An Austrian Family Embraces a Plush 1970s Home in Need of a Little Love
Werner Weissmann is drawn to audacious works of architecture—style and era be damned. The list of unusual places he’s called home over the years even includes a 16th-century castle. So when he came across an ad for a one-of-a-kind modernist villa deep in Lower Austria’s wine country, right as he was ready to tackle another restoration, he pounced. Designed by distinguished architect Johannes Spalt in the mid 1970s, the home was built for Spalt’s friend and collaborator, handcrafted-furniture manufacturer Franz Wittmann, whose family-owned company, Wittmann, dates to 1896.
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"In 2015, Haus Wittmann suddenly appeared on the market," Werner remembers. "We’d always dreamt about renovating a house built by a modern architect. For me, it was really love at first sight. When you compare all of Spalt’s buildings, this is the masterpiece."
But despite its magnificence, Werner, his wife, Catherine, and their teenage daughter, Leonie, found the Wittmann residence rather down at the heels. The furniture mogul had lived there with his wife from 1975 until he died in 2012. Not long after, the business and home were divided among their six daughters. The house needed a hefty investment for renovations, including new floors in places and extensive electrical work. By then, Wittmann’s daughters had homes of their own, so in the end it was simpler for them to put it on the market.
Werner and Catherine were drawn to the purity of Spalt’s architectural vision—a 5,000-square-foot space sheltered beneath a vast, curved copper roof. A central gridded skylight illuminates the sunken, mahogany-clad living room, which features a handsome travertine-and-steel fireplace at the center. A mahogany-topped railing runs around a raised gallery, with small bedrooms off to the side, while the lowest level holds an indoor swimming pool, guest quarters, a large walk-in wardrobe, and, in a rare nod to Austrian vernacular, a hunting room decked out in cherry-wood panels where the Wittmann clan kept their rifles.
The home is clearly a piece of art—the architect even installed a small pavilion at the back of the garden so it can be admired from the comfort of a banquette—but Werner concedes that at times the residence is less than practical. "It’s a house without compromises," he explains, citing its grand but circuitous multilevel layout.
"For me, it was really love at first sight. When you compare all of Spalt’s buildings, this is the masterpiece." Werner Weissmann, resident
Werner, who works from home as a consumer analyst, as does Catherine, oversaw the restoration himself, working alongside a team of craftspeople and contractors. For the most part he stuck closely to Spalt’s designs, although he did gut the master bathroom and add some windows.
The expanses of mahogany paneling throughout the interior were in excellent condition and the exterior needed only a facelift, with Werner returning the drab yellow facade to its former white. The windows were another story. "You have to understand, it was a huge risk for us," says Werner, explaining that in order to install insulated glass, each of the home’s 120 original inside panes had to be removed from its wood frame. "Had the mahogany been damaged, it would have been the end of the project. You cannot rebuy this wood," he says. "That’s why it was really important for us to find workmen we could trust." The team also dismantled the original 1970s kitchen cabinets, which, after a thorough cleaning, were put back.
In funky ’70s fashion, Spalt had covered some rooms with floral wallcoverings by famed Austrian designer Josef Frank. Werner added even more of the designer’s eye-popping patterns to the walls of the master bedroom with help from Svenskt Tenn, a Swedish company that reproduces Frank’s work.
The indoor pool proved to be a major drain on the new owners’ resources. The Wittmanns had used it for some years, but when it became too troublesome to maintain, they had it covered. Werner initially considered demolishing the pool, but he knew that doing so would unbalance the entire composition of the home. Instead, he tightened his belt and got started, bringing the ventilation and the heating up to date and calling in an excavator to hollow out the foundation and replace the pool’s fiberglass shell with a new steel one. "It was difficult because the task was to retain the atmosphere of this space, so we had to keep or recreate the whole structure, the lighting, the Italian onyx, everything," he says.
For Werner and Catherine, the restoration has been a labor of love. In a country that has existed in one form or another for more than a thousand years, homes from the 1970s—even those as special as Haus Wittmann—are not widely considered to have the same historical value as, say, a castle. "It wasn’t easy to communicate why it was worth putting a lot of effort into the renovation," says Werner, who has applied, unsuccessfully, for a historical designation from the Federal Monuments Authority. He adds, "Nothing here is typically Austrian. Spalt wanted to create a building where you think and live differently."