Fitting in wasn’t a concern for Arthur Dallas Stenger. Known to his friends and family as A.D., the Austin-based architect built homes with his clients in mind—airy contemporary designs, locally sourced and budget-conscious to fit the needs of a generation of returning vets and middle-class homeowners. But he only designed them for himself. Both a developer and architect, Stenger plotted, planned, and in many cases helped assemble his own personal vision of midcentury cool, constructing new developments just beyond Austin city limits so he’d be outside the range of local building inspectors.
A college dropout who drew upon the smooth silhouettes of airplanes for his cantilevered constructions, Stenger pursued his own singular vision. In many ways, his “office mascot” was a stand-in for his indomitable spirit. A long-time hunter, Stenger decided one day that he would shoot a polar bear. In 1960, when this was still legal, he flew to Spitsbergen, Norway; boarded a small wooden boat with a guide; and found a bear he’d later rope, stuff, and display near his desk.
The son of an architect, Stenger grew up in both Dallas and Shreveport, Louisiana. During World War II, he served in the Navy as a member of the Seabees construction battalion. He spent much of his time witnessing action in the South Pacific, looking for gaps between coral atolls, and scouting out potential landing sites for barges on Japanese-occupied islands.
Stenger returned to Texas after the war and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, but struggled to pay tuition and make ends meet with his $50 G.I. Bill stipend. He supplemented his small income by working as a draftsman and playing the accordion at events around town, but decided he’d be better off practicing and making money, so after passing the licensing exam—but before graduation—he dropped out and went into business.
Stenger began building homes in South Austin, near the Barton Springs Pool, working as a developer, architect, and even builder, often strapping on a tool belt and finishing the homes himself (he was much more hands-on than Joseph Eichler, the California developer Stenger is often compared to). Focused on residential clients, he eventually built more than 100 homes around Austin featuring his playful take on midcentury design. Stenger began selling his first homes a few years before Eichler.
While each home was built to the lot and had unique features, his designs, mostly clustered around the South Lund Park, Ridgewood Village, and Stenger Addition areas of Austin, share some common traits. Most of these modest, sub-1,500-square-foot homes featured low-pitch gabled roofs, post-and-beam construction, and local stones. Many contained low-slung fireplaces, not a necessity in Hill Country, but an amenity that recalls cocktail lounges and dude ranches. Many of the homes featured built-ins as a way to maximize space and save money, and cost between $18,000 and $22,000 at the time of construction (under $200,000 in today’s dollars).
Stenger operated in his own way, at his own pace. After buying a plot of land, he’d seek out a homebuyer, then finish an entire home without asking them to sign a contract. Despite the risk, Stenger had few clients back out, due in large part to his high degree of personalization. Stenger, who continued to design and build for decades, gave the last home he ever created to his wife right before he died in 2002.
Buildings to know
Stenger built dozens of homes, but a handful stand out. The Butterfly House, a 1964 design on Ridgewood Drive, features an exceptional example of a Stenger signature: clerestory windows for light and circulation. A curved, suspended roof caps a glassy, low-slung home, resembling a symmetrical swirl of white frosting atop a contemporary cake. Modernized by local architects Rick and Cindy Black just a few years ago, the updated home still exudes Stenger’s style and attitude.
Another Stenger standout is the Faulk House, built in 1951 for local comedian, folklorist, and radio host John Henry Faulk. After Faulk was blacklisted for Communist sympathies, the architect gave the home to him in 1959 free of charge, allowing him to write a book about his ordeal, Fear on Trial. Along with the fascinating story, the cliffside home is an aesthetic gem, built partially of steel and concrete beams, with rooms and a deck that lean out over the expanse.
Legacy and reputation today
Stenger’s no-nonsense philosophy and self-made story have made him a cause celebre within the city’s modernist and preservation circles, who have often pushed for preservation and protection of his work. His homes, smaller and more cozy than today’s larger designs, sell for a premium, often approaching the high six figures. No permanent legacy of Stenger’s life and body of work exists, which spurred a local filmmaker to attempt to make a documentary about his life.