San Antonio is a city full of residential surprises. Particularly in the older neighborhoods, you never know what you’ll find. Around one corner there may be a full-blown Tudor mansion, and the next bend in the road can reveal a Prairie home. Some of these treasures are right out in the open, and some are concealed behind dense foliage and oak trees.

Some are hidden right out in the open, like the home of Lynn and John Hamby. Because the house is turned at an angle to the street and concealed by entry gates and a carefully designed xeriscaped front yard, you might miss it amid all the large homes centered on big lots with huge oaks and rolling lawns. And you’d miss out on one of the most unusual homes in this northeast neighborhood.

A HOMECOMING

Shortly before John and Lynn married, Lynn’s parents moved from Baltimore and bought the spacious residence behind the Hambys’ current home. When the Hambys married, the wedding reception was held in the Wilsons’ new home and back lawn, overlooking a lush, treed space. Little did anyone realize that one day the bride and groom would live right there. Lynn and John met, married, and constructed thriving careers while at the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health. During that phase, their daughter, Kate, was born, and they built a house in Mission Trace. Then through an estate sale, the lot behind Lynn’s parents’ home became available. “We thought about the prospect of creating a family compound by building on this lot,” Lynn said. “My parents were getting older, and it made sense to live nearby, so we could help out as needed. We walked the lot at different times of the day to see how the light filtered through the trees and fell in love with the location.”

SPECIAL ARCHITECTURAL DELIGHTS

Choosing an architect for their new home was no challenge; the couple knew right away they’d use Bill McDonald of William McDonald, Architect. “Bill designed our home in Mission Trace, and we knew he’d be perfect for this location,” John says. “We worked with him and his associate, Alfonso Fernandez, on the plans for about six to nine months; then we began building. We never made changes to the plans once we began construction because we’d spent so much time determining exactly what we wanted before we started. “What we love about the house is the way it reflects light,” John continues.”A hint of terra-cotta is mixed in the white paint used throughout the home, helping to reflect light and bringing the outdoors inside all year long.” “Bill watched the sun’s path as it crossed the lot,” Lynn says. “He placed the house at a 45-degree angle to the street so the house would always be filled with light. At that angle, it would also back up to a greenbelt, which would give us privacy. The angle also saved two major oak trees on the lot that became the centerpiece of the courtyard and the focal point of the backyard.”

“Bill’s architectural philosophy is that he wants to create something that is more than shelter,” John says. “I like to think of what he created as art. For instance, when you look at the fence line, it goes off at an angle into the woods, making the fence seem to disappear. It is a pleasure to live in a house that is so well-designed.”

Lynn says, “You can walk into any area of the house and never feel like you are stuck in one room. Bill’s design allows each space to flow into the next.”

“The Hambys gave me two of the best home sites I’ve ever worked on,” says McDonald. “Both were challenging because of slope and drainage issues as well as foliage. One of the reasons the second house is located on an angle is because of all the oak trees we didn’t want to cut down. I think we lost only one significant tree in the design, and it wasn’t a pretty one, anyway.”

The horizontal nature of the Hambys’ home is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. While McDonald says he wasn’t consciously influenced by Wright in his design, the horizontality of the Hamby home contains some of Wright’s design elements.

“Wright used a variation of ceiling heights to emphasize passing from one space to the next,” McDonald says. “As you enter the foyer of the Hambys’ home and walk through the mezzanine to their kitchen, the living room space descends down several steps while the ceiling rises to 18 feet. You experience the different spaces in relationship to each other. The mix of function and succession of space is part of the design.”

McDonald acknowledges that his favorite parts of designing a home are attention to detail and craftsmanship; this is apparent throughout the Hambys’ home. The wooden columns in the courtyard are an example.

“The columns are made of Ponderosa pine,” John says. “Years ago, Bill acquired them newly cut from the woods outside of Albuquerque and stored them at his office, just waiting for the right place to use them. When we were designing the house, he showed them to us, saying he thought they’d be perfect in our courtyard.”

McDonald also recommended the Red River wooden doors of washed pine in the hall. “They are suggestions of the Southwest,” John says.

HANDMADE ORIGINALS

The light fixtures in the home are another special feature. They are handpunched hammered copper crafted by Copperworks Lighting, one of McDonald’s businesses. Each sconce and chandelier is an original, created to fit its location. The front gates that open into the courtyard, made of heart of redwood, are also handmade and original in design. Right outside the front door, there is a specially cast terra-cotta tile with a paw print resembling Harley’s. (Harley is the West Highland white terrier who shares the home with the Hambys.) The front door itself was made on site by artisans who wrapped it in copper and anodized it on the spot. The copper nails securing the copper sheathing are actually used in shipbuilding. Beyond the front door and down several steps is the living area. A wall of windows overlooking the back yard expands the volume of the room. A series of custom- made cabinets opposite the windows encloses the big-screen television and storage space. The fireplace chimney stretches up, drawing the eye to the high barrel ceiling. The opposite wall doesn’t quite reach the ceiling; behind it is the couple’s home office. A special closet in the office hides all the high-tech gear that enhances the home’s ambience. “You wouldn’t know it, but this is a very high-tech house,” John says.”Bjorn’s Audio and Video pre-wired the house for stereo and surround sound, so Lynn doesn’t have to look at black boxes and wires scattered about. She doesn’t want to see those because it ruins the aesthetics.”

