The West Texas ‘Steel House’ was a three-plus-decade passion project by late artist Robert Bruno. His supporters hope his vision is sustained by its new owners.
One of the nation’s more unique works of architecture is being transformed into a West Texas vacation rental, prompting those who appreciate its artistic form to raise their eyebrows at the prospect.
The Steel House, an unfinished structure that Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster described as “a four-legged organism of blackened steel perched on a scruffy ridge,” is being morphed into an Airbnb or VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) for possible rental.
“That’s our vision,” said Blake Bartosh, an agent with Taylor Reid Realty, who bought the house along with his wife, Courtney.
The Steel House, which overlooks Lake Ransom Canyon east of Lubbock, was a three-plus-decade passion project by artist Robert Bruno, who died of cancer in 2008. Bruno built the biomorphic 110-ton structure by hand and lived in it for seven months before his death. It has remained vacant.
“Whatever has been done, or will be done, it should be done with the care and spirit of Bruno in mind,” said Urs Peter Flueckiger, interim dean of the Texas Tech University architecture school. “Unfortunately, we don’t own it, or don’t own a foundation that would help protect it.”
Last year, the Bartoshes bought the structure for an undisclosed amount from Bruno’s daughter, Christina, who, in 2015, told The News that she wanted it to “stay in the family.”
But it changed hands anyway and added another chapter to the structure’s legacy.
The Bartoshes put it on the market for $1.75 million, according to Realtor.com, but they removed it for preparation for its reincarnation as a rental. Blake Bartosh didn’t offer a timeline for when the structure, which has about 2,000 feet of floor space, would be ready. In October, the Bartoshes set up a Facebook page to track the house’s renovation progress.
Henry Martinez, a Lubbock businessman who regarded himself as a volunteer caretaker of the house from 2008 to September 2021, said he doesn’t favor the transformation.
“I don’t think a work of art like this — in which a man spends half his life to turn into something that’s well respected worldwide — should be turned into whatever, an Airbnb,” said Martinez, a longtime friend of Bruno’s. “But, again, there’s not anything I can do about it.”
Martinez said he believes it won’t be easy making the Steel House business-ready or “livable” because of its design, including an open deck.
“I have a hard time believing it’s going to be modified or structured to pass safety regulations by the city or an insurance company,” he said. “Maybe I’m wrong. The new owners are real estate people, and I’m sure they know how to get things done. But I see a lot of issues.”
Flueckiger said he hopes the house’s creative integrity is taken into account.
“Whatever has been done, it should be done with the care and spirit of Bruno in mind,” Flueckiger said. “Unfortunately, we don’t own it, or don’t own a foundation that would help protect it.”
Mark Gunderson, an architect who was a student and a friend of Bruno’s, agreed.
“This house deserves a benefactor or foundation who might give it the care and attention it deserves,” he told The News last year when its sale became known. “Its loss to the real estate market would be incomprehensible and tragic.”
Flueckiger said he hasn’t spoken to the new owners, but he “would definitely offer my advice” on interpreting Bruno’s vision. Simple aesthetic touches would advance Bruno’s design, such as furniture specific to the house’s theme.
“What you have to understand is that when he had a piece of furniture, he built and designed the furniture,” Flueckiger said. “You have to think of Bruno doing everything with thought.”
Martinez, who inherited half his current business from Bruno, said he has a personal investment in the Steel House.
“It’s something I did for my boss, my friend — just trying to continue his legacy,” he said.