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Mystery Austin house shows its two sides: 1915 cottage, 2020 modern for AIA Homes Tour

This Castle Hill home by LaRue Architects is part of the AIA Austin Homes Tour. The original 1915 home has been redone and looks similar from the front. Around the side is the modern view of the house.

From the street, Dan and Sylvia Sharplin's home looks like a freshly painted and landscaped 1915 cottage overlooking the growing modern downtown below.

Located in the Castle Hill Local Historic District west of Lamar Boulevard and part of the West Line National Historic Register District in Old West Austin, the house maintains some of its quirkiness in its off-center front door, and its charm in the detailed geometric window muntins.

The side view of this house, which you can see from Lamar Boulevard, shows a modern home except for the small original facade.

Behind that carefully preserved front exterior, though, is an expansive modern home with all the creature comforts of the 21st century. The home is on this year's AIA Austin Homes Tour, put together by the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

This year, the tour features nine homes, all of which can be seen virtually and three of which can be seen in-person. This home, designed by LaRue Architecture and built by Foursquare Builders, is one of the three available to see in person.

Different details of this Castle Hill home become artwork, including the custom wine rack, the dining room light fixture and the tilework in the backsplash of the kitchen.

Perfect property, not house

The Sharplins found this property in 2016. Sylvia's now a real estate agent, and Dan's the executive chairman of FlashParking. They wanted to move out of the suburbs into a close-in property, but finding an available lot or a home that had room to be updated was a challenge. They found this property and were sold on the view. 

"There's not another property like this that has this kind of view in this neighborhood," Sylvia Sharplin says.

It wasn't for sale, but they started talking to the owner, a woman in her 80s who had grown up in the house and spent more than 50 years there.

This home in the Castle Hill Local Historic District sits on the edge of a hill overlooking downtown Austin. The original 1915 home has been redone to look like the original home from the front.

They talked to her about their love of the home and their desire to give it a new life. They saw themselves as being the stewards of this property. They would have to preserve the front façade, as was required because of the home's inclusion in the Castle Hill Local Historic District.

The Sharplins had never even been inside when the owner agreed to let them buy the house, and they gave her time to gradually move while they spent a year working with architect Jim LaRue on creating the plan for the house.

The previous owner left behind treasures with the house: About 300 Life magazines from the 1950s and '60s, an original carved fireplace mantel and a chandelier, which were both originally in the Driskill Hotel. The Sharplins had the magazine covers scanned and printed their favorites on glass, which now hang as art on a wall by a staircase.

The mantel was reconfigured and became the vanity for the powder room sink. The chandelier was cleaned up and downsized to become a statement lighting fixture in that powder room. 

The staircase down to the lower level features the covers of Life magazines on the wall that were left behind by the previous owner.

Inside also were surprises: The original shiplap walls, wood floors and original lumber had some extensive damage, including from fire and water. The Sharplins saved what they could of the floors and shiplap walls and sold them to a company that specializes in salvaging materials. They saved the front windows, but much of the rest of the home could not be saved and had to be rebuilt.

Once inside, they also discovered that the home had a few poorly executed additions, including a finished attic room. They wanted their own additions to the original footprint to feel like they flowed from the front entrance — which itself feels very of the 1915-era — to the 21st-century space that opens up from the foyer. 

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The office features one of the home's original windows that has been repaired.

Old made modern

When people look up at the house from Lamar Boulevard, they see the side profile of a modern house of glass and steel. This often can be confusing, though, because when someone then arrives on their street and sees a simple cottage front, they can't figure out where the modern home went. I moved this graf up/EW

Once they find it and enter the foyer, they'll find a nod to the original home, with a recreated look of shiplap walls in a vibrant blue.

The foyer is deceiving, too. People will ask the Sharplins: Where are the rooms they saw from the street? The walls hide two doorways that match the wood walls on either side of the room. One leads to an office, the other to a guest bedroom with a full bathroom. Both of these rooms have one of the home's original ornate windows that face the street. 

The foyer offers the feel of the shiplap walls of the original 1915 cottage but with undamaged wood in a statement color.

