The story goes that Nancy Whitworth lives in the old grain mill for the Bouldin estate that once covered South Austin from the river to what is now Ben White Boulevard. Millbrook, as it’s called, is one of six Bouldin properties on this year’s Preservation Austin Historic Homes Tour on April 29. Other stops include the Texas School for the Deaf, two 193os Craftsman bungalows, an 1899 Victorian home and a 1951 house that has been renovated in a modern style.
Whitworth has found pictures in the Austin History Center of her house with dirt floors on the bottom level where cows were hanging out. The actual millstone has never been found, and the creek that once powered the mill only arrives in wet weather.
“It was not a very successful mill,” she says.
She’s been told Millbrook was built in 1852, but some records say it might have actually been built the decade before — other experts put it much younger, closer to the turn of the century.
When it became a house is up for debate, too. The official story is that William Carroll “Cal” Roy and his wife, Annie Stanley Roy, bought it from Powhatan Bouldin, heir to the James E. Bouldin estate in 1894, and had it converted into a home.
The Roy descendants then sold it to two University of Texas drama professors, Ernest Randolph Hardin and his wife, Maurine, in 1939. That’s when the house got its colorful details.
Ernest Hardin was a collector of architectural cast-asides. Throughout this house are architectural pieces from Abner Cook houses, an East Austin church, the Driskill Hotel and places yet unknown. Its “Millbrook” weather vane actually came from a farm in Millbrook, N.Y., where Hardin made a deal with the farmer to bring the vane home to Austin.
The last time the house was opened for a home tour a few years after Whitworth and her late husband, Will Spong, bought it in 1993, visitors told her all kinds of stories about colorful parties that seem to match the murals Hardin painted downstairs.
The home is one of five buildings on the property that cover different eras. Another house was torn down after it became uninhabitable, probably sometime in the 1980s. Whitworth discovered that building existed when she was cutting back English ivy and found a gate, a stacked rock wall and steps leading to what seemed like nowhere. The history center later confirmed that there had been another house on the property, one that Hardin used as his art studio.
University of Texas architecture students also studied the property and came up with the theory that a rock house, which is now a guest house, was once the smokehouse for the Bouldin estate.
When Whitworth and Spong bought the property it was advertised in the paper as “for sale as is.” Someone before them had purchased it with the intent to restore it but had not gotten very far.
The property came with a giant trash pile in the front yard and a house that was torn up inside. “It was in very bad shape,” Whitworth says. They had to redo all the plumbing and electrical, and they restored many of the architectural details.
“We wanted something unusual, but we were not looking for a major renovation project,” Whitworth says. “Neither of us had a hammer or a screwdriver.”
It’s been a 24-year project, one that Whitworth says never will be done.
Here are some of the features you’ll see on the tour:
Completely re-envisioned landscaping
Whitworth hired landscape architect James David to draw up the original plans to somehow make sense of the five-house property with two driveways. He came up with creating one circular driveway that united the homes and re-created a millstone to be a focal point in the center of the driveway. Landscape architect Curt Arnette designed a rock wall similar to the stacked rock wall found on the property to encircle the property.
No door the same
All the doors on the property are completely different in size, height and style. They came from Hardin’s search all over Central Texas for architectural elements. While Whitworth doesn’t know the story behind many of the doors, she does know that in the foyer, one of the doors was from the telephone company.
Bric-a-brac all over
Hardin loved interesting architectural details, especially wood details.
“There’s just bric-a-brac all over,” Whitworth says. “… There’s just little pieces of carved wood everywhere. Wherever Ernest Hardin could see a place to put some, he would.”
You’ll find wood details in a doorway downstairs that came from a church in East Austin. Downstairs, a spiraled wood pillar has been added to the wall.
Making it fit
Hardin pulled wainscoting off of an Abner Cook house and brought it into his foyer. Some of the workmanship shows of Hardin’s do-it-yourself spirit, before that was a thing.
Hardin also took square porch columns, cut them into slices and turned them into siding for the office wall.
A checkered history
When the Driskill Hotel was going through a renovation, the old green slate and white marble checkerboard tiled floor became available. Hardin took it and put the slate tile in the foyer and downstairs family room, and the marble floor in the dining room downstairs.
Ironwork all over
Hardin picked up many different pieces of ironwork from Abner Cook’s homes and added it to his home. That ironwork can be found in the back porch railings that overlook the grotto where the creek once was. It’s also been added to windows in the front of the house.
A garage full of treasures
Hardin’s treasure hunting resulted in many, many pieces of wood details, ironwork and other salvaged elements stored in the garage. Inside that pile of salvaged pieces in the garage, Whitworth found three cornice pieces that fit perfectly in the three windows in the guest bedroom of the foyer. In that way, Whitworth has continued Hardin’s tradition of adding architectural details.
Finding treasures in the garden
In addition to finding a gate, stone wall and steps, Whitworth has uncovered different elements throughout the property. Hardin kept doves and created a columbary out of two wagon wheels and an oil drum. After they found it in the garden, they posted it to the front driveway, hoping that birds would return there, but none have.
Whitworth also found the head of a child statue and a column piece that now are shown off downstairs.
The animals come home
While cows no longer roam in the downstairs of Millbrook, Whitworth does have two donkeys. The donkeys arrived after a failed attempt to have peacocks. (Peacocks don’t stay where you tell them to and would wander down the street to South Lamar Boulevard. They were rehomed.)
Built solid, but with character
The walls are thick stone. Downstairs, the windowsills are 3 feet thick to accommodate the depth of the stone walls. One wall downstairs was actually built into the earth. Sometimes it grows things that fall off, and every couple of years, Whitworth has to repaint the wall again. It’s just part of living with this house.
Preservation Austin Historic Homes Tour
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 29
Where: Five Bouldin homes and the Texas School for the Deaf
Information and tickets: preservationaustin.org