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From Austere Office Building to Dazzling Residential Penthouse — Inside a Bold Houston Couple’s Ambitious Renovation

A Talented Team Uncovers the Natural Beauty in Karl Kamrath's 1970s Concrete Temple

BY // 09.16.22
photography Pär Bengtsson

In the summer of 2018, Texas-based designer Mary Lambrakos was on holiday in Greece, staying at her aunt’s residence in Voula, a coastal hamlet along the Greek Riviera dotted with white stone courtyards and ravishing pink bougainvillea. Lambrakos’ long black hair and dark eyes are traits of her Greek heritage — she was born and reared in Houston to parents who hail from Sparta. There, surrounded by family, she only spoke Greek. Voula felt like a world away from Texas, so when her phone buzzed and a 001 country code appeared on the screen, she was startled. “Why is America calling?” Lambrakos wondered out loud.

On the other end of the line was Kyle B. Humphries, a principal architect with Murphy Mears Architects in Houston. His clients, Diane and Ray Krueger, had purchased and were restoring a four-story building in the industrial Timbergrove area of Houston. The plan was to convert the top floor into a penthouse and lease out the rest to commercial tenants.

 

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The former headquarters for Big Three Industries was designed in 1974 by Houston architect Karl Kamrath after Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Diane and Ray Krueger purchased the building in 2018 and converted the top floor into their penthouse. (Photo by Divya Pende)

A Slice of Houston Architecture History

The building has a fascinating provenance. Designed in 1974 as the headquarters for Big Three Industries by Houston architect Karl Kamrath — an obsessed devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright — this remarkable structure had been hiding in plain sight for decades. The clients, Lambrakos recalls, had requested help finding a designer who could bring fresh and innovative ideas to the penthouse project. Humphries thought she would be a perfect fit.

A rising star on Texas’ design scene, the 39-year-old Lambrakos has a CV that includes undergraduate studies at Cornell University followed by a B.A. in art history from Rice University and a Menil Fellowship to study art at The Menil Collection, which led to a curatorial position there. She launched her interior design firm, Lambrakos Studio, in 2013. The project sounded intriguing, so Humphries sent over the real estate brochure along with two pages from AD Italia, which Diane had selected as inspiration for the interiors.

The Houston building’s strong architecture immediately caught Lambrakos’ attention. Made of cast concrete, the massive form is punctuated by vertical posts that reminded her of Greek caryatids — architectural columns carved to resemble standing female figures — such as those found at the Erechtheion, now the Acropolis Museum in Athens. But it was the AD Italia pictures that sparked her interest.

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“The images conveyed a certain lifestyle that wasn’t so much about the design as it was about people feeling comfortable and elegant — it’s a very European sensibility,” Lambrakos says. On the phone the next day with Diane, the two connected over a shared passion for art and travel. “Clearly, this was going to be a compelling project.”

 

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Natural light washes across the penthouse’s main gallery, illuminating a stone sculpture and nude painting acquired by clients Diane and Ray Krueger while traveling in Prague. Robert Kelly’s Thicket Assemblage, 2006, from Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Hidden in Plain Sight

Back in Houston, Lambrakos arranged to meet the clients at the project site. “When I pulled up, I was completely bewildered, confused, and excited by what I saw,” she remembers.

The mammoth 41,000-square-foot building rose out of the industrial plain with unexpected majesty. It had been designed to impart awe: Architect Karl Kamrath had modeled the Big Three Industries building after Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. The 1905 concrete temple is considered the greatest public building of Wright’s Prairie Style era, a tour de force of geometric architecture and decorative elements exemplifying Wright’s theory of organic design.

Kamrath had made a career of reinterpreting Wright’s brilliance. His firm, MacKie and Kamrath, built hundreds of houses in Houston during the ’40s and ’50s using Wright’s Usonian principles featuring flat roofs with deep overhangs, open spaces, and native materials. The firm was prolific, designing commercial buildings for prominent oil-and-gas industry clients such as Humble Oil, Dow Chemical Company, and Schlumberger, along with institutions such as University of Texas MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, featured in Time magazine in 1954. Their work was noticed around the country and published in magazines from Architectural Record to Fortune. Kamrath, who had befriended Wright and hosted him at his house in Houston on a couple of occasions, continued to design in the Usonian vein long after Wright died in 1959. By the 1970s, Kamrath’s architecture peers considered his work woefully out of vogue — they had already moved on, designing glass skyscrapers and brutalist structures. Accolades and awards had dried up, and magazines no longer published his work.

The headquarters for Big Three Industries was one of Kamrath’s last important commissions. This time, he reached into Wright’s earliest repertoire for inspiration. If the Unity Temple in Oak Park had been one of Wright’s first and most celebrated projects, its Houston counterpart would become Kamrath’s last hurrah. “The Big Three building was an homage to Wright, but Kamrath was also definitely sticking his thumb in the eye of the architecture establishment who would have looked down on it,” says Ben Koush, architect and founding member of the modernist preservation organization Houston Mod.

For the past 50 years, Kamrath’s remarkable swan song has remained under-appreciated and largely overlooked — until now.

 

487 Lambrakos_Penthouse_Gallery1-1 (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
In the entryway, site-specific wall sculpture by Eduardo Portillo and floor sculpture by Gavin Perry, both from Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston. To incorporate colors from all of the rooms, Mary Lambrakos designed the custom circular CC-Tapis rug from Shop, Houston. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Trusting the Process

From their penthouse in the Big Three Building, Diane and Ray Krueger can almost see the headquarters for NuSmile, the pediatric crown-manufacturing company Diane founded in 1991. The Kruegers won a Good Brick Award from Preservation Houston in 2014 for the restoration of NuSmile’s mid-century building, carried out by AMB Architects. The couple likes old buildings, having previously lived in an antiques-filled 1926 bungalow in Montrose for 37 years. Ray manages the couple’s portfolio of about a dozen properties, and one day he noticed a for-sale sign in front of the Big Three Building, which he’d admired for years. Ideas began to percolate.

