The owners of a magnificent Atlee B. Ayres-designed home in a near-urban San Antonio neighborhood have many a story to tell about their circa 1937 Mediterranean-style residence.
Perhaps one of the most charming anecdotes is shared by the lady of the house, who relates that her husband grew up in the locale and, as a youngster, regularly rode his bike past their future home. He deemed it his very favorite house in the area.
Ayres, designated the state architect of Texas in 1915, was commissioned by an Oklahoma oilman to build the house. He was relocating his family to San Antonio, as so many oil tycoons of the era did when the Sooner state initiated a personal income tax on oil.
When the law was rescinded, the oilman returned to Oklahoma and sold the home to a local family whose daughter was married to Ayres’ architect son and partner, Robert M. (Bobby) Ayres. The younger Ayres family eventually lived in the home.
Subsequently, it was leased for a period of time, and the current residents purchased it from the estate of Bobby Ayres’ in-laws, thus becoming just the third owners of the house.
What makes this particular home unique is the fact that Atlee Ayres served not only as architect but also as the contractor and builder. “That’s why the house plans don’t match the house,” smiles the gentleman of the home. He explains Ayres took liberties to make changes here and there during construction. Interesting details he shares include the fact it is one of the first homes built for central air conditioning, and each room has a different ceiling height mandated by the size of the room.
The couple have now lived in the house some 10 years. They laud the two-year renovation work of their own architect, Ken Graves, and their contractor, Mark Marlowe. The lady of the house adds, “We have watched Mark grow up since he was a little boy, and my husband wanted a contractor we would know and trust.”
The master of the house observes, “No walls were moved (during renovation) except in the kitchen. All the plaster work and molding are pretty much original, though some may have had to come down and be put back up.” Local artisans did all necessary replication. “We are so fortunate to have people locally who can do that,” he says.
Oak and marble floors are original to the home, as are the brilliant yellow and green tile floors found in a downstairs sunroom and a second-level sunroom turned exercise area and closet — thus, the pale yellow exterior. “There is a house at Key Allegro that is yellow with white shutters,” notes the home’s mistress. “It is the happiest, most inviting house, and though my husband wasn’t all that excited about it, this house just screamed to be yellow.”
One day during the dusty interior renovation, the home’s owner was going over details with her designer, Courtney Walker, in the curtained-off music room — a room, by the way, that has no musical instrument within but retains that “music room” designation. She relates, “A little elderly woman moved aside the plastic curtain and said, “Are you the lady of the house?'” The visitor introduced herself as the daughter of the original Oklahoma owner and revealed she had been married in the very room into which she peered.
“She asked to tour the house,” says the homeowner, who wanted to be privy to each and every memory of the former occupant’s childhood in the house. So she responded, “You can if I can go with you.” The visitor returned to Oklahoma and sent back treasured copies of photographs of her family and the house during her era there.
The aforementioned music room has pale aqua walls with cream molding. Six-over-six windows draped in fringed silk stripes are joined by a large arched window. The latter window is a favorite spot for the homeowner, who enjoys the “feeling of community” as neighbors jog and walk regularly past the expanse of glass.
The fireplace mantel color reflects hues in a Donald Vogel garden scene hanging above, albeit unplanned. A fire in the fireplace became so hot that it blistered the mantel, and a faux painter was called in to repair the damage in a dark pink hue.
Furniture in the room is traditional, and pieces that come with a story include a side table given by the couple’s four children for their mother’s 50th birthday. There is a massive porcelain urn that once graced the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. It was offered for sale during a renovation, and the gentleman of the house quips, “There were two, but I could only afford one at that time.”
A regal gilded French chair and footstool are upholstered in the hide of an axis deer from the family ranch. “It was my husband’s idea,” explains his wife proudly. “I thought how cool would that be.” A family photo of the couple’s adult children, their spouses and five grandchildren is displayed over a console.
While discussing the fact it took time to furnish a house much larger than their previous home, the wife offers, “Not everything we have here is expensive or precious. It’s just precious to us. We love to look at homes, and when we travel, we buy a piece here and a piece there. What you then have is a wonderful history with your husband or the history of your life as you enjoy each thing in your home.”
The door surrounds in the adjacent marbled entry offer another delightful story as related by the homeowner, who pondered “what to do with them.” While standing with her daughter-in-law in New York City’s Plaza Hotel lobby, she looked at the tile floor and exclaimed, “This is it; this is it!” She whipped out her camera, took 40 photos of the floor, had them enlarged and commissioned Alfredo Aguilara to paint the design on the door frames.
A nearby powder room, formerly tiled in pink and green, was almost converted to a bar. The main room is mirrored all around and centered with a green satin tuffet. “When I was a little girl, our country club had a tuffet,” recalls the homeowner, “and all the little girls would lounge around on the tuffet and be princesses. I had to have a tuffet, and this is our grandchildren’s favorite room.”
