Feature Article: Austin Architecture
By Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Inti St. Clair
My first visit to Millbrook, on Memorial Day, 2015, was tinged with melodrama. Football stadiums and entire blocks downtown were underwater. I was making a big life shift to Austin from Berlin and house-hunting for a place to move in August. A mere two days remained before my return flight to Berlin, and I still hadn’t found anything I halfway liked. So amid crashing thunder and the shriek of iPhone emergency weather alarms, my friend Emily and I drove to a listing that had popped up on Craigslist ten minutes earlier. It promised a cottage on a historic mill property, lush gardens and two donkeys. The bottom of the listing featured startlingly accomplished photographs of the donkeys: braying, eating and nuzzling heads. The kicker? This one-and-a-half acre complex was just a taco toss away from the burgeoning scene that is South Lamar.
Emily and I hydroplaned down South Lamar and pulled into a long driveway off of Evergreen Avenue. Through the pounding rain, lit by flashes of lightning, I glimpsed palms, a towering magnolia and a sweet little cottage, beside a large stone house. It looked like a New Orleans courtyard, then an English country cottage, before shape-shifting to the grounds of a colonial villa in Southeast Asia, much like a stranger in a candlelit cafe can seem to change faces in the flickering light.
Nancy Whitworth, the owner of this enclave, sprang out of the large stone house with an immense black umbrella that made her petite size even more fairy-like. She showed us the cottage, whose two large, open, soothing rooms I immediately loved with a force that hurt, like a middle-school crush. Despite the torrential downpour, Nancy embarked on an enthusiastic tour of the grounds, shouting over the rain. We struggled to keep up with her spry step and her predilection to leap off the path into the ivy to take photographs of the rising creek. She invited us into her home, a 19th century mill, and she didn’t blink when my sopping clothes created a puddle in her gorgeous living room.
Three months later, I left Germany for good and moved into the Millbrook cottage. I loved inviting new friends over to visit: I felt like a magician, sweeping my cape over South Lamar and producing … ta-dah! A mesmerizing retreat with blossoming wisteria, a wishing well, friendly neighbors, a breathtaking limestone millhouse, and, of course, Ruth and Bang Bang, the burros.
Over coffee on a recent morning, I huddled on a sofa with Nancy and her labradoodle, Ruby, as she shared the story of how Millbrook had found her. She had moved there with her late second husband, the Reverend William Spong, a professor at Austin’s Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest and a much-beloved pastoral counselor. As it turned out, Nancy’s stories about stumbling onto Millbrook, and the house’s charismatic former owner, Ernest Hardin, proved as captivating as the place itself…
Will and I married in 1992 and were looking for a home to share. My real estate agent had shown me all kinds of wonderful houses in the heart of West Austin, where I’d raised my children. There was nothing wrong with any of the properties she suggested. But when it came down to signing a contract on one in particular, a perfectly nice place, I just couldn’t do it.
Then, I saw a listing that said, “For sale by owner. Old grain mill in downtown Austin. For sale as is.” It was enough to make me call. The owner, Hazel Gully, answered the phone and told me one bad thing after another: “The train runs right through the property. On one end of the street is a tattoo parlor, on the other end is Lingerie Dreams. The house has been vacant for eight years.”
I hung up and told Will that it didn’t sound like a place where we’d want to live, but it would be fun to go see. We drove over. There was a pile of junk as high as a car in the driveway. Inside, it smelled like an old house that had been vacant for far too long. I was thinking, “How soon can we leave without being impolite?” But then Hazel showed us the balcony doors, and I looked down at the dry creek that had driven the mill and thought, “Wow.” Downstairs, I saw the depth of the windows and the walls. Hazel took us to the doors to the patio area, and I thought, “This could be it.”
Poor Will. Back in the car, he looked at me and said, “Well, how did you like that piece of junk?” He had wanted every other house we had seen; he had moved three times in two years, and he just wanted a place to park forever.
I looked straight back at him and said, “I love it.”
