Adapting Austin’s historic buildings with architect Paul Clayton

In a boomtown like Austin, maintaining history amid change is a delicate balance.

Overlooking the grounds and mansion at the Commodore Perry Estate

Clayton Korte adapted the historic Perry mansion into a destination resort.

Photo by Chase Daniel

Austin’s history may not be as old as, say, San Antonio’s, but to Paul Clayton, that doesn’t make preserving it any less important.

The Amarillo-born architect and builder is co-owner of Austin-based architecture firm Clayton Korte, and for the last 20+ years, he’s been adapting historic buildings in Austin.

You probably already know his work — Clayton Korte adapted Hotel Saint Cecilia, the Commodore Perry Estate, Mattie’s, the Kingsbury Commons, and many more of Austin’s most iconic old buildings.

We spoke with Paul about what it’s like preserving and repurposing Austin’s history for public use, plus what he’s working on next.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your favorite project you’ve done in Austin?

Anything that’s experiential space is fun. You know, something that we learned through doing hospitality work is that the brand and interiors component of space, when combined with talented architects, really creates something fun and special.

So, that’s where we really feel like we excel … And when we can bring in our knowledge of historic buildings and adaptive reuse, it’s even better, because it allows us to leverage off of the grit and history that’s there. It always makes for a more interesting story.

So, what does that look like?

We always joke about not [screwing] it up. I mean, that’s really where it starts.

Many of these historic spaces that you get into, they feel so good when you’re standing in them, in that current condition. And every move that you make changes that condition. So, that really great feeling that you have in a historic building can be lost if you continually edit.

Looking at the Mattie's restaurant from the front of the building

This 120-year-old Victorian home in South Austin is now home to Mattie’s at Green Pastures, a restaurant and event space.

Photo courtesy Mattie’s

Are there any elements to historic buildings that you prioritize preserving?

Yeah. In the historic world, they call them character-defining elements. Those character-defining elements could be the arch of a window, or specific wood, or stone detail. You know, there are things about historic buildings that make them what they are. … Those are the things that we try to retain, and honor, and turn the volume up on.

That’s always the trick, is to know when to play second fiddle. I think that in many cases, the tendency for designers is to speak loud and do something sculptural. And, the truth is, that’s not always appropriate.

So, for example, at Commodore Perry, we did Lutie’s, the new restaurant. That kind of incorporates a historic wall, but the building is new construction. And it’s new construction on a site next to that crazy formal garden, and the chapel, and that really great mansion. So it’s like, what kind of new construction could you possibly do there that would hold up to this?

What we came to is, well, there’s not anything, really. This just needs to feel like an outbuilding. And so we went even a step further than that, and envisioned just a very simple massing that could be covered in fig ivy. So, it becomes part of the garden, part of the wall. And it’s just an appendage that kind of naturally grew out of the landscape.

A patio at Commodore Perry Estate

Clayton said the layout of the Perry mansion was easily adaptable into a hotel and resort setting.

Photo by Chase Daniel

Why do you think it’s important to adapt Austin’s historic buildings?

It’s part of Austin’s heritage, and historic story.

Even Jeffrey’s was an adaptive reuse project, you know, Josephine House. That restaurant had been open since the ‘70s. It’s kind of a fixture, Austinites can remember going there for high school graduations and anniversaries. So, it’s been a place that occupied space in the minds of Austinites. And so to work on it and give it a new, fresh identity that is durable … We saved the buildings that were there, and worked within their walls.

An aerial shot of the new Kingsbury Commons' at Pease Park.

Clayton Korte adapted a 1920s cottage and former tool shed into a community space at Pease Park.

Photo by Casey Dunn

What projects do you have in the works right now?

We’re working with Caitlyn Ryan and [Stream Realty Partners] on historic Sixth Street. That’s East Sixth Street from Congress to I-35. They own a large percentage of those buildings … and they’re working to return that district back to the city.

They’re almost committed to saving these historic buildings from bar use. They’ve had decades of neglect and misuse, so there’s a lot of work to do down there. It’s interesting to have a client like them, that are so committed to, quote unquote, doing the right thing.

The historic community, their mission is to preserve the look and feel and heritage of these districts, and a developer like Stream who comes in must also add density to make the whole thing work. So, it’s a really careful dance … there’s some real rules that you have to follow to do it properly.

It’s a major change to the fabric of Downtown Austin. It is a monumental project that they’re getting started with, and it’s one of those things that’s almost an act of philanthropy.

How do you approach that balance between utility and preservation?

Everything that we do, we try to make moves that will be as timeless as possible. Which shouldn’t be as hard as it is. There’s a lot of visual clutter in the world. … We always try to do things that are durable and will stand the test of time.

You know, if I can visit these sites in 30 years with my daughter and be proud of them, I’ll be very happy.

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