The main living room is a warm, comfortable area where one finally finds the family piano and a music room of sorts. A massive painting of a cowboy in a yellow slicker and his horse is the work of Oleg Stavrowsky, the Harlem-born son of Russian parents. His concentration on Western art came late in life, and he prefers showing figures from the back or side in order to focus on graphic rather than narrative expression. Indeed, this painting complies with that concept.
Another painting was purchased in Barcelona. The couple happened onto a shop showing Vila Canelas’ works. He was in the shop, and they met the then 90-year-old artist. A 16th-century Japanese screen graces the room, along with a massive carved chess set with a story all its own. The gentleman of the house relates that a Catholic chaplain took it from a museum in China and spirited it out of the country through Hong Kong just prior to the Japanese invasion.
Nearby is the sunroom of the green and gold tile. “What to do with those colors,” was the homeowners’ dilemma. The solution was found in working with those hues, throwing in a touch of red and creating a sunny, comfortable retreat overlooking an expansive yard. A custom entertainment center is centered with 18th-century door handles from a castle in China.
The dining room is anchored by a table that belonged to the grandmother of the gentleman of the house. Victor Salas Sr., whose custom furniture is found throughout the house, was commissioned to copy the grandmother’s six chairs, making six replicas. Only family members recognize the originals.
Seems there is an interesting tale in every room of this home, and the dining room is no exception. In addition to the origin of table and chairs, the huge crystal chandelier has its own tale. An electrician working in the home recognized it and offered the following: The chandelier was purportedly purchased in France by a resident of The Dominion. Upon delivery, it was discovered the arms of the fixture were not removable, as would be the case for most chandeliers. There was not a doorway in the Dominion house through which the fixture would fit. It was sold to a local antique dealer, and our homeowners discovered and purchased it.
Above a console in the dining room is a painting by Greg Glowka of the “exact spot at my husband’s ranch where I knew that I would marry him,” smiles his wife. “He did not know it yet, but I knew it. I had Greg go to the ranch and paint this for our 20th wedding anniversary.”
The former stainless steel kitchen was redesigned by Christi Palmer of Palmer Todd. The reconfiguration involved removing a wall, taking out a closet, enclosing an outdoor loggia and adding a fireplace and seating area — an oversimplified account, to be sure. The result, however, is a room that is functional, beautiful, warm and inviting.
The basement held a cold storage room complete with meat hooks on which to hang the spoils of a former owner’s hunting expeditions. It has been converted to a wine cellar, and the wooden ends of wine crates are cleverly displayed as the door surrounds.
An elevator offers effortless access to the upper level, where guest rooms abound and a master suite is located. One guest room holds the boyhood furniture belonging to the home’s master.
An expanse of balcony offers a respite not unlike “watching a Disney movie,” explains the mistress of the home. A nearby park is alive with interaction between parents and children or maids and their young charges. Of particular delight was the father who brought a child to warm up for a softball game. As the pair left, “the youngster turned around, and a ponytail was hanging from the back of her cap. It was a little girl,” says the homeowner with delight.
As for the master suite, it carries delicate colors found in many of the rooms — very shy aqua and cream. “I am consistent in the colors I like, and from room to room, there is a version of those colors that are favorites,” says the homeowner.
Salas made the intricately carved headboard using the same design found in the dining chairs. The reconfigured bath holds a sauna, and beyond is the former upstairs sunroom of the green and yellow tile, a portion of which was sacrificed for a massive closet.
The most recent addition to the home is a saltwater swimming pool, tiered patios and elegantly furnished cabana. The great expanse of ironwork throughout the area is by architect Victor Salas Jr., the son of the wood artisan. The bottom of the tile pool is centered with a colorful mosaic of carp that the homeowners first saw at an airline gate in San Antonio’s International Airport. They contacted the artist, Cesar Martinez, and he replicated the design for their pool.
The younger Ayres had installed a walkway at the back of the home, and the new addition expands the original idea while embellishing it magnificently to fashion a superb outdoor living area.”Our favorite thing is when people say it looks like it has always been here,” say the homeowners enthusiastically. “That was our goal, and Ken (Graves) did it.”
An outdoor bathroom features a mirror etched with fish and taken from an upstairs bath during remodeling. The mistress of the home confesses her husband “kinda felt like we wanted to keep it there.” With eyes twinkling and a conspiratorial smile, she adds, “I kinda felt like we didn’t.” Installing it in a more informal setting proved the perfect compromise.
In this house of dozens of stories and anecdotes, there is another serendipitous tale to relate. The couple had numerous wrought iron fixtures to consider replacing or replicating. While attending a home show, they picked up the business card of a vendor who impressed them. They took an outdoor light fixture to him, and he inquired where they lived. The vendor/artisan was Othan Garces, and it was his father who had made that original fixture. In fact, as a child, Garces went to the home with his father for the installation.
Author: Kay McKay Myers
Photographer: Al Rendon