MAN WITH A VISION
Nationally Recognized Architect Puts His Mark on Houston
By Marsha Canright
Jay Baker’s first creation — a tree house at age eight — awakened a sense of wonder and propelled him into a life of making things.
Good Build Sheds Decades later, at age 61, the Houston architect is known for an unerring sense of proportion and his ability to create imaginative, livable homes bathed in natural light and embedded in lush landscapes.
Baker has designed more than 70 upscale homes in Houston and surrounding areas including structures in River Oaks, Broadacres, the Heights, Southampton and Brenham with a steadfast focus on the dreams and desires of the people who will live in his creations.
Good Build Sheds "I begin every project with big ears. I ask my clients to tell me their wish list from the ridiculous to the sublime. For me, a good fit is a big deal. I enjoy having a client who can collaborate with me because they are the coauthor of the house," he says.
Good Build Sheds Defining features of Baker’s work include dramatic rooflines with end gables and blending indoor and outdoor living spaces with long banks of wall-sized windows. He works with a variety of materials including stone, stucco, wood and even corrugated metal.
Good Build Sheds Collaboration is the one word Baker uses to describe how he most likes to work. In an ideal project he starts with a team upfront: the owners, the interior designer, a landscape architect and the builder. He says he has benefited enormously from the complementary talents of others.
Good Build Sheds There also are certain common traits that distinguish his designs. "My houses don’t scream at the curb. They aren’t trying to be important; their story isn’t obvious. They exhibit their character as they unfold,” Baker says.
Good Build Sheds Among the homes in his portfolio, Baker claims to have no favorite. Like children, they each have special attributes that he admires.
Good Build Sheds “The Bell Ranch sits in repose and the Morgan house speaks quietly from the curb," says Baker of the projects in the book. "The Criner library [Troon house] is almost a secret and the Lummis dogtrot entry [Locke Lane house] welcomes with a vista," says Baker.
Houston As Home
Jay Baker was born in Omaha, Nebraska and came to Houston in 1978 to obtain his master’s degree in architecture from Rice University. "I liked the people, I started a family and Houston became my home," says Baker.
Good Build Sheds In 1992 he took leadership of the Rice Design Alliance and initiated the renewal of Hermann Park as a project, a daunting task. “I met with Jack Mitchell, the dean of the architecture school, to have dinner and to talk about plans for the Alliance. When I asked him about potential projects, he said to me, ‘Fix Hermann Park.’
Good Build Sheds “I said, wow that’s a big job, and he said, ‘yes, but you can do it.’”
Good Build Sheds Despite the park’s importance as a public space for Houston, Baker tells us that it was in grave disrepair; not even a safe space to spend time. It seemed like an enormous project but ten days later Mitchell died unexpectedly and Baker set his mind on following through with the request.
Good Build Sheds Baker was able to form alliances between the RDA, Friends of Hermann Park (now Hermann Park Conservancy) and the City of Houston. He conceived, organized and executed the Heart of the Park Design Competition, which resulted in 117 entries. It is among Baker’s proudest achievements.
Good Build Sheds When Baker is not designing or reading, he enjoys travel, playing golf with his brother and spending time with his family. His daughters, now grown and married, live a few blocks apart from each other in the Heights. He has yet to design and build his own home but that will come in time. "The cobbler's children have no shoes," he says.
For Baker, the joy is in the problem solving. How will the house sit? Where will the sun come in? Where is the entry? What will we see from the windows?
It was more than 50 years ago when Baker worked with his beloved grandfather to build a tree house in a single weekend. After that, he knew his life’s work would be in making things.
Project #4 – Troon House
Built in River Oaks in 2010, the home on Troon shows how Baker approaches the creation of a new home on a complex site. The design earned Baker the John Staub Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, as well as the admiration and friendship of homeowners Sanford and Susie Criner.
Good Build Sheds “We wanted a house that was modern in the sense of being open, flowing and light-filled but with a traditional envelope that would fit into the neighborhood,” says Sanford Criner. “He perfectly synthesized these two conflicting ideas.”
Good Build Sheds It was not an easy task to integrate all the conflicting demands on a long, narrow lot, 20 feet above the street with houses on both sides.
Good Build Sheds “We wanted the downstairs to lay out perfectly for entertaining and the upstairs to accommodate specific needs, including all of Susie’s dresses, shoes and hats, which practically require their own zip code,” says Criner.
Good Build Sheds From concept and design to construction was a bit more than two years but the house sits perfectly on the site as if it had always been there, Criner says.
Good Build Sheds “Jay showed an amazing ability to translate our half-formed ideas into a design that would have been exactly what we had imagined if we had only been creative enough to imagine it. We gave him thoughts and concepts and he gave us the house that somehow knitted them together so perfectly we have never thought to change a thing.”
Project #2 — Locke Lane House
Jay Baker Architects created a design that blended together two adjacent properties, introducing plenty of natural light while keeping proportions in scale with the surrounding neighborhood.
Project #6 — Troon House II
Built in 2000, the Wright House on Ella Lee was featured on the 2002 AIA Homes Tour. It sits on a wedge-shaped lot rising 12 feet from the curb to the house.
Good Build Sheds The structure has two wings, each with two stories, connecting to the existing guesthouse. Entry into the main house is through a foyer, which sits between the two wings. A standout feature is a two-story living room with 14-foot windows on either end. One has a view of a mature magnolia tree and stairs that descend to the street, and the other opens onto the manicured gardens and swimming pool.
Good Build Sheds Baker was able to incorporate cherished items from the owner’s previous house including antique doors, gates and screens.
Project #1 – Brenham Ranch
Not every project sits in the center of the city. In 2003, Baker designed the Bell Ranch house near Brenham on 120 acres of pastureland.
Good Build Sheds Constructed of stone and wood, the house reflects the Acadian cottages found in Louisiana, which the client admired, and also the 19th century houses common in Washington County. The house faces a grove of lofty live oaks and features a broad porch with exposed timbers overlooking a meadow.
Good Build Sheds In his book Baker writes about how everything about this location — from the cattle guard to the grazing cattle, barn and pond — help to give a sense of leaving the city behind.
Project #5 — South Boulevard House
The challenge here was the narrow lot near Rice University, but Jay Baker Architects created a simple site plan with Craftsman detailing, cladding made from redwood siding, a cedar shingle roof and rafters constructed from Douglas fir.
Jay Baker Architects
Jay Baker, FAIA, Principal
3815 Montrose, Suite 205
The Southampton Group
Thielemann Construction Company, L.P.
2310 South Market, Brenham
Matrix Structural Engineers
5177 Richmond Avenue, Suite 670
811 East Crosstimbers
Thompson + Hanson
1301 North First Street, Bellaire
White Oak Studio
611 West 22nd Street, Suite 209
Douglas Durkin Design
39 Arkansas, San Francisco, CA
Linda Eyles Design
Jerry Jeanmard, Wells Design
5120 Woodway, Suite 3029
Anne Wolf Interior Decoration
711 Louisiana, Suite 1660