- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Martha Koock Ward remembers the yeast rolls.
“Rising, baking, baked and blanketed in a linen napkin lining a basket, revealed, ready for sweet cream butter,” says the Austinite who grew up in her mother’s childhood home, which Mary Faulk Koock turned into the hospitality legend Green Pastures. “The earthy smell of these rolls added another layer of satisfaction to a carefully prepared meal. And if all went well, I’d get a hot roll and homemade peach preserves for the best dessert ever.”
She and other family members knew well that customers and guests came first at the South Austin eatery spread out over a Victorian farmhouse.
“I often heard the words, ‘Don’t eat those!’” Ward recalls. “‘They’re counted!’”
The unbroken spell of this oasis — it has served diners for more than 70 years — resonates in its name. Green Pastures sounds like a sweet, soothing, sacred place, something out of Psalms.
The current keepers of the flame of this tree-shrouded shrine on Live Oak Street have done everything possible to honor its past as a family farm, as a historic eatery — originally run by a woman and racially integrated well ahead of its time — and as a gathering place for every sort of social set.
Developers Greg Porter and Jeff Trigger — along with revered architect Emily Little — recently put the finishing touches on the home, built primarily from 1893 to 1895 and opened as a dining spot in 1946.
The grounds have been meticulously preserved. Except for the sight of guests lounging on the wraparound porches, the casual visitor, on arrival, can be forgiven for thinking that nothing has much changed.
Until one enters the old farmhouse, where dark woods, skeletal furniture and big lounge sofas set a fresh tone under 12-foot-high ceilings. While traditional portraits of prominent family members dominate two rooms, assertive abstract art elsewhere complements the jazz and blues heard just above the low din of diners.
Formerly, Green Pastures appeared somewhat frozen in amber: White tablecloths, grand window treatments, heavy chairs and always a dash of fresh flowers. A good look to complement what was — for decades — one of the city’s few fine dining establishments. Yet it felt very much of an earlier era, a place to impress your visiting great-aunt perhaps.
A new restaurant, Mattie’s — named after Martha “Mattie” Faulk, wife of progressive lawyer Henry Faulk and mother of the original eatery’s founder, Mary Faulk Koock — has opened quietly on two floors, which include multiple fireplaces, bars and a grand staircase. It’s a more youthful look — perhaps even a little jarring to older customers — but welcoming to all.
Nearing completion out back is an expanded events venue. Future plans to build two small hotel buildings — as well as a discreet vertical parking structure — will follow to the west and south. Almost all the gnarled oaks, some going back more than 300 years, still stand.
And yes, peacocks roam the land.
One of the surprises discovered during the redo of Green Pastures: The simple two-story structure behind the main house, with its gracious porches and sittings rooms — altogether 12 rooms with 10 fireplaces — was built in 1893. The place where the Koock boys slept was not, then, as family tradition had it, an addition, but the original structure.
“We uncovered the truth when we discovered the sequence of construction,” preservation architect Little says. “But you can see here how the two buildings were sewn together.”
Dr. Eugene W. Herndon, a minister and physician who often entertained guests at his farmhouse, purchased the 50 rural acres, originally part of the 1835 Isaac Decker land grant, from the heirs of James E. Bouldin in 1893. It stood some 2 miles from the Colorado River and the city of Austin proper on its north banks.
Only two neighborhoods — along with the Texas School for the Deaf (1857) and St. Edward’s University (1877) — preceded Green Pastures in this part of the world.
In the 1870s, the Swisher Addition was platted on the sides of what became South Congress Avenue; the western part became the freedmen’s community known as Brackenridge or South Side and remained primarily African-American into the 1940s. Fairview Terrace, populated mostly with large Victorian homes, followed in the 1880s, then was subsumed into Travis Heights in the 20th century.
As remembered by humorist and First Amendment activist John Henry Faulk, who grew up at Green Pastures, South Austin consisted mostly of informal communities of very poor people strung out along its creeks. As a youth, he gave the milk from his 35 cows to the folks who lived on Bouldin Creek.
In what is now known as the Bouldin neighborhood, fewer than a dozen substantial stone or wood structures were built before 1900. Green Pastures, built of lumber and anchored in stone and caliche, is the best-known of them. The part-Huguenot Faulk family were the third owners of the house; they purchased it in 1916 from Judge W.W. Burnett, active in legal and political circles.
“Henry Faulk, whose portrait hangs in the downstairs bar of Mattie’s, was the son of an Alabama sharecropper, a family in which no one knew how to read and write,” says developer Porter, who has trained his staff to know even minor details about the property’s past. “Faulk taught himself how to read and write, came to Austin to receive his law degree at the University of Texas and became a famous local judge. In a short, 10-year period, his discipline and determination changed the social and economic status of his family forever.”
Faulk published a newspaper and campaigned for anti-monopoly, pro-union and anti-racist causes. According to at least one written source housed at the Austin History Center, he dubbed the land Green Pastures.
