If you moved to Austin from one of the contiguous 49 states, or from anywhere else in the world for that matter, you may have encountered a building style referred to as “Hill Country”. And it may be puzzling. Hill Country architecture has nothing to do with “warm Tuscan style” or “French Country rustic.” It is not defined by the presence in the home plans of a seamed metal roof, limestone walls, and wooden beams.
Hill Country architecture is often used to describe a dressed up sort of farmhouse style and, when you think about it, for that reason alone, it sits at odds in an urban environment.
But the architectural styles of the Hill Country, the area of Texas between San Antonio and Austin, are profoundly influential and subject to wide interpretation.
To understand the origins of the style it is necessary to know more about how the Texas Hill Country was settled. According to Jay Hargrave, a renowned Austin-based architect with over 25 years designing, building and fabricating, the precedence for the style resides “with the old masonry buildings of the German immigrants who settled the area we now think of as Hill Country. The building style merged with the agrarian vernacular of deep overhangs and low sloped metal roofs.”
(Old farm houses in the Hill Country)
The Texas Hill Country was settled in the 1840s and 1850s by Anglo-Americans from Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, from the Ozarks and Appalachian regions. Many of people who found their way to this part of Texas hailed from mountainous areas and the climate they encountered enforced change on their indigenous building styles.
It was not a welcoming climate. As lovely as the Hill Country is viewed now, rolling hills and valleys and picturesque views punctuated by rivers, the landscape was not easy for the newcomers who needed to cultivate lives and carve out settlements where little existed before. It was a hard-scrabble life that is unrecognizable in today’s landscape. Homes were built for protection, not only from the elements, the heat and rain and the wind but from the potential hostility of others.
(Jay Hargrave: This project is sited on a hill that overlooks a canyon on an otherwise flat site. It opens up to the southeast and is about 8’ below grade on the southwest protecting it from afternoon sun and winter winds. The first building you see as you approach the site from the west is the utility building, which houses space for implements, and a workshop as well as two guest bedrooms. The building is meant to fool the eye during the approach with the main house not being revealed completely until you are in the courtyard. Photo: Jay Hargrave)
A significant group of settlers to the area were Germans, particularly Hessians and people from the Lower Saxon part of Germany, and Alsatians from Eastern France. The settlers became ranchers and farmers and their homes, barns, outbuildings and farms, reflected their occupations. Utilizing local materials, limestone, fieldstone, cypress, live oak, and mesquite, a collective style developed most heavily influenced by German architecture where a stonework first floor, became a timbered home on the second floor. Early on a form of wide log construction, a building style that was brought to the area by settlers, was often filled with mortared stone. Limestone and sandstone buildings were sometimes whitewashed. In time, German immigrants also pioneered a roofing industry, and the area became a resource for cypress shingles.
Stone buildings were utilized more than log cabins. Dog-trot homes that helped circulate the air in a humid climate became popular. Over time, the architectural buildings styles, particularly adornment and carvings, reflected the proportionate affluence of the area.
Today, Hill Country architecture in a general sense contains identifiable materials. Limestone and wood are used for construction as well as ceilings and floors, countertop and cabinets. Steel structures, pipe columns, and seamed metal roofs are distinct components but as Jay Hargrave points out, “the original buildings were more visceral, rougher, made of fieldstone and not streamlined into a ranch style layout.” He adds, “‘Modern’ Hill Country style takes these elements and does more with them, adding commercial style windows, for instance.”
Jay says that while he appreciates Hill Country style he is influenced by architects such as Lake Flato, and by Modernism, particularly the exposed structural components of a building.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Hill Country architecture is in highlighting the relationship between the buildings and the landscape, in the sense that the modern interpretations of Hill Country style are related to the sites upon which they are located, in the Hill Country, utilizing materials as a visual memory of early buildings but in a modern way. And it is for this reason that derivatives of the style, in urban environments, often tend to lack relevance, and seem out of context, and sometimes look like the vestiges of an event that was once held in another place, whereas modern expressions of Hill Country architecture seem right at home in the landscape of area.