Besides being high-tech, the 3,000-square-foot home is also energy efficient. Windows are made of double-pane glass, and the walls are doubled for insulation and noise attenuation. One side of the home office features floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Desks line two other walls; the north wall features a huge window accented by an antique stained glass piece John gave to Lynn before their daughter, Kate, was born. The dresser beneath the window is a beautiful wooden showpiece that contains office supplies. “It’s not an heirloom, but we love it because it’s pretty and functional,” Lynn says.

An antique legal bookcase positioned against a wall is an heirloom. It came from Lynn’s grandfather’s law office in Dallas. “These antique wood and glass cases are hard to find,” she comments.

KATE’S WING

Behind the office is a short hallway that leads to Kate’s bedroom and another bedroom used as a secondary home office and music room. Deep window seats and clerestory windows are featured here. Between the two bedrooms is an unusual bath. Above the bathroom door is a wall section made of panes of handbeveled glass, which were salvaged from ruined doors from a 1900s-era ranch house in Sonora, Texas. “We bought the glass pieces long before we knew we were building this house,” Lynn says. “We were saving them for the right location.” The bathroom door is made of hand-frosted glass; it opens into a small room with an 18-foot ceiling. A dormer window at the top brings light into the space, making the room feel larger than it is. “When we designed the house, we named this end Kate’s Wing,” Lynn says. “She and her friends could hang out down here and have their privacy. Because the walls between the kitchen, living area and our office don’t go all the way to the ceiling, we could always hear what was going on back here without having to intrude.”

The mezzanine leads from Kate’s Wing past the front door to the kitchen. A waist-high wall separates the mezzanine from the living room and serves as display space for art and sculpture. It doubles as buffet space when the couple entertains.

EXCELLENT FOR ENTERTAINING

An art niche at the end of the mezzanine holds a lithograph by Graciela Rodo Boulanger, a French artist who is a favorite of Lynn’s. The galley kitchen is at the end of the mezzanine. It has a breakfast bar that is a comfortable height for standing, leaning or sitting. All the kitchen countertops were raised by 6 inches to make them more comfortable work surfaces for adults. The kitchen door leading to the laundry room is made of etched glass; the skylight is actually a dormer window. “My favorite thing about the kitchen is that I can work in here, look through the mezzanine windows and see who is at the front gate,” Lynn says. “And because of the way the house flows, I’m never separated from our guests when we entertain.” Beyond a small divider and down several steps is the formal dining room. When lit, the punched copper chandelier throws beautiful patterns on the ceiling, rather like golden stars in the night sky. The room’s north wall is mostly glass, letting light filter in through the trees. These same trees are reflected in the glass tabletop. A patio door leads from the dining room into the yard and the breakfast patio.

The master bedroom serves as the couple’s retreat. The pyramid ceiling treatment is another of McDonald’s special touches, as are the frosted glass French doors leading to the master bath. The room is divided into two levels; the lower level serves as a comfortable sitting room. A washed-beam ceiling treatment sets the space off from the sleeping area. Comfortable chairs, a skirted table and a chestnut desk combine for a cozy atmosphere. Here again, the north wall consists mainly of windows that overlook the back yard.”I can look out these windows to see Mom’s yard,” Lynn says.

KATE’S GATE

A door leads into a small meditation garden and the rest of the back yard. It also leads to Kate’s Gate.”When our daughter was small, my father built a gate similar to one he had seen in Provence in the fence between our houses,” Lynn says. “He named it Kate’s Gate. My parents allowed Kate to visit them via the gate whenever she wanted; John and I, however, had to have an invitation.” Lynn recalls the old-fashioned upbringing Kate had as a result of living in a family compound. “My brother lives five minutes away, so all the grandchildren were together every weekend,” she says. “The kids played tennis together on my parents’ court, and we had family barbecues. This has been a great family home for all of us. It’s a real throwback to the old-fashioned extended family that lived and played together.” “We live in a busy part of San Antonio, but when we come through our front door, we feel like we’re on vacation,” John says. “We feel a sense of being enclosed by our surroundings, set apart somehow. We have a huge owl that hunts in this area; there are raccoons and other creatures that allow us to share the green space with them. Several hawks nest in the area, too. It’s very impressive to see these birds fly by. This is like living in the country with all the city conveniences.”

It’s a very peaceful house; McDonald attributes the home’s atmosphere to its occupants. “The home’s design is restrained and refined,” he says. “The client has so much to do with creating the way a home feels, and I have to credit John and Lynn for doing a fine job. The way the house emanates their personalities really makes it all come together. It’s so elegant and yet has such a feeling of surprise and delight.”

Author: Robyn Barnes

Photographer: Al Rendon