Unlike some builders, the people who are remaking Laity Lodge did not start from scratch. Their job has been to to find the heart and soul of the existing building and accommodate it—educating themselves on original intent, listening to the landscape, fully grasping both the legacy and mission of Laity Lodge.
We believe they have done that job exceedingly well. In the next few pages, you’ll hear from the people tasked with attending to this year’s much-needed updates to Laity Lodge, Cedar Brake, and parts of the surrounding landscape: Glenn Echols, who directs property planning and stewardship for the Foundation; Mark Eubank, the Kerrville-based architect who designed the Cody Center in 1999; Kimberly Renner, the interior designer who led the library renovation under the Great Hall; Christy Ten Eyck, an Austin-based landscape architect; and Rick Archer and John Byrd of Overland Partners architectural firm in San Antonio.
Their work has not been without surprise. Indeed, when the project began, Laity Lodge was intended to receive a renovation, not a rebuild. Then we discovered that the stone walls placed throughout the structure were hollow, and thus unsound. An engineering review revealed that the Lodge needed to be built anew. (Note that not everything is being touched: the Great Hall and Dining Room, for example, do not require receive significant upgrades.)
Amid such challenges, this team has proceeded with intelligence and integrity. We can hardly wait for you to see how their work reaffirms and extends the Lodge’s mission of deep, theologically informed hospitality, practiced in place and within community.
For now, enjoy these excerpts of conversations we had with everyone on the team.
How do you go about discovering the heart and soul of Laity Lodge? I know you spent a lot of time with the original plans.
Eubank: It’s awesome that we have the original plans. With lots of [remodels] there aren’t original plans, so you start from less than zero, really. I’m having to put words in the former architect’s mouth, but they look to me like they were trying to give the Butts a modern building that was campy. Rustic, but was still a modern building. Clearly, somebody on the Butt side has a proclivity towards modern, because Black Bluff is a radically modern structure for the time—maybe not risky, but relatively avant-garde. They hung it off the cliff. They had 2,000 acres; they could have put it anywhere.
What have been some of the limits of the Lodge that you’ve enjoyed working with?
Renner: We were asked to keep the location of the primary Lodge building in its original footprint. We were asked to maintain the original long, wide-sweeping roof-line. We were asked to maintain and more tightly preserve its connection to the Waterfall Patio and the Waterfall Apartment and embrace the era from which the original building came, that early-’60s style of architecture.
We were given the freedom to then modify the interiors and configuration of the spaces in order to correct some problems that have always been in place, to create improvements that were more appropriate for today’s guests, and to improve the internal functional elements of the building.
As you have listened to the landscape of Laity Lodge, what have you been hearing?
Byrd: When Rick and I first drove out to the site, just before the first of the year, we really struck by the power and majesty of the place itself, of the landscape. The topography creates a series of events, turning off the main road, driving on the ridge and then down and splashing into the river, and then coming back up the hill. But then you just end directly in a parking area. So there’s this big crescendo and then it kind of peters off at the end. We thought we really could focus on refining the final arrival experience so it is consistent with the rest of the majestic feeling of the place itself.
Archer: It’s interesting: there’s this mystery of coming in and driving through the river—and then all of a sudden you just arrive at this parking lot. You go from mystery to banality to confusion. Where do I go?
What we really want to do is continue that sense of mystery, leading a person further into wonder and discovery. Breaking up the parking is a way to get people to think differently about how they’re inhabiting the land. And that there’s this kind of gradual unfolding of the experience where we’ve engaged someone at that level of intellect and spirit and then body, by things you can smell, touch, feel, hear when you walk in. When we engage all three levels, we’ve really engaged the whole soul of a person. That whole process of soul care, that happens so beautifully at Laity Lodge, can actually be exhibited through the way we welcome people, engage people, invite them into the experience.
What first impressions can people expect to experience when they visit Laity Lodge after the renovation?
Ten Eyck: The solitude and silence. You will still feel a physical departure from the moving world above and an emotional departure. The magic water of the Frio. Those emerald, teal colors.
It is a proven through research that a place becomes a healing environment if you can appeal to two or more of the senses at one time. So if you put a person in a place where they hear this gorgeous sound of water, they smell the most amazing fragrance and they’re touching a smooth fossil or a stone, your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure goes down. All the scientific evidence is there, so what a place to do this with. We’ve already got a lot of that covered, but we could take it to the next level.
There’s a balance between giving people what they want and giving people what they need. How do you help everyone discover new possibilities?
Ten Eyck: First of all this place has so much meaning to the people that have come here for years and years and years. They’ve donated things in honor of their loved ones, and you know like anything, things change and needs change. So, we always try to be incredibly sensitive about things such as objects that have been donated, sculpture, fountains, whatever the case might be.
Have there been ideas in this project that you’ve wanted to make a case for?
Renner: Yes, there have been. For example, a lot of people have such deep, personal fondness for the experience they’ve had at the Lodge that they overlook some of the attributes of the buildings that are really failing or are very much not up to par for a place that is in the business of excellence. It’s hard for them to accept that the building’s going to change; they want it to stay the same. It’s time for it to change, so we’re having to provide a little pressure, a little encouragement, and offer reasoning behind why that needs to happen. There’s also always a sense of tension around how much does this cost and where can we instill enough value that it’s worth the expense.
For someone who has been to retreats for 20 years, what are the positive emotions you think people might experience upon entering one of these new rooms for the first time?
Eubank: Right off the bat, they’ll notice they’re not just a rectangle anymore, and we’re adding almost six feet in one direction, so the rooms are bigger and the bathrooms are bigger. The bed space is completely reoriented. I think there will be an “Aha!” moment for people coming in the first time.
There’s a really large glass opening in these rooms. There are 10-foot-wide sliding glass doors in each room. That’s a big, honking piece of glass—a lot of view. Reorienting the rooms from the river side to the meadow side is significant—and there’s some risk in that. The problem is the river is just not there. If they mowed all these trees down and cleared them out so you could see it, could see the bluffs, maybe that would be worth it, but that’s not how it happened.
Glenn, you are someone who’s very trusted, who knows the Butts’ ideas and visions towards spaces and things built. How did you develop that understanding?
Echols: Mr. Butt would say many times that beauty is not always convenient. Beauty sometimes requires extra effort or extra expense, but it’s worth it. A good example is the fence around the Laity Lodge tennis courts. It’s a wood, rustic fence. When Jim Keeter specified and designed that wood fence, I told Mr. Butt, “You know, that’s going to be hard to maintain. It would really be better from the maintenance standpoint if we did a pipe fence. We could paint it black or green or something.”
In his very patient way, he said, “Glenn, that wouldn’t really be in keeping with the feel and atmosphere we want to create. I understand and I hear from you that it’s going to mean an investment year after year in time and money to maintain that fence, but here’s an example of where the beauty is worth the effort.”