It’s hard to imagine that when Frances and Robin Thompson bought the colonial revival Hart House in East Tarrytown the paint was peeling and doors were hanging off their hinges. The house, which is designated as a historic landmark, was built in 1929 by Joseph Hart, a Texas Supreme Court Justice and University of Texas chancellor, and his wife Katherine Hart, who founded the Austin History Center. The Thompsons bought the house in 2005, a few years after Katherine Hart died, but it was in dire need of a renovation before they and their two children, Davison and Dorothy, could move in.
Steve Sadowsky, a City of Austin Historic Preservation Officer, joins the Thompsons, Jeff and I out on the back porch that overlooks a wide green lawn equipped with a lacrosse net for Davison and a slackline stretched between two trees where Dorothy practices her balance. Steve has memorized the address of every historical landmark in Austin. It’s his job to preserve neighborhoods and buildings that represent the cultural, historical, and architectural fabric of Austin, which isn’t an easy assignment in such a dramatically changing city. Over 1400 houses were demolished in 2014 alone.
“Tarrytown is being torn down daily,” he says in a wistful southern drawl. “The East side and parts of South Austin too. It’s completely out of control. Work with what you’ve got. Stop tearing things down.”
Frances and Robin, who have been together since they were college freshmen, took his advice to heart during their remodel. Their home has a distinctly classic style. Details that pay homage to history are scattered throughout—the original custom windows above the staircase, pantry drawers with holes for potatoes, and a framed collage with samples of every piece of original wallpaper discovered during the renovation.
But the family home also holds bright and quirky surprises (a zebra rug, a modern art mobile, framed music posters, a treehouse with a crow’s nest out back, and an extensive Hunter S. Thompson collection). Over dinner and witty family repartee, Jeff asks about an unusual sign that says, “Do not steal from this home. Thank you. Management,” resting in the window above the kitchen table. Robin explains that the writer and journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, was, in fact, his uncle.
“Johnny Depp paid for this whole extravaganza for his [Hunter’s] funeral in Aspen. His whole life was set up in vignettes. The ‘do not steal’ sign was a replica from Hunter’s refrigerator. It was in the faux living room.”
“So I stole it,” laughs Frances, who clearly has a mischievous streak.
Frances was the one who thought to put a turquoise picnic table at the end of their front yard, right near the street. She wanted to encourage more interaction with the neighbors. All of us head out to the picnic table to watch Davison and Dorothy try out Jeff’s electric bike.
Jeff and I squint down the tree-lined street. We both have a funny look on our faces. “Ummm. Are those goats?” says Jeff.
“Oh yes,” says Frances, “Those are our neighbors. They walk their goats every night.”
It's a classic "Keep Austin Weird" moment. The couple with the three fainting goats show up and a conversation is born. A few minutes later the goats eagerly head for the grass buffet in the Thompson’s front lawn as the spontaneous gathering grows: the next door neighbor with her son, a lesbian couple with several children, a woman towing two sleeping children behind her bicycle, and an older man across the street who watches the whole thing from his porch.
By the time the sun sets and the mosquitos start nipping at our legs we’ve made a dozen new friends. If the old Hart House spirits are still around, they must be proud.