“I’d always liked that building, even if it did look like a bank. Or a prison,” Diane says, laughing.

The Kruegers soon embarked on a four-year odyssey that included converting the nearly 8,000-square-foot top floor into their full-time Houston residence — they also own a tree farm in East Texas where they spend weekends. Murphy Mears Architects led the way, navigating the byzantine requirements for bringing a 50-year-old commercial building up to residential code that included new fire sprinkler systems, running new electrical lines from the street, and installing a private elevator for the penthouse. “This turned out to be so much more complicated than anything we’ve ever done,” Ray says.

Lambrakos was having a little trouble picturing how the fourth floor — a vast open space enveloped in concrete — could become the elegant residence her clients envisioned. Concrete is a material often used in Greek buildings, she notes — her father’s house had 16-inch concrete walls — but, still, inspiration eluded her.

“Ray kept saying, ‘We’ll take down those ugly popcorn ceiling tiles and open everything up — don’t you see it? Don’t you see it?’ I didn’t see it,” Lambrakos concedes. But as soon as the tiles came down, the project began to take shape.

 

493 Lambrakos_Penthouse_Living_1 (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
A seating area in the living room, with B&B Italia sectional from BeDesign, Houston. Custom Moroso chairs and CC-Tapis rug from Shop, Houston. Foscarini pendants. Coffee table from clients’ own collection. Vibia pendants in the background. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Natural Beauty

Hidden underneath was an astonishing coffered ceiling. This concrete structural grid was likely never intended to be seen, but Kamrath had designed it with exquisite geometry anyway. Lambrakos immediately thought of the coffered concrete and stained-glass ceilings in Wright’s Unity Temple, the very template Kamrath used for this building.

“It just blew my mind,” she says. “The coffers offered a whole grid and symmetry to the space that wasn’t there before. That gave me a starting point.”

Many of the penthouse’s walls and support columns are covered in concrete aggregate and were also left in their natural state. “The soul of the building is in the structure, and Diane and Ray were adamant about paying homage and respect to it — the whole reason they bought the building was to preserve it,” Lambrakos says.

The designer contrasted the exposed concrete and aggregate with finishes in refined materials such as white walnut, marble, book-matched Macassar ebony, and honed porcelain tile flooring from Italy. “I loved the idea of a procession through spaces using different materials in a modern and minimal way,” she says. She took inspiration from architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray’s 1929 French Riviera villa.

“Her work has always stood out to me because she understands the careful question of approach, where you’re going, and where you’ve moved past,” says Lambrakos, who organized the Kruegers’ penthouse around an experiential concept. “As you move through each room, you have a different feeling, but they still feel cohesive and unified.”

 

495 Lambrakos_Penthouse_Living_3 (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
The living room’s wood sculpture is made from salvaged pine from Diane and Ray Krueger’s tree farm, with an iron base created by George Sacaris Studio, Houston. CC-Tapis custom rug, Mingardo coffee tables, and Walter Knoll Atelier chairs and settee, all from Shop showroom, Houston. Foscarini pendant. Portrait from the clients’ collection. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

When Architecture and Interior Design Become One

The penthouse’s artistic flavor comes not only from the art, but from a symbiotic relationship between the architecture and interior design, including the furnishings. “Each item in a room is carefully selected and positioned in a way that speaks to the architecture,” Lambrakos says.

She focused on contemporary furnishings from European brands, many of them from Adam Cook’s showroom, Shop, where he arranged for manufacturers to customize materials and colors to Lambrakos’ specifications. Highlights include a pair of bespoke barrel-back lounge chairs from Moroso in Holly Hunt and Mokum fabrics and a 30-foot rug from CC-Tapis that was custom-colored and cut in the shape of a parallelogram. Sculptural pieces add to the artistry, such as a pair of leather Atelier chairs from Walter Knoll in Germany and lighting by Foscarini in Italy and Cinier Paris in France. Other furnishings were commissions from Houston artisan George Sacaris Studio, including a storage console made from iron and pine salvaged from the clients’ tree farm.

The Kruegers have been interested in art for years, often bringing home works they saw on their travels. “Our art is really eclectic, and I wanted our new place to feel refined,” Diane says. “It’s still a little eclectic, but it’s a whole different level of experience now.” The artful adventure starts the minute you walk in the front door. Lambrakos looked to the neoclassical Benaki Museum in Athens as inspiration for the foyer and galleries flanking each side. “The Benaki is separated into different jewel boxes of experiences, and it formed the basis of the idea that you can feel differently in spaces even in an open floor plan,” she says.

Works by two important Latin-American artists with strong Texas ties dominate the penthouse foyer. Eduardo Portillo’s Echoes of Light, which blurs the lines between painting on canvas and three-dimensional sculpture, was a year-long, site-specific collaboration that allowed the Kruegers to watch it come to life. Late artist Carlos Cruz- Diez’s spectacular 1965 Transchromie consists of long, transparent strips of colored acrylic mounted in front of a window to refract a stream of colors and patterns across the floor, a light show that changes depending on the time of year and angle of the sun.

The Kruegers entertain a lot, and people are often curious what it’s like to live in such a building, with art-filled rooms that might double as a museum. “This is a completely different lifestyle than we’ve ever lived before, but it’s a happy house with a good vibe,” Ray says. In the afternoons, he blasts rock music from 30 speakers he installed throughout the house. “I crank it up — the acoustics are incredible in here.”

Architect Ben Koush provided information on Karl Kamrath for this article.

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