Once guests leave this area, the modern house opens up with Texas mesquite floors; a large wall of glass doors and windows in the living room that provide the city view; a modern kitchen; and a doorway to a second guest bedroom. Both of the guest bathrooms feature terrazzo floors and counters.

The glass doors in the living room fully open to create an indoor/outdoor living space with the patio and pool. "We sit out here a lot," Sylvia Sharplin says.

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The Sharplins look down on a bustling Lamar, and people can look up and see their house, but not see inside it. 

"It's amazing how much privacy we have," Sylvia Sharplin says.

"Considering we're sitting in the middle of town," LaRue says of the house. 

The Sharplins can watch the changing city skyline from their living room, which opens to their patio and pool area.

Even though the home is now almost 4,000 square feet, it still remains "the right size for the neighborhood," LaRue says. 

"We built this home like it belonged here," he says.

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A place for details

For the interiors, the Sharplins chose a clean palette of off-white walls and gray accents in tile or cabinetry as a blank slate to not compete with the city views. The living room features a gray stone fireplace that's sleek and low on one wall. The lines of the fireplace are mirrored in the cabinetry in the kitchen across from the living room area of this open floor plan. 

The stone fireplace offers sleek lines but doesn't overpower the living room.
In the dining area of the open living space, the wine rack helps to define the space and adds interest.

In each room, the Sharplins picked interesting lighting fixtures that become signature art pieces. In the kitchen, they also picked rows of different colored tile to create a pop in the backsplash and beneath the island. 

They also added interest in a wine rack wall that blocks the view of the staircase leading down to the lower level. Across the wine rack and viewable through its fixtures is the wall of Life magazine covers.

The Sharplins often entertaine. Off the kitchen, they created a butler's pantry complete with full appliances and plenty of counter space that also leads to the laundry room. 

The butler's pantry offers plenty of space for entertaining.
To avoid looking directly down the hall to the master bedroom, Jim LaRue designed a turn in the hallway that makes it look like the home ends at that wall.

LaRue was very conscious of not wanting to be able to look straight from the entryway to a long hallway into a bedroom. Instead, after the kitchen, he created a wall that blocks that long view. The hallway takes a jag to the master suite.

Outside the suite, LaRue designed a special vestibule for a grandfather clock that was a wedding gift for the couple.

The master bedroom has the best views in the house, but wraparound window treatments can be deployed for privacy.

The master suite has two full walls of windows that have the best views in the house. A gray wall treatment on the wall behind the headboard and gray window treatments that completely wrap around the windows create the feel of a luxurious cocoon when closed. 

The master bathroom features stone floors, yellow onyx walls and marble counters.

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The master bathroom offers views of downtown surrounded by onyx walls.

The right house for a long time

Every step of the way, when a decision had to be made, the Sharplins went back to their mantra: "Let's build the best house we can," Sylvia Sharplin says. 

They also built it to be one that they could live in for a long time and one that would adapt with them. The home is two stories with a lower level that has a garage, a bedroom and an exercise room. They designed the home to age-in-place or take care of an aging relative. The lower-level bedroom can serve as a room for live-in help. An elevator can take them from the garage to the main level without needing to use staircases. Flush thresholds, hardwood floors and wide doorways make it accessible in a wheelchair or with a walker.

Because the home is built into the hill, it's a engineering feat of hidden structure. One place where the structure is revealed is in the wall of the lower level patio by the exercise room, where the concrete pour came out so well, LaRue chose not to hide it.

The structure and the levels of detail in this home took time to achieve. It was completed in February 2020.

"We decided what we wanted it to be," Sylvia Sharplin says. "We got everything we wanted. I love this house." 

When the living room doors are open to the patio, the space expands toward the view of downtown in the distance.

AIA Austin Homes Tour

Nine homes are on the tour, but only three will be available to see in person. 

In-person tour: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 16

Virtual tours of all nine homes: Various times Oct. 15 and 17

Tickets: $25 virtual only, $50 virtual plus in person

Information: aiaaustinhomestour.com