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February 25, 2020
Home Architecture & Design A Streamline Dream Revived

A Streamline Dream Revived

A beloved Austin architectural landmark is nurtured back to its original sleek style

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With its legions of drive-by fans, 3805 Red River Street is one of Austin’s most beloved architectural icons — a sleek, white, ultra-modern ocean liner of a house in neighborhood of bungalows and brick cottages.

Built in 1947, the McFarland House, as it’s now known, is an unusual example of residential Streamline Moderne architecture in Austin. On the busy intersection of Red River and 38 1/2 streets, it’s caught the eye — and affection — of many over the decades. And when its demolition was threatened several years ago, it sparked a very public struggle to preserve it.

Now, Preservation Austin is in the midst of rehabilitating and restoring the McFarland House, bring back original features like the distinctive pale blue stripes around the base of both first and second story.

3805 Red River Street soon after its construction in 1947. Credit: McFarland family photograph, courtesy Preservation Austin.

Preservation Austin purchased the landmark house in May of last year. And since then, the non-profit organization has embarked on an initial phase of rehabilitating the historic property.

Tops on the to-do list was replacing the severely cracked concrete foundation and re-grading the site. The lawn stood six inches above the house in many places, causing rain run-off toward the foundation which was shifted and cracked.

Also on the docket: repairing exterior stucco and soffit damage, painting the house inside and out, installing new flooring, repairing original casement windows and restoring a second floor balcony and its unique railing.

As part of the extensive foundation repair work, the interior slab was completely ripped out and replaced. The kitchen’s original cabinetry remain in tact. Photo: Preservation Austin

Preservation Austin made contact with John McFarland, who was seven years old when his parents built the house in 1947. Family photos and other information McFarland provided revealed much about the house’s origin story and revealed the original color scheme — white, pale blue, and black. McFarland also confirmed that his father, James McFarland, a refrigerator salesman who traveled frequently, was enamored with South Florida and its abundance of Streamline and Art Deco architecture. When it came time to build his first house, James McFarland wanted his own Streamline dream.

Streamline Moderne represents the last phase of Art Deco. After the excesses and exuberance of the Roaring Twenties, a machine aesthetic matched the mood of the frugal Depression-era 1930s. Industrial designers took inspiration from the efficient aerodynamic forms common to trains, plane fuselages and ship hulls. Sleek curving forms, smooth surfaces, long horizontal lines and curved corners dominated.

Wide, cantilevered overhangs and the vertical fin with porthole-size openings distinguish the McFarland House’s Streamline Moderne style. As part of the current restoration work, the front door fin was fitted with a new footing with the plaster specifically matched to the consistency of the original.

Streamline Moderne was most commonly used in commercial buildings — bus terminals, train stations, roadside cafés, drive-in movie theaters  — and consumer goods like household appliances. While its peak popularity was prior to World War II, the Streamline style nevertheless continued briefly post-war before newer directions in modernism succeeded it.

The McFarland House is one of the few buildings in Austin in the Streamline Moderne style. Austin’s downtown Fire Department Station 1, built in 1938, is streamline. So is the spectacular Bohn House in Pemberton Heights, also built in 1938 and designed by architect Roy L. Thomas with inspiration from the film “Lost Horizon” that had been released the previous year.

The dining area of the eat-in kitchen faces northwest onto the intersection of Red River and East 38th 1/2 streets. Photo: Sightlines.

The McFarlands moved to Austin in 1946 from Amarillo, at first renting a house on Red River Street across from the Austin Country Club (now Hancock Golf Course). When a vacant oversized lot down the street and on the corner of 38 1/2 Street came up for sale, the couple snatched it up. They couldn’t afford to hire an architect, but they enlisted residential construction firm Arnn Brothers.

Just under 2000-square-feet, the house has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, though the small first floor bedroom functions more like a study. A large open living room is just inside the front door. An outside back staircase leads down to the backyard and carport. And cove ceilings, an eat-in kitchen, built-in bedroom cabinets, a carport, and wall-to-wall carpeting were the ne plus ultra of the home’s modern features.

A copy of the newspaper ad for the McFarland House boasted of its modern features including built-ins and wall-to-wall carpeting. Photo: Sightlines.

The McFarlands briefly listed the house for sale before moving in, though as they always intended to live in the home, their son John speculates it may have just been an excuse to show off. “The ‘Eyes of Austin’ have been on this grand home since construction was started in early 1947,” reads the ad. The asking price? $40,000.

Recent restoration uncovered the dog house was built in underneath the exterior back staircase. The McFarland's dog was named Mary.
Recent restoration spruced up the dog house that was built in underneath the exterior back staircase.

 

The McFarland family in 1950, with their dog Mary.
The McFarland family — from left, John, Birdie, James, and James, Jr. — in 1950 in front of the carport, with their dog Mary. Credit: McFarland family photograph, courtesy Preservation Austin.

 

Even the stair railing features the long horizontal lines characteristic of the Streamline style, like the curved corners of the doorway. Photo: Sightlines.

In the early 1960s, the house was bought by the Delta H Corporation, a consortium of neighbors who were concerned that the new Hancock Shopping Center a couple of blocks away would transform Red River Street into a commercial thoroughfare. Delta H Corporation bought a number of homes in the neighborhood, determined to keep the area residential. For decades Delta H used the McFarland House as a rental property and left it be, making no significant design updates or remodels — in effect preserving the structure’s architectural integrity.

The house became a part of local lore. Banjo player Tom Pittman of the Austin Lounge Lizards was a longtime resident in the 1980s, hosting many parties and jam sessions. Preservation Austin has a photograph from that time showing Joni Mitchell hanging out in the backyard. And in the 1990s, the Austin band the Bad Livers are said to have lived there.

Current preservation work includes restoring the house’s original features. Like much of the rest of the house, the steps to the second floor were originally carpeted, and after walls are painted, new carpeting will be laid.

However in 2014, Delta H filed for a demolition permit setting off one of Austin’s highest profile historic preservation battles. Preservation Austin and the non-profit Modernist design awareness group Mid Tex Mod led the charge with dozens of citizens — fans of the house — turning out at heated public meetings to speak in favor of preserving the house. The battle wound its way through multiple levels of city bureaucracy from the Historic Landmark Commission to the Planning Commission before finally reaching the Austin City Council.

Over the owner’s objections, the city council designated the McFarland House a city of Austin Landmark — only the third time in Austin that a house has been deemed historic against the owner’s wishes.

Plans are underway to have the McFarland House named to the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible state historic tax credits.

Eventually Preservation Austin hopes to adapt the McFarland House into light office or live-work space.

The site had to be re-graded to keep water from draining onto the foundation. New sustainable landscaping has been added. Work is underway to restore the wood railing on the second floor balcony which is off the master bedroom. Photo: Sightlines