This is the kind of house story I love to hear because it has a happy ending! The Wilkins-Heath House is a Victorian Cottage from the 1880s for sale in Austin’s historic Travis Heights neighborhood and boy, has it come a long way since this photo was taken.
Realtor Nanette Labastida told me the history of the house. The original homeowners were sisters Sarah “Sallie” Day and Virginia Alma Day Wilkins, who lived in it with Alma’s husband Frank and their son Rochester. Frank was a radio salesman, Alma was a housewife, and Sallie was a music teacher. Here’s a great old photo of the sisters in the yard:
As the 1920s approached, the sisters decided to build a more modern Arts and Crafts bungalow nearby and sold the cottage to the Benjamin Franklin Heath family (hence the name, the Wilkins-Heath House).
Alma’s son Rochester on the front porch:
A hundred years after it was built, the house had fallen into serious disrepair, as you can see in this photo from the mid-1980s:
But in a stroke of luck for the house, the current owner Melanie and her boyfriend Patrick, who was an architecture student at the time, were restoring the house next door and decided to rescue this one, too. Thanks to them, here’s how the cottage looks today:
They restored the original front door, and it’s a beaut. The Austin Landmark plaque hangs next to it:
“Pat was so concerned about the fate of these and other historic houses in the area that he raced to get landmark status on both this and the one next door to protect them from future demolition and development,” Nanette says. “There had only been twenty-something of these homes of the original Fairview Park development, and most of them have been torn down.”
One of their goals was to use as many eco-friendly and green products as possible: “This includes the denim insulation, solar attic fan, on-demand water heater, Marmoleum flooring, bamboo cabinets, recycled glass terrazo counter and tile shower, and reclaimed and restored wood rather than new wherever possible.”
“The wallpaper in the house was tracked down by an architectural historian and are period reproductions. They are not glued to the walls as in contemporary houses but lay on a form of cheesecloth as is customary.”
It’s hard to imagine when you see these beautifully restored rooms, but “When Melanie and Pat first saw the house, the homeowner was mainly living in the dining room with a La-Z Boy and TV with the doors closed shut and a gas heater to stay warm.”
I’m just in awe when I look at the amazing attention to detail in each of these rooms and all the work that must have gone into them.
“Pat was working on both houses, but mostly the Wilkins house at the time as it needed more stabilization, especially on the exterior siding, repairing rotted wood, stabilizing the foundation, restoring windows, restoring the widow’s walk and many other unglamorous but necessary projects, learning skills as he went.”
“Every piece of hardware, from the door knobs to the transom window cranks are original and were refurbished at Cinecast in San Francisco. No doorknob is the same, and they are made from anodized copper with a rare mottled finish.”
“The craftspeople who worked on it were the best in Austin, and they are known to others in the field and held in high esteem for their experience and passion. They include Max Evers (lead carpenter), Russell and Beckie Forsyth (contractors), Candace Volz (historic interior finishes consultant), and Peter Hausmann (Hausmann Custom Wallpapering & Decorative Finishes).”
“All the artwork hangs from the gold leaf picture moldings.”
“The woodwork throughout the interior has never been painted. The floors are long leaf pine and were refinished by Bill Breaux, who is known for the finest wood restoration in town. For any new windows and shutters that were needed, salvaged wood was used.”
Patrick and Melanie moved into the house and “roughed it” while they were working on it: “It was rustic living at its finest with no heat or air. No screens on windows, holes in the floor and rats in the chases. Many of the windows were covered with plastic. Years of cigarette smoke blackened all the tattered wallpaper except for the shapes of pictures on the walls.”
The kitchen is one of the lightest, most modern rooms in the house today:
“The kitchen features stainless appliances, zinc counters and Marmoleum flooring. The tile design was custom made based on an encaustic tile from Galveston.”
Sadly, Pat died in 2000 before the renovation was complete. “But with the help of his family and a contractor, Melanie finished the Wilkins-Heath House,” Nanette says. “The project took two years and involved many emotions for all the people who worked on it.”
A new powder room features a vintage sink and reproduction wallpaper:
Finishing the attic gave the house a lot more living space with a new bedroom and bath. A pull-down ladder leads to a viewing deck on the roof:
You can see parts of downtown Austin from the widow’s walk:
The backyard is a certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat: “Must love foxes! A family of them has lived here for generations and they can be seen at times if you’re quiet.” How cute are these guys? You can see more pics of them on the Wilkins-Heath Facebook page.
“The house never had fireplaces, only wood-burning stoves that vented out the chimneys. These were missing but have been restored and repurposed. One is now a Chimney Swift tower meant to provide nesting habitat for these endangered birds. It is sealed from the house so no need to worry about them falling through. The second is a vent for the kitchen range.”
Melanie says, “This is a special property for a special person. If you buy, we’ll be next-door neighbors. I live next door at the second landmark I’ve restored, The Alberto Garcia House. I am hoping for a cooperative, like-minded neighbor to continue preservation of this landmark home.”
I’ve got my fingers crossed that she’ll get one! Who wouldn’t want to live next-door to someone who had the vision to take a house that looked like this…
And turn it into this?
Many thanks to them for sharing this wonderful house story with us! For more photos and information, check the Gill Agency listing with Nanette Labastida, the house’s Facebook page, and designer Candace Volz’s website.
P.S. Another Victorian-era house that was restored nearby: