George Kraigher House by Architect, Richard Neutra - In Depth

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On 24 May 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the George Kraigher House on Paredes Line Road as one of America’s Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places for 2004. Reflecting increased awareness of the historical value of modern architecture, the then sixty-seven-year-old Kraigher House, the first International Style house built in Texas, was one of two modern buildings on the Trust’s most endangered list in 2004.

The Kraigher House was built in 1937 to the designs of Richard J. Neutra (1892-1970), an Austrian-born and–trained architect who immigrated to the United States in 1923. Settling in Los Angeles in 1925, Neutra attained international recognition as one of the foremost advocates of the Modern Movement in twentieth-century architecture with his first important building in the US, the Lovell “Health House” in Los Angeles of 1927-29. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Neutra produced a series of inventive modern buildings in California, mostly small houses, that were extensively publicized in the international architectural press. According to Neutra’s biographer, Thomas S. Hines, it was during a business trip to Los Angeles in 1936 that George Kraigher, a Pan American Airways pilot, saw one of Neutra’s houses and commissioned the architect to design a country house for him in Brownsville, where Pan American Airways had established its Western Division offices in 1932.

George Kraigher (1891-1984), like Richard Neutra, had been born in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kraigher was from Slovenia. He was trained as a pilot in the Austro-Hungarian military but in 1915 defected to Italy and, for the rest of World War I, flew for the Serbian air corps. Kraigher immigrated to the US in 1921. Before joining Pan American Airways in 1929, he performed aerial survey and mapping work. During the 1930s, Pan American Airways routed all its overland flights between the US and Latin America through Brownsville. Kraigher was a senior pilot for Pan Am. In 1937, he set what was then a speed record for commercial flights in a journey that began in Brownsville and, over the course of six days, extended as far south as Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, before ending in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kraigher was gregarious and convivial. An accomplished horseman as well as a pilot, he entertained in Brownsville, often arranging for friends to fly in from other Texas and Mexican cities served by Pan Am. Among Kraigher’s colleagues was the pilot Lars H. Kristofferson, whose son, the actor Kris Kristofferson, was born in Brownsville in 1936. When the US entered World War II, Kraigher left Brownsville. During the war, working first for Pan Am, then as a US military officer (eventually attaining the rank of colonel) under the Office of Special Services, Kraigher used his flying skills and geographic knowledge in support of critical military missions. He charted air routes across Africa serving supply lines from the US to the Middle East and India in the early 1940s. In the latter part of the war, he was active in the Balkans organizing and carrying out aerial rescues of downed Allied aviators. Kraigher did not return to Brownsville after the war and sold the house in 1946. He organized air services for Aramco in Saudi Arabia and in the 1950s built a second house designed by Richard Neutra in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1984.

Neutra’s design complemented George Kraigher’s sense of adventure. The compact house is two stories high. Flat roofs, horizontal bands of steel sash casement windows, a second-floor roof terrace with metal pipe railing, and planar walls finished with white stucco are identifying modernist characteristics. Neutra offset interior spaces in plan so that all rooms have access to the prevailing southeast breeze. A spacious, L-planned room on the first floor combines living and dining uses. There is a bedroom with separate bathroom and dressing room on the first floor and a bedroom, bath, dressing room, and den on the second floor in addition to the roof terrace. A two-car garage projects off the northwest corner of the house. The house retains its original cabinetry and fixtures. Neutra’s hand is especially visible in the deftly proportioned exterior wall planes, which are sculpturally juxtaposed with overhanging roof fascias to give the small house its dramatic presence. The house is surrounded by vegetation typical of the Lower Río Grande border, the only semi-tropical area in Texas: tall Washingtonia palm trees and low, thorny ebony and mesquite trees. Adjoining the flat site is a resaca, a lagoon-like ox-bow lake. The house was built by the Brownsville contractor A. W. Neck for a contract price of $5,000. The Brownsville architect Frank L. Godwin supervised construction. Neutra did not see the house until a chance visit to Brownsville in 1951. The Kraigher House was published in the May 1939 issue of Architectural Record as “Open-Planned, Window-Walled House in Southwest.” It is also illustrated and discussed in Hines’s book Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture: A Biography and History of 1982.

The Kraigher House was the first house and (following the Magnolia Lounge at the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 in Dallas, designed by the New York architect William Lescaze) the second building in Texas built in the International Style of modern architecture. Neutra was the modernist master who had the greatest impact on Texas in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the first modern architects to practice in Texas, Charles Granger of Austin, worked in Neutra’s Los Angeles office in the 1930s. The Kraigher House forecast the role modern architecture would play in re-shaping the Lower Río Grande Valley during the 1950s, when, for the only time in the region’s history, buildings designed by local architects were published in the national architectural press.

The Kraigher House was owned from the 1961 until 1999 by the Brownsville real estate broker and developer Bud Franke and his wife. After the early 1970s, the Franke family ceased living in the house and rented it. By the early 1980s the house began to show signs of lack of maintenance. By 1992 it was windowless and inhabited by tenants who lived there rent-free in order to keep the house from being occupied by vagrants. Efforts by Preservation Brownsville and its founding president, Ambrosio Villarreal, Jr., led to acquisition of the house and two acres of its six-acre site by the City of Brownsville in 1999. The city enclosed the house and fenced it off but never began rehabilitation. In February 2004, Preservation Brownsville and Villarreal were successful in having the house listed by Preservation Texas as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state. Villarreal and Preservation Brownsville were also responsible for nominating the Kraigher House to the National Trust’s most endangered list. Listing prompted the City of Brownsville to negotiate a ninety-nine year lease agreement with the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. In January 2006 the university took possession of the two-acre site and began restoration of the Kraigher House. Dr. Juliet V. García, president of the university, and Dr. José G. Martín, provost, were instrumental in securing the university’s support of this effort.

The restoration of the severely deteriorated house was carried out by Lawrence V. Lof, assistant professor of biology and director of the Gorgas Science Foundation, who is also the university’s rehabilitation projects manager. After overseeing restoration of the Alonzo Building complex, a late nineteenth-century corner store; and another such complex, the Cueto Building, both examples of the border brick style of the lower Río Grande; as well as the J. J. Young House, an imposing Colonial Revival house built in 1910—all for use by various agencies of the university—Lof embarked on the restoration of the Kraigher House with students enrolled in Texas Southmost College’s Historic Rehabilitation Practicum. Restoration work was carried out between early 2006 and 2008.
Article courtesy of Lower Río Grande Valley Chapter, American Institute of Architects
September 2009