Hyde Park is an exciting place to live and work. Just north of the UT campus, it’s an historic neighborhood filled with 19th century Victorian homes and 1920s bungalows that have been lovingly restored and utilized for residential and commercial rentals for decades. Whether it's a family home, a college co-ed split rental or a local start-up office, these uniquely Austin spaces have been host to some of the city’s brightest, most creative spirits at some point in their lives.
Some of the area's refurbished homes have a Texas Historical Commission plaque beside the front door that tells their story. Others have reputations that precede them.
In 2010, when Kathleen Lucente walked into the three-story Victorian home on the corner of Helms and 32nd streets, looking for a new, unconventional office space for her boutique PR firm, Red Fan Communications, she could tell the house had good bones. Even though the space, which was currently being used as an architectural office, was overflowing with blueprints, bulky filing cabinets and other miscellany. (“There was even one of those motion detector, singing bass fish mounted on the wall,” Lucente says with a laugh.)
Lucente learned the house was originally built between 1891 and 1897 from red pine timber, milled on site. But what she didn’t know about were all the good times that had happened inside these hallowed walls.
For three decades, the Hyde Park home, historically known as the Whitley-Keltner house and, later, as the Helms House, was a legendary haven for wild nights and high times during the city’s hippie heyday. From 1972 to the early ‘90s, tenants came and went, living communally—and riotously—throughout the house’s assorted and decidedly strange bedrooms. The scene was complete with a rotating wheel of strange sofa crashers, all night ragers, an in-house marijuana growing operation at one point, and a raucous annual Halloween party that became the stuff of legend.
“The Halloween parties were unbelievable,” Charles “Lucky” Attal, former owner of the Helms House, told the Statesman in 2002 when he decided to sell the house. “The costumes were some of the best you’ll ever see. One guy was a shower. I mean, he had water and everything.”
“When people create an office or a home of any kind, it’s about connecting to that certain culture and spirit of the community,” Lucente says. And while she had visited Austin frequently over the years throughout former careers in the top tiers of the country's biggest corporations, including long-term living stints in Hong Kong and New York, Lucente is now completely immersed. She and her family live on 31st and Fairfax and she can walk to her new office or pick up her kids from school at nearby Lee Elementary. “The proximity is amazing for me,” she says.
“Austin is still up and coming. It’s not fully baked yet,” Lucente says. “You can still be a part of molding the future.” So the Red Fan redesign, which began last August with interior designer Loren Jacobs at the helm, isn’t necessarily a modern overhaul; rather upscale, refined contemporary additions to the house’s original and distinctly bohemian vibe. “We’re definitely tipping our hat to the history that’s here,” she says.
It’s refreshing that in a city that seems to be bursting at the seams with new residents, businesses and other cultural transplants, it’s not all modern whitewash and corporate juggernauts. Maybe the trend of historical refurbishment has sustained simply here because the history is worth preserving — and celebrating.
In 1990, internationally renowned graphic artist Frank Kozik lived and worked the historic party house for three years, lovingly attending to the property's varied wear and tear and creating a thriving garden of rare and endangered native Texan species. (UT Botany classes would come and visit Kozik's plants, as they were virtually non-existent in the area.)
“I used the ground floor as a studio and office, lived on the second floor and had the third floor set up as a series of 'weird' rooms with 'weird' stuff in them,” Kozik says. "The tower I left empty except for some pillows and a rug and I liked to go up there during storms. Being on top of the hill you had a great view.” Kozik was the last residential tenant of Helms House, moving to San Francisco in '93, but admits he had to field several latecomers to non-existent weekend and Halloween parties, before they “got the hint it was now a private residence.”
The house is definitely a long way off from its past of half-naked coeds and freeloading partiers wandering the halls. Instead, there is a diverse mix of refined design: a lively mix of new and old, modern and vintage, signature designer pieces and second-hand diamonds in the rough, local artwork and Asian influences inspired by Lucente’s time in Hong Kong. The result is an eclectic but elegant charm that is a fitting nod to the hippie melting pot that used to bubble and boil under the same roof so many years ago. It’s sanitized in comparison to the sordid tenants that came before them, but the house still retains an organic sense of comfort and beauty.
“People really don’t expect it,” Lucente say of the reactions of various clients, a sweeping variety, including local start-ups, like Rallyhood, to national clients, like Friskies. And it really is a knock out impression from the front door. Visitors are greeted with a shimmering metallic gold and grass cloth wall covering by Stockton Hicks Laffey in the entryway, playful light fixtures made completely of white feathers and elegant wainscoting lining the high ceilings. “Nothing is pulled from a magazine or a showroom. Everything was selected with a purpose,” Lucente says.
Immediately to the left of the entryway is the conference room, but it feels more like a sexy, bohemian scene from Mad Men. In fact, designer Loren Jacobs found the large conference table from a Houston antiques dealer, Forma Revivo, who sources pieces for A-list clients, including Mad Men. It has a powerful sense of presence without the stiffness of a conventional conference room.
“We wanted people to feel as if they were invited to a fabulous dinner party,” Jacobs says. But hanging directly above is the true scene-stealer: a 90-pound Marjorie Skouras turquoise chandelier. “I love seeing everyone’s “ahhhh” reactions when they see it,” senior account executive Korin Lewis says about the stunning, but simple piece. “It was the exact reaction I had when Loren first showed it to us.” Floor to ceiling windows are framed by custom Oscar de la Renta drapes, featuring decadent designs with blood red and deep turqoise.
