“Neither of us had ever built a nice home or grew up in a nice home,” says Tom of the modest lifestyle he’s shared with his wife of nearly 50 years. But when a spectacular Lake Austin property boasting 300 feet of prime waterfront real estate popped up, it provided the perfect opportunity for the couple to move from their simple home in Houston to be closer to their son in Austin and embark on their dream home.
“We were looking for a place that was going to be warm and inviting and friendly,” says Tom, a geophysicist. “Not a museum. But a place people would want to spend time at.”
Their son, an Austin periodontist, compiled three lists consisting of architects, contractors and interior designers who specialized in high-end homes. “It was actually our son who said it would be great if we could pick all three areas at the same time,” recalls Tom, who tapped Dalgleish Construction Company, Shiflet Group Architects and Fern Santini Design for the job. “From our very first meeting, we sat down with the architect and the general contractor and the interior designer and we turned this project over to them to get started.”
During a pre-construction meeting, Shiflet Group Architects presented two conceptual design ideas — a traditional rectilinear plan with all of the rooms facing Lake Austin in the same orientation and a second option to angle, or splay, a section of the house to create more interesting views and a different dynamic.
“We call that ‘cranking’ or turning portions of the house,” explains architect David Shiflet. “Tom thought that approach was far more interesting and asked if we could do more cranks. We smiled and said sure.”
As Shiflet Group Architects cranked away at the original drawings, the 8,000-square-foot rectilinear box expanded into an awe-inspiring 17,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece set back from the sparkling lake on two waterfront acres.
“The house then took on a life of its own with approximately five cranks, so very few walls were parallel and perpendicular,” says Shiflet. “The outcome caused very interesting and challenging forms, offering a new personality to the house.”
Boasting crisp lines that contrast flawlessly with undulating curves, the Santa Barbara-inspired lakefront residence comprises four bedrooms and seven full bathrooms in the main house, two bedrooms and two bathrooms in the guest house, a boat house big enough for two boats, and two three-car garages. Large homes have a tendency of presenting challenges, with hallways that can become linear and boring, but the architects had a remedy for that.
“The idea of the ‘hallways’ in the Music Box was to curve these paths so you can’t see from one end to the other and to bulge them at stairways and wet bar areas and entries so you are moving through spaces rather than down boring halls,” says Shiflet. “It is just like driving down a straight interstate or winding down a country road. We chose the winding road and we are happy we did.”
The design was originally drawn with stucco swooping in multiple directions, but the Smiths asked if it could be done in stone instead. “That was a huge challenge because the house had many large arches, curves and splays that would be almost impossible to do in stone,” recalls Shiflet. “So we began mocking up stone and chiseling it into curved forms and cantilevering those curves which was both difficult and expensive. We then blended the stone and mortar to give the house a monolithic look because the cranked and curved forms were too busy to be done in a normal stone pattern.”
In the end, the home was constructed with roughly 1,000 tons — 2 million pounds — of hand-worked Texas white limestone that was cut, chiseled and smoothed to shape and form the various arches and create the flowing, lyrical design. While the entire process was much more complex, time-consuming and expensive, the beautiful, sculptural form that resulted was well worth the effort. “Every piece of stone was hand-chiseled,” says Dalgleish. “To get the one-of-a-kind stone eaves was quite complicated. It was a pretty incredible place to build.”
From the beginning, the Smith’s goal was to create something everyone involved would be proud of. “How we got there was a whole series of steps and we really enjoyed the process,” says Tom. “We really just fell into how well it all worked. We wanted this to be something the workmen would look back on and be proud of and we stuck to that.”
Nothing about the house, nicknamed the Music Box, is ordinary. From the moment you enter the home, a two-story window wall in the back in the house allows views of Lake Austin to pour right in. Reclaimed walnut — from the subfloor of an old chicken coop — and reclaimed white oak wood beams embrace a historical character that contrasts brilliantly with the new construction. One of the most unique features inside the home is the spiral staircase, a structural feat built without the central support at the request of the Smiths by sliding limestone treads over stainless bars mounted into the surrounding concrete wall which allows each step to be completely visible.
The home’s nickname, The Music Box, couldn’t be more fitting. In fact, the Smith’s home embodies every word etched on the bronze plaque on the inside of the front door: “The Music Box: Built with pride and dedicated to laughter and love.” Below those words are the names of everyone who had a hand in the project including around 50 subcontractors.
But the name doesn’t come from the home’s lyrical design, nor the classical music that is frequently playing inside, nor for the sleek Steinway piano inside the living room. Rather, the name serves as a reminder of the childhood memories Tom collected at the summer lake cottage his grandfather built for his grandmother in the 1920’s on West Okoboji Lake in northwest Iowa.
“My grandmother and grandfather’s cottage got to be known as The Music Box because of my grandmother, Alice, who was a musician and would compose music and sing songs for everyone,” says Tom. “So here we were many, many years later and had just finished this beautiful home on Lake Austin. Evonne and I are not sophisticated people in any sense. However, when we got toward the end of the project, we decided to name the house The Music Box.”
There is no doubt The Music Box has created a place of harmony where the couple can build their own happy memories. “It’s the unity of all of the components of this house — the design, the materials — that go together so well and make the ambiance hard to surpass,” says Tom, sitting in his office with his feet propped up on the desk and staring out at another stunning sunset sparkling on the lake just beyond. “This place is a music box.”
But the project brought with it other blessings as well.
“Our son actually ended up marrying Fern Santini’s assistant and now we have two grandkids,” laughs Tom. “So The Music Box has been wonderful for us in many ways.”
ARCHITECT Shiflet Group Architects
512-328-2955 | www.shifletgrouparchitects.com
BUILDER Dalgleish Construction Company
512-346-8554 | www.dalgleish.net
DESIGNER ABODE|Fern Santini Design
512-300-2303 | www.fernsantini.com