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A Modern Home Makeover

How a prominent Texas couple updated a 1970s house to meet their family’s needs while preserving its unique design

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 When Dallas architect Frank Welch created this 8,000-square-foot house along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, the home was on the cutting edge of modernist design. Forty-five years later, under the watchful eyes of native Texans Estela and David Cockrell, what could have become outdated has been overhauled and is enjoying a spectacular second act. 

The Cockrells, planning a move from Aspen to Houston, stumbled onto the architectural gem and were at first much more taken with the sprawling, wooded landscape than the inside of the house. “We really loved that it was nestled back,” says Estela, a former litigation attorney who now focuses her time on philanthropy and nonprofits. “Our family has to have that feeling of a connection to nature.”

It seemed as if their goal was within reach: living in a home with an Aspen vibe. “We wanted to make the outside come in to re-create the Colorado warmth,” says David, president of an oil and gas firm.

But then the couple turned full attention to the striking design of the house. Though it was a modern showcase in its heyday—and was featured in the December 1978 issue of Architectural Review—the structure wasn’t without some real quirks. To embark on the necessary tweaks and updates, the new owners consulted modernist architect Jesse Hager and partner Heather Rowell of Content Architecture. “It was a masterpiece in its day, and the essence of the house is pretty great, but it needed some love,” Hager explains. “Certain aspects, like its labyrinthian 1970s geometry, didn’t suit a modern lifestyle.”

Opening up the floor plan to improve flow and help the family entertain large numbers of guests drove the renovation plan. “From the beginning, this house was meant for hosting organizations, like the Houston Ballet, that are near and dear to us,” Estela says.

It was also important to replace the dated steel-and-glass windows overlooking the backyard—while still bringing in as much nature and light as possible. 

After more than a year of construction—or “reconstruction,” as the Cockrells affectionately refer to it—the four-decades-old home radiates a new energy. “We took their requests and reorganized significantly, but the zones stayed the same,” Hager says of the renovation. (Translation: The couple maintained the original footprint of the house.) Best of all, to satisfy the always uppermost nature quotient, the architects added glass and doors to a wraparound deck and floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the house. Moreover, they raised the ceiling height from 8 to 10 feet to increase the feeling of spaciousness. The pièce de résistance is the 28-foot peak in the great room—part of the original frame but stripped of tile and decked in Massaranduba wood to “soften” it.

In choosing the finishing touches, such as light fixtures (a Luceplan Hope chandelier) and wallpaper (by David Hicks), Estela reveled in her budding love of interior design. She pulled inspiration from a variety of places (Decorative Center Houston, ABC Carpet & Home, 1stdibs.com and more). 

The house’s clean, modern lines provided a canvas for contemporary art but carried a challenge or two. “With such strong architectural statements in every room, we had to take scale, pop, medium and texture into consideration,” says Estela. The couple made space for photographers like Gray Malin and Laura Wilson as well as paintings by Matthew Heller and Christopher Martin. “Selecting art has been extremely difficult but exciting,” she says. “Still, at the end of the day, we buy the art we absolutely love.” 

Hager relished the Cockrells’ engaged attitude about creating their home. “It was a discussion the whole way, and a ton of fun working with them,” he says. The clients certainly return the compliment. “Without Jesse this project wouldn’t have come to fruition,” says David in praise of the architect’s vision.

“We wanted our house to be a canvas: a display of our love of art, fashion, entertaining, and a place where all feel welcome,” explains Estela. “We have family parties, charity events and dinners. From an intimate dinner to a late-night dance party, no one wants to leave afterward. We love that feeling.” 

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