We signed the contract. Immediately afterwards, I felt nearly ill with fright, thinking: what have we done? I was terrified. Neither of us knew one thing about renovations. We didn’t even own a hammer. Nor did we have time. We both had more than full-time jobs [as a counselor/ seminary professor and a photographer]. Will began buying handyman magazines and reading up. He bought not one, but two, air compressors, plus a nail gun and electric screwdrivers. He was having a ball buying all this man stuff, and meanwhile I was getting sicker and sicker about the place.
The inspection report was a thick notebook, which I still have. The man said, “I’ve seen a lot of historic buildings and done inspections for all of them, and I would not advise purchasing this one.” And here Will and I were with no remodeling experience or old-house experience, and without a single handy gene in our bodies. And we went, “Okay, we’ll buy it!”
The first thing we did was hire a renovation crew to take care of basic plumbing and wiring repairs. Then we picked out one man, Tino, a hard worker whom we really liked, to move into one of the empty buildings in exchange for helping us with more work. We also hired James David, a landscape architect. When we first arrived, the buildings didn’t relate to one another at all. James drew a beautiful plan that oriented the buildings to the center with a circle. Another landscape architect, Curt Arnette, made an equal design impact on the yard with a big stone wall and the circular area near the front.
We hired Linda McCalla, an interior designer, to help with the inside. She was wonderful. Instead of saying, “Oh, this flooring won’t work; it’s just sub-flooring,” she said: “Let’s just stain this and use it.” The gray paint that Hazel Gully had used in the kitchen was already peeling, and I said, “What are we going to do about that?” And Linda said: “We’re going to leave it. It will be wonderful left alone.” It would have looked terrible in a normal house, but this house is so forgiving. Linda understood that about the place. And she helped me understand that.
My house in West Austin was more trouble than this one has ever been. The house in West Austin would move with the clay. This one is on rock. There are pictures in the history center downtown of this house with dirt floors and cows walking around. It was an unsuccessful grain mill, at best, and was soon converted into a residence for the Rob Roy family. Ernest Hardin, a drama and speech professor at the University of Texas, bought it in 1939. He raised doves and collie dogs here. I think I would have gotten along well with him.
After they moved here, Ernest and his wife bought all kinds of things from salvage, including the checkerboard floor from the Driskill Hotel, and proceeded to decorate the house with their finds. These wooden-spooled doors are from a church in East Austin. There’s a door from the telephone company upstairs. Anything that looks like a house instead of a grain mill—like the banister going up, and the ironwork on the windows, the wainscoting in the dining room—was bought by Ernest at salvage sales. The photos of the house when he lived here showed that it was heavily Victorian. Will and I were not that way. At first, we removed a lot of Ernest’s Victorian stuff out, but after we got our casual furniture in here, we started bringing all of his brick brack back in. Now it’s completely eclectic.
Ernest poured himself into the house, and I sense his spirit here. After his wife died, Millbrook became notorious in town for the extravagant parties Ernest would throw.
Millbrook feels like a fit to me the way Will felt like a fit. Will was not for everybody. He was older than me by 13 years, and he wasn’t in the best of health. He cut his hair once or twice a year. He combed it with a dog brush. I don’t know why he chose a dog brush, but that’s what he used. When I first met him, I started re-dressing him to look normal, and then I realized I was a destroying a work of art. So I stopped and let him evolve back. He would wear the craziest getups. There was something about Will that made me feel like I had known him and adored him all my life. And we looked like the most mismatched couple. He was so tall, and I was so short. The house felt the same way.
When Will retired from the seminary in 2001, he moved his counseling practice to [the cottage]. It worked beautifully, because people coming across the river weren’t worried about running into anyone they knew. I eventually moved my photography studio onto the property, too. So we both not only ended up living, but also working, here.
The whole property has a peacefulness about it that makes it a good place to be. The donkeys help with that, too. There’s no way you can be anxious or nervous when you look at those donkeys’ faces.
One of the wonderful things about living here is that it’s so old, you don’t worry about scratches and bumps and unevenness, including the bumpy stuff that looks like acne, growing on that wall. The other side of that wall is earth, and pretty soon the bumps will start flaking off. It’s a wonderful house to live in with imperfection in mind. All my friends have grandchildren [who want to see the donkeys], too, and I’m on the itinerary whenever they come to visit.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2016