where living and dining areas occupy a wing that extends into a grove of oak trees and is hidden from the street, as well. Perpendicular to this bridge of rooms, the kitchen, entry and bedrooms also face the lush panorama. A dramatic roofline tilts up at a 12-degree angle above the great room, like an open lid. The effect directs the view in the living areas, making the site’s natural beauty a presence in the family’s everyday life. “This room is where you get a full understanding of the site,” says Smith. The lower level includes a game room, guest room, office and gym.
For the interiors, Ashby, along with designer Lillie Clark, worked with Dacia to create a new concept. “They were starting over completely,” says Ashby, noting the goal was to “bring the beauty of nature inside and create a livable space filled with only the highest-quality pieces.” Starting anew allowed them to make selections with a curator’s eye, beginning with the furnishings—most are from Italy or France and took months to construct—and then focusing on accessories, all the way down to 1950s Gio Ponti flatware. No detail was too small: Ashby even created a custom scent profile. Accommodating the request for livable, family-friendly furnishings, the designer selected durable pieces for longevity and “fabrics such as crushed velvet and suede that get better with age,” he says. This includes the living room’s blue suede armchairs and velvet-covered Marmol Radziner sofa. With Dacia’s love of nature in mind, Ashby also “looked to elements such as wood and metal and selected a color palette that would play off colors in nature as a way to bring the outside in,” he says. This includes commissioning the master bedroom’s wood-slab headboard by Attie Jonker. Art, including Walton Ford’s crocodile watercolor in the living area, also alludes to nature.
Outside, Dacia and Armstrong integrated sculpture into the landscape with Ten Eyck’s help, while Ten Eyck collaborated with colleague Cameron Campbell to design the front entry, auto court, condensate grotto fountain and pond, plus meandering trails. “This is an inspirational site,” Ten Eyck says. “The trails invite you to experience the property from different perspectives.” Dacia’s strategy to blend art, architecture and design was deliberate. “In my mind, you can’t have one component without the other,” Dacia says. With nature as the common thread for everyone involved, Dacia’s approach helped the team embrace the challenge of building a home above a steep ravine. “We are thrilled by the result,” Smith says. “The house gives the homeowners the experience they wanted—a retreat within the city—by editing the neighborhood context and focusing on the natural realm.”
— Helen Thompson