“Judge Faulk did pro bono work taking care of people on the east side of Austin,” his descendant Anne McAfee told this reporter in 2011. “He didn’t want people going to court without legal representation. He’d say: ‘Here I am. Let’s see what we’re going to do.’ These are people who had nothing. Some of them still have nothing.”
No less formidable was Henry’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Miner Faulk, a former teacher at Hornsby Bend who in 1956 was proclaimed by Austin Mayor Tom Miller the “first lady of South Austin.” She was descended from the Tannehill family, among the first settlers in what is now eastern Travis County and the developers of Montopolis, older than Austin and once its rival.
Family accounts say that Henry Faulk, before moving to Green Pastures, wanted to move from Central Austin to what by then was a 22-acre farm so he could have “more than one cow.” Mattie initially opposed the move. It was in this setting that they raised their five children — on a chicken farm on the far edges of South Austin.
Henry Faulk died in 1939, and Mattie, her children and others lived in the house through World War II. At one point, 17 family members made it home. Among them was the late celebrated actor, host and cabaret singer Karen Kuykendall, who met her future husband, Marshall Kuykendall, downstairs at Green Pastures.
In 1946, Mattie gave the house to her middle daughter, Mary Faulk Koock, and her husband, Chester, a descendant of German immigrants who had settled in Mason County. The Koock family operated a store in that frontier area. They embodied a type of small-town hospitality, not unlike the Herndons and Faulks in South Austin.
“The Koock home had a large welcome mat out for friends and strangers,” wrote Hulda Wilbert in the Mason County Historical Book. “Race or color meant no difference to them. There was always a meal for customers, should they be in the store at meal time. Their word was as good as gold.”
Mary and Chester first hosted events on the property in 1946. Eventually, they began serving dinner as a formal restaurant. Mary entertained guests from all over the state and published a collection of recipes and memories, “The Texas Cookbook,” that is still in circulation.
“Stories and Tales of Green Pastures” by waiter and maitre d’ Mitchell Mays — who was married to one of the cooks, Marie — shares another behind-the-scenes view of the eatery from the 1940s and ’50s. Austin chef Toni Tipton-Martin revived interest in Mays’ 20-page booklet, which includes recipes, in her 2015 volume, “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks.”
A fire in March 1965 demolished the second story of the building and inflicted heavy damage to the rest of Green Pastures, according to an article in the Austin American-Statesman.
“Only the large main dining room in the south wing and the kitchen escaped severe damage,” the article reports. “However, priceless antiques and heirloom chandeliers on the lower floor of the mansion were saved in spite of the sudden blaze.”
In 1969, Mary and Chester sold Green Pastures to their oldest son, Ken Koock, who brought in an outside business partner, Lee Buslett. He had operated the famous Nighthawk restaurants in Austin during their tenure from 1939 to 1994.
Bob Buslett, who ran Green Pastures from 1995 to 2015, started working there as a bartender in 1972. According to Porter, one story has it the former upstairs bar received the second mixed-beverage license in Travis County, after the Driskill Hotel.
Porter and business partner Jeff Trigger — who has run some signature Austin restaurants, including Congress, Second Bar + Kitchen, Driskill Bar and Grill and Boiler Nine — took over in 2015.
A recent stopover at the upstairs bar on a late Saturday afternoon presented the visitor with comfortable surroundings and an observant staff. Drinks were listed in little hardcover books decorated with historical pictures of the place and the families that lived here. A Green Pastures julep — not too sweet and served over a dome of ice in a metal cup — seemed an apt menu selection, as did a small plate topped with two cakelike biscuits drizzled with honey and accompanied by lightly whipped guava butter.
One couldn’t help but wonder whether Mary Faulk Koock would approve.
By his own account, after visiting a remarkable boutique hotel outside New York City, Porter, always a fan of architecture, was inspired to create a special project on the Green Pastures site that would respect the natural landscape and preserve the historic structure. He was also drawn to stories of the Faulk and Koock families that lived and worked there through much of the 20th century.
“My father taught me by example to treat people equally, regardless of race, religion or economic status,” Porter, slim and contemplative, says. “The more I learned about Henry and Martha ‘Mattie’ Faulk and their progressive values around civil and human rights, the more I felt akin to them. I also connected to the rebellious nature of the expression of these values at a time when these ideas were widely unpopular.”
Upon meeting their grandson and granddaughter, Ken Koock and Martha Koock Ward, Porter felt an even deeper emotional connection with their family.
“This project quickly shifted to a truly special opportunity to engage my passion for design and architecture, my love of untold history and my deepest personal values,” Porter says. “Green Pastures has always been a place where everyone is welcome. It’s not about exclusivity and the cool kids, it’s about celebration, compassion and people coming together.”
The family motto, emblazoned on the staircase of the original 1893 house, speaks to the heart of the Green Pastures project: “Be kind to those you pass on the way up, as you may meet them on your way down.”