Chic contemporary accents like a flat screen TV hanging above the original fireplace, are balanced by local work, like bright pieces on the wall from Austin artist Lacy Richter and rare or vintage finds, like the room’s wooden Chinese hutch, traditionally used to aerate fruits and vegetables, and now stores all of Red Fan’s routers and assorted computer equipment.
Just beyond the conference room is an additional sitting area or meeting room. “It just depends on the feel of the meeting,” Lucente says. “No one wants to be sitting around a conference table all the time.” Two oversized armchairs, upholstered in a colorful Paul Smith pinstriped fabric face a plush crushed orange velvet couch and more colorful artwork and accents, like wooden Asian screens and an eye-catching pink coral fan.
And although the unique design was of the utmost importance in the remodeling process, it didn’t trump the issue of professional comfort and practicality for Lucente’s employees. “PR is tough. You need to be able to come back to a place that re-instills your creativity energy,” Lucente says. She wanted each of Red Fan’s five staff members (six if you include Hank, Lucente’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who serves as the office’s ‘Chief Entertainment Officer.’) to be comfortable.
Every chair in the house has high-grade lumbar support. Every room is awash in natural light. Durable, but chic pinstripe FLOR area rugs subtly blend function and design. Bright wall colors and framed artwork, like immaculately pressed Hermes silk scarves, keep spirits high. A full kitchen and washer and dryer are available for anyone to use.
In the adjoining office bathroom, which is stocked with towels, blow-dryers, gym clothes and anything else the staff might need if they want to take a shower at work, there is a print that Lucente won from the local blog, Peace, Love and Guacamole, stating simply: ‘You Are Awesome and People Love You.’ “It’s nice to read in the morning before getting to work,” Lucente says. I agree with her and can even see it as a mantra used here back in the ‘70s in between hits from the pipe.
And smoke, even the nostalgic variety, seems to rise in this house, because as I walk up the staircase, situated in the middle of the house, I start to discover more and more distinctly trippy aspects of this party house turned office. The Alice in Wonderland-esque feel of the house starts with the strange, angular staircase, stained black and white like some sort of funky, but refined, piano on the first floor, and as it winds up, starts to reveal its unique character, with the original, unstained red pine timber floors and uneven, slanted ceilings that could easily smack anyone over 5’5” on the forehead if they weren’t paying attention. Lucente says her clients that stand over six feet tall don’t mind ducking their heads as they climb up and down the unconventional staircase. (“They think it’s fun,” she says.)
I love the exploratory feeling of the original design and laugh at the thought of how many red Solo cups of flat keg beer must have been tipped over this well-worn banisters in the wee hours of the morning.
On the second floor, the two street facing bedrooms are reached via strangely small, square doors, making me wonder if there was some sort of pill or cake I was supposed to swallow to get through to the other side. It’s an appropriately bizarre hallmark to the equally unique tenants of yore.
The Red Fan staff currently uses a handful of the house’s rooms on a daily basis, but leases the additional space to other independent businesses or freelancers. One of the smaller slanted rooms was recently rented out to a writer who set up a sawhorse and his computer in front of the street-facing window and wrote his novel. Right now, a massage therapist rents one of the larger second floor rooms.
“It’s like finding a good roommate,” Lucente says about additional tenants. “There’s got to be the perfect balance and chemistry for the whole house.” The same balance I’m sure that the free spirited renters sought during decades of communal living in the Helms house.
After creeping up the last flight of stairs to the top floor, even though it’s less of a flight and more like a ladder to a secret room (“Be careful on these stairs,” Lucente says. “They’re made for elves.”), there is an incredible cupola, or turret-style, sitting room allowing for an almost 360-view of the neighborhood, including a view of the Tower just to the South.
At one time, it was reportedly used as an observation tower for local firefighters, but now the unique crow’s nest is mainly used for Red Fan’s brainstorming and strategic meetings. (“I've probably done some of my best, most efficient work up there,” senior account executive, Bristel Bowen says. “It’s warm and clam and bright.”)
It’s the kind of room that makes your imagination come alive and almost feel like you’re a kid again. Animal heads made of recycled French newspapers are mounted on the cheerful pink walls, overlooking the sparse furniture, two fuzzy white beanbag chairs and a lovely One King’s Lane ottoman, brings you down to the ground, making you feel smaller than normal, but allowing you to see everything around you in a new light, a new perspective.
Daydreams and visions of grandeur are inherent in this creative space. Lucente even says her eight-year-old daughter believes there’s a monster up in the tower and races up the angular stairs to leave notes and various snacks for him whenever she comes to visit.
Now there might not be a real monster or ghost living upstairs, but Lucente did reveal that a 2012 Halloween party might be in the works. It won’t necessarily be like the annual ragers of the house’s heyday. (“I’ve been told people were running around naked covered in day glo paint,” Lucente says.
“Someone even told me they’re parents almost got divorced over something that happened at one of the house parties.”) But someone has already offered to bring a hearse to the shindig.
No matter what the party will entail, it’s nice to see the spirits of this legendary house are still floating around.