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The Historical Significance and Family Behind One of the Most Creative Homes in Austin

The historical significance and family behind one of the most creative homes in Austin

This Old House

This Old House

The owner of a historical home in East Austin jokes that he’s cursed. He has this habit that he can’t seem to break of finding discarded things and needing to restore them. A chandelier made from old bike spokes, bright orange and red reflectors, and white lights is one of his current projects. It’s small in scale compared with the ongoing restorative undertaking of the 131-year-old home that he shares with his wife and two children.

When artists Dan and Mindy Niendorff bought the two-story wooden home at 1209 East 12th Street in 1996, the city had it boarded up and on review for demolition. The roof looked to be sagging, paint was peeling, windows were broken, and it was no better on the inside. The interior was missing doors and trim, and the front hallway bannister was simply gone altogether.

At the time, the Niendorffs had been running an art gallery in a rented building on East Sixth Street and were looking for a space of their own. The house had been abandoned for 10 years, yet they were able to see its future as a place to raise a family and as a home for their extensive art collection. Once the Niendorffs started work on the house, they began to learn more about its past — the people who used to live there and how it relates to the social history of the East Austin community.

The Niendorffs bought the house from the heirs of Mary Ella Brown Lewis, who had purchased it in 1945 after her husband, a prominent East Texas educational official, passed away. Lewis was the third owner of the home, following a German immigrant and baker, Friedrich Stolle, and a Swedish couple, Oscar and Augusta Westling, who sold it to her. Lewis had a music degree that her community benefited from in many ways. She was the choir director at a local church and taught regular piano lessons to many of the neighborhood children.

During the time Lewis was in the home, she did not always live on her own. Bedrooms were rented to boarders, including civil rights activist Heman Sweatt and his wife. After the Supreme Court ruled favorably for him in the 1950 landmark case Sweatt v. Painter, the University of Texas’ president at the time, Sweatt became the first African American to be admitted into its law school. On the team of this landmark case, widely considered to be a building block of Brown v. Board of Education, was the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

“There is a tradition of education that runs deep in this neighborhood,” says Dan, who, before he retired, was a high school art and photography teacher. The UT tower can be seen from the home’s second story. It’s a view that Sweatt would have had when he lived in the house. Decades later, the same university that he battled against for years would honor his legacy with the annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. And years after that, the Niendorffs would hang a small black-and-white photo of him in the same front hall he would have passed through on the way to his bedroom.

An oil painting once owned by a family member. Family antiques are an important part of the home’s decor.

At the time Sweatt was living in the house, the interior would have looked vastly different from the way it does now. The antique wood would have been covered by boldly printed wallpaper backed by cheesecloth. The kitchen, which is currently inside and at the back of the home, would have been outside with some kind of oven, Mindy says, pointing to an area close to the house in the backyard.

When the Niendorffs first moved in more than 20 years ago, a construction loan covered the costs for major repairs, including drywall, electrical, plumbing and broken windows. Everything else has been up to them. Dan is completely self-taught and continues to do most of the work himself. He’s so adept at patching up areas of his home that when he pulls out the sliding doors that separate the front room from the dining room, he can’t find any scuffs leftover from replacing the hardware. “I did a good job,” he jokes.

Mindy and Dan with their children, Ella and Gus.

Keeping with the original integrity of the home has been the intent for Mindy and Dan with everything they’ve done, from the hardware on the doors to the artwork on the walls. “We wanted to have pieces that made sense with the time period — adding some modern work that we have, too,” says Mindy, who is a database manager and cataloger for the Fine Arts Library at UT.

While the historical significance of their home has its own narrative to tell, so does all of the art inside. The house is filled with an eclectic blend of paintings, print, sculpture and mixed media. Some of it’s abstract and some is representational. Each piece seems to have a personal story and is often connected to someone in the Niendorffs’ immediate or extended family.

“Mindy’s always making interesting assemblages of things she finds,” says Dan.

In the dining room, just behind Dan’s makeshift workstation for the bike reflector chandelier, is a large painting of a chair that Mindy created. It’s a duplicate of the one her aunt sat on at her sewing machine, and two mixed-media pieces of that same aunt’s dress line the hallway going up the stairs. In the family room is an oil painting with another close connection. It’s one of Dan’s favorite works by his brother, Paul, of five women in different prom dresses, each with a dramatic expression on her face, that was literally painted on a bedsheet.

The context for the artwork around the house continues from room to room. Work by their children, cousins, uncles, aunts and artists from their days of owning a gallery are intertwined with the character of their historic home. “The siding on this house took 100 years to grow. Why would you ever want to tear it down?” says Dan. When he looks around the neighborhood today, he asks himself the same question. Head west on East 12th Street and there’s a row of modern townhomes. Take a left from the house onto Navasota Street and it’s the same thing. It can be more common to see a renter for the weekend standing on the sidewalk with a suitcase, describes Dan, than to find a neighborhood family walking around with small children. “These old homes, they’re here one day and gone and in a landfill the next,” he says.

It’s a common storyline in East Austin and in cities around the country. Older homes in neighborhoods close to city centers are being replaced by newer homes and multi-family projects. The people inside those homes are changing too. Neighborhoods east of I-35 were once populated by the majority of African American households in Travis County, according to Ryan Robinson, the city’s demographer. The percentage of African Americans, for example, in the Niendorffs’ neighborhood of Robertson Hill has dropped from 33.6 percent in 2000 to 13.7 percent in 2017, adds Robinson.

When the Neindorffs moved in, it was a different neighborhood from what their friend Pearl Cox remembers. A lifelong resident and small-business owner, Cox grew up at a time when the streets of Robertson Hill were full of children. Kids playing outside together and eating at many of the local restaurants. When the Niendorffs bought their home, Dan says that mainly only older couples were around, so their children played a lot by themselves. They have a big grassy backyard, which was perfect for exploring, tinkering and creating.

Over the years, Dan and Mindy have been very involved with people in their community. They are active in neighborhood groups and are knowledgeable about the changes they see around them. Restoring a home that means so much to the community is a testament to how they care. Their house is a relic representing important memories for many people, including Cox. She took piano lessons from the previous owner as a little girl and remembers fondly sitting near the expansive front windows.

“It was amazing to see how well they conserved that building,” says Cox. “I always loved that house.” And she gets to continue to love it thanks to the work the Niendorffs have put into it all of these years. It comes back to that habit Dan says he has of restoring older things and seeing the beauty in what’s already there.