of a time not so long ago
Words by Camille Smith Photos by Jessica Klima
On what was once a quiet corner in east Austin sits a charming house with a story to tell. Sun streams in through tall, wavy windows overlooking the lush and well-cared for garden. On the back porch, a chicken called Patsy Cline pecks at the ground, and a cat by the name of Mr. Kitty makes his presence known by letting himself in through a creaky screen door. Outside, Itty Bitty steps over bricks engraved with the word “Texas” and wraps her furry feline tail around the leg of a chair. It is a house full of light and warmth and would feel like home in any era. Today, however, Debbie Utley is preparing to say goodbye and pass on her skeleton key to a new and worthy tenant.
The house holds many quirky features and authentic patinas from years gone by. “There’s something about every room that I love,” says Utley.
The house is formally known today as the Boothe-Santa Ana House. It was built in 1895 on land that once belonged to John Robertson, the fifth mayor of Austin and a former resident of the French Legation Museum. In the time before the house was built, several liens were placed against the property in exchange for services provided, including one by H.T. Kealing, an African-American principal and the namesake of Kealing Jr. High. The home’s original owners were C.E. and Cordelia Boothe who ran a mattress manufacturing company. In 1959, it was purchased by the Santa Ana family who lovingly cared for the home for over 40 years and had the home deemed an official Austin landmark.
Eleven years ago, when Utley purchased the house, she “struggled with how to live in it.” The home had undergone few changes, and she wanted to preserve the integrity of the home while creating a more functional space for herself. She moved the kitchen from the back of the home (typical of the era) to the middle in order to create a more functional living area for modern day life. Layers of time, linoleum, and paint were peeled away on the walls and floors to expose the original woodwork. Behind the grit and grime of 100 years past, the majestic bead board uncovered in her bedroom revealed character and history. The house holds many quirky features and authentic patinas from years gone by.
“There’s something about every room that I love,” Utley says, and it is easy to see why. The original window sashes open up in such a way to maximize airflow, and every nook glows with sunlight. Maintaining original features, the home still shows off its original front door, pine floors and much of the original hardware. The intricate solid-core door displays a turning doorbell, which still rings with charm. Its ornament is one-of-a-kind. In her renovations, Utley used salvaged pieces and maintained the historical authenticity of the home. In fact, her closet and bedroom features large windows restored and reclaimed from Pease Mansion.
Utley came to this area for some peace and quiet, but today hordes of SXSW attendees clamber by, and there’s a never-ending drone of music in the distance. The neighborhood dynamic has changed, as has Austin in general. Utley says she has lost sight of the Austin she once knew. She wants so badly to pick up her beautiful house and plop it down in the country somewhere, but the badge of historical significance decrees it must stay where it’s always been.
When she purchased the home, Utley was able to meet the Santa Ana family and was bestowed with the home’s original paperwork: a handwritten deed, scrawled in tiny, meticulous handwriting and, of course, a skeleton key. While she is considering bequeathing the crumbling deed to an Austin museum, she is searching for someone worthy of inheriting her skeleton key. Utley has poured her energy and time into the house and wants the new tenant to be mindful of the historical significance and respect the house’s personality.
While Utley may be leaving for greener pastures, the house will remain, as will several houses in the area that bear the emblem of an Austin landmark. The Boothe-Santa Ana home, and others like it, will endure as evidence of Austin’s formative years and serve as majestic reminders of times not so long ago.
Scott Hayes, Broker Associate