This light-filled loft near downtown San Antonio (a former candy factory) now welcomes Emily Robison, of the Dixie Chicks, home from her travels around the world
Even if youâ€™re the quiet Dixie Chickâ€”as Emily Robison has been calledâ€”thereâ€™s no getting away from the fact that there are few places you can go without causing a stir. Except maybe design showrooms, which the self-confessed shelter magazine fan slips away to when sheâ€™s on the road. â€œI love them,â€ Robison readily admits. Their vignettes of stylish furniture and picture-perfect kitchen systems make it easy to focus on domesticity. They certainly offer respite from generic hotel rooms, the chaos of night after night of standing-room-only concerts and the occasional protest from former fans still fuming over Dixie Chicksâ€™ lead singer Natalie Mainesâ€™s antiwar declaration in March 2003.
But there was also a practical impulse for the design showroom escapes, Robison notes. â€œIâ€™m project-oriented,â€ she saysâ€”and she had a project. It was a loft in San Antonio, originally meant to be just a stopping-off place between the airport and Robisonâ€™s ranch in the Texas Hill Country two hours away. But once she and architects Jim Poteet and Patrick Ousey and interior designer Joel Mozersky started work on it, the near-downtown oasis ended up becoming a four-bedroom, three-bath spread where the Grammy award-winning singer and instrumentalist could kick off her boots and really be at home.
I wanted something modern and sleek,
says Robison. But when Poteet and Ousey showed her the unfinished loft, it was far from that. Outside, it was a handsome six-story, brick-clad 1926 icon in the cityâ€™s warehouse area. Inside, though, it had seen betterâ€”if not sweeterâ€”days. The fourth floor, which had caught Robisonâ€™s eye, displayed conspicuous evidence of its former life as the Duerler candy factoryâ€”nicks and odd propellerleaf shapes in the floor were telltale bolt scars left by the Hobart candy-mixing machines. And there were no support beams, just concrete columns set on a roughly 22-foot grid, their V-shaped capitals chunky exaggerations of their Corinthian antecedents.
The columns, though, would determine the floor plan. â€œThe columns are a little weird,â€ Poteet concedes. â€œThey actually correspond to the plain brick facade of the building and not to anything inside.â€ In spite of the columnsâ€™ eccentricity, Ousey and Poteet opted to go with the flow. â€œRather than suppressing the grid,â€ says Ousey, â€œwe made the columns into an organizational elementâ€”like exclamation points.â€
â€œI worried that the living area was too big,â€ recalls Robison, â€œand that the farthest parts would be a no-manâ€™s-land.â€ With the columns as their guide, the architects contrived a plan in which the public arena of Robisonâ€™s loft is deftly introduced by an entry hall that opens to the living room at a diagonal to maximize the impact of the views. Dining and family areas and the oak-paneled kitchen assemble neatly along the roomâ€™s perimeter.
Both architects are proponents of letting a building speak for itself. â€œWe decided,â€ says Ousey, â€œto celebrate the floors as they were.â€ There turned out to be more to celebrate than everyone thought: While burnishing the concrete floors, an older layer of honey-color terrazzo speckled with black began to peek out from underneath. â€œWe were excited to see it,â€ says Robison. Terrazzo, plus intermittent sweeps of concrete, scars and niches, stayed. â€œAt that point,â€ notes Ousey, â€œthe introduction of other colors into the loft seemed wrong, so we decided to paint all walls off-white and to bring in color via the furnishings.â€
Ousey added a subtle gray-and-ocher antique Oushak rug to anchor the living space; Joel Mozersky introduced a bold brown and white patternâ€”in the dining room chairs, in the Amadi rugs in the seating area next to the kitchen and in the master bedroomâ€”to define a visual corridor along the ceiling-high windows that are draped in Ultrasuede. â€œEmily wanted the space to be unpredictable (no Saarinen tables, she specified) but homey,â€ says Mozersky. The rugs did the trick and also tempered the powerful presence of the steel-framed windows that overlook them.
â€œIt was really important that all the furniture was child-friendly,â€ says Robison. Sofas upholstered in soft gray chenille, coffee tables with no sharp edges and durable leather on chairs make the furnishings suitable for the wear and tear that comes courtesy of her three children and their friends, as well as road-weary musicians just off the red-eye or the tour bus.
Besides specifying unpredictability, Emily Robisonâ€™s other request was for a master suite, which Poteet and Ousey gave her. Thereâ€™s an office thatâ€™s a buffer between the living room and the bedroom itself, a small music studio, a spacious bath and a huge closet. â€œHer big desire,â€ says Ousey, â€œwas for a luxurious bathing experience. Emily roughs it when sheâ€™s on the road and also at her ranch, which is still under construction, and she wanted to feel pampered when sheâ€™s here.â€
While the east-facing bedroom is all about light, the tile-lined bath is windowless. The room depends on ambient reflections of light bouncing off the glass shower doors and the lustrous handmade floor and wall tiles to evoke a comforting evanescence. Once again, though, the columns were not to be denied. One became a canopy that crowns the shower stall; the other is a totem to bathing, with the Agape tub at its base and a chandelier floating above.
â€œIâ€™ve gone through a lot in the last year,â€ says Robison, alluding to her recent divorce from songwriter Charlie Robison. â€œThis is a happy place to live.â€ Sheâ€™s not the only one with that opinion. The children are fascinated with the building. Knowing that they have favorite neighbors who are asleep on the floor above affords nonstop intrigue for them. â€œThey love to get the mail and to say hello to the desk clerk,â€ says Robison. â€œTheir friends ask, â€˜Do you live in a hotel?â€™ â€ These days the answer is no, because Emily Robison isnâ€™t on the roadâ€”sheâ€™s â€œin the houseâ€ at home.
What the Pros Know
â€œThe tendency when renovating older buildings has been to replace all the windows,â€ notes architect Patrick Ousey, â€œbecause they are thought to leak air or need too much repair.â€ Both Ousey and his collaborator Jim Poteet have long been champions of reuse, but in the case of the building housing Emily Robisonâ€™s loft, there were aesthetic as well as environmental rewards for recycling the extant windows. Although the industrial sash windows are steel, both of the architects appreciated the visual delicacy of their design. â€œToday,â€ says Poteet, â€œdouble-pane glass is the standard, which means that the framework that holds the glass in place is heftier and the mullions are much thicker than they were in the â€™20s, when this building was constructed.â€ Ousey observes, â€œThe frames are an industrial material, but they look refined.â€ After sanding, reglazing and reinstalling the panes, the windows are actually better than new.