1 house, many voices
From one creative woman to another, Austin home overlaid with personality
Jackie Gaer sees the potential for art everywhere.
She’s the sort of person who chooses a kitchen color based on the underside red hue of a eucalyptus leaf (as she did in her last house); she’s the kind of artist who takes a photo of a stripped concrete floor mottled with spoiled carpet because it reminds her of an Olaf Eliasson painting (as she did in this one).
It’s that instinct for the contemplative and that uncanny ability to envision form within chaos that drew Gaer to Molly Ivins’ South Austin house just months after the beloved writer’s death — and before the property could even be put on the market in 2007. “I knew right away that I needed this place,” says Gaer, “and perhaps it needed me.”
Recently widowed, and visiting her granddaughter who was a student at the University of Texas, Gaer had trudged through Ivins’ overgrown yard (a veritable Amazon of a secret garden, as she describes it) to look through the windows of Ivins’ house. A friend who had heard the house might be for sale had suggested they stop by to take a look.
Gaer, formerly from England, but a longtime resident of Northern California, was irrevocably enchanted. “It was so hospitable,” she said. “I could feel something intelligent and welcoming emanating from the walls.” That afternoon, she put down the earnest money — and within a few days Gaer sealed the deal. She returned to California merely to pack up
‘I knew right away that I needed this place and perhaps it needed me.’
and return to Austin.
Wishing to preserve the spirit of the house, in honor of Ivins and all those famous Final Friday gatherings, Gaer was determined to merely nip and tuck the place — to keep the vestiges of its history alive, while adding her own defining layers of life. “I’ve never been one for making plans. I’ve always managed to wing it,” says Gaer, a well-known clothing designer and seamstress, who was married to screenwriter, painter and film producer Paul Gaer (of “Electric Horseman” fame, among others). Nonetheless, she realized that she would need a keen and ego-free architect to gently deconstruct the house in order to revive it. “I wanted a problem solver — a creative person who didn’t feel the need to leave their stamp, someone who would appreciate the house as much as I.”
She found Sherri Woolley Ancipink, an architect who was inspired by the structure’s midcentury ranch style bones, history and partyhearty energy, and was committed to letting those traits sing. Joining forces with builder Bill Moore (who owned the house before Ivins), the trio collaborated to add flow to the house in some places and privacy in others — and to make the house “well” again. “Structurally, we did very little, but we did manage to open some spaces and redefine others. We played with light and picture windows; we invoked the outdoors and brought it in.” And they spiffed the place up, adding new finishes and hardware, floors and wall coverings. “We took it one step at a time,” says Gaer. “It was a bit like playing with a Rubik’s Cube.”
“The house,” Ancipink says, “is like a pinwheel.”
With the living room as the hub, rooms and common spaces spiral out like the appendages of a star: an atrium one direction, the master bedroom another, a hallway leading to the guest room to the east, a screened-in porch behind the living room and an area facing north that includes the kitchen, dining and sitting room. They removed a wall to expand some areas that felt dark and cramped in Ivins’ time, but added a nook and moved a doorway to delineate and refine other spaces.
The most successful is the screened-in porch. What had been a portion of the largish living room (albeit with a higher ceiling) and which abutted the back garden, the screened-in porch became its own clearly marked space. Fitted with glass doors that allow the two rooms to unite or be separated, the porch now celebrates the verdant outdoor area, bringing it indoors to infuse the interiors with natural light. Acting as a threshold to the outside, the room feels like both an interior and an exterior living space, somehow simultaneously copious and segmented, intimate and grand. A natural stone floor dotted with glass tiles adds elegance, while a fireplace with a mantel made from stone quarried in Florence pronounces gravitas. A mirror found by Gaer at a flea market crowns the effort.
With a personality and presence as deeply etched and powerful as Ivins’, though manifested utterly distinctly — and perhaps more subtly — Gaer has filled her house with a lifetime of meaningful possessions.
She has arranged each space with an artistic élan that seems intuitive, making every room a textured narrative ripe with the muse. The atrium, for example, overflowing with plants and a fountain, she calls her “little Morocco.” Indeed, it’s a mysterious alcove of sorts, accented with Alcazar-style lanterns, palm trees and Moorish frames. The guestroom, also Moroccan in mood, has a window that looks into the greenhouselike space. “I tell my grandchildren, ‘You shall awaken to a jungle when you stay with me,’ ” she says, acknowledging the element of fantasy she has created.
Likewise, the hallway that leads to the guestroom from the main house is painted a deep taxi cab yellow, which catches the sun and casts it back into the house. A low table made from slick Perspex sits on a furry, white rug. Walls in various green and blue colors, redolent of springtime eggshells, harmonize the house as a whole. Popping from them are dramatic paintings and artwork, mostly made by her husband, but also by painters such as Ed Gilliam. Shelves and cases — in the kitchen, living room, bedrooms, family room — boast items arranged like vignettes, all intimating a story yearning to be told.
Find such things as: a bird’s nest, an antique fan, seashells, vintage photos, cigar boxes, children’s art, myriad spools of thread in a jar. Some shelves hold countless, folded squares of velvet, silk, taffeta arranged by shade and hue; others show statuettes of recurring themes — such as owls and pussycats, paper from unpacked boxes arranged as textural sculpture and pointed colored pencils at alert attention in a vase.
Even her roomy closet is a play on textures, an untold story, exhibiting examples of some of her favorite creations, such as a jacket and outerwear designed for musicians — think Journey’s Steve Perry, among others.
And the garden, whimsical and free-spirited like the house, exudes barely contained, yet certainly evident, creative order with its Italian pines, rhododendrons, wisterias, hydreangeas and antique roses all set along meandering pathways that encircle the house.
Nobody can fill Ivins’ shoes. And, of course, Gaer, making Ivins’ house her own, doesn’t even try. Instead, she transforms it to her tune, never forgetting that it had a past and is full of voices. She adds her voice to the mix.
The outdoors come inside in the atrium, which Gaer calls her ‘little Morocco.’ Moorish accents help carry through the theme.
Jackie Gaer says she ‘could feel something intelligent and welcoming emanating from the walls’ of Molly Ivins’ former home.
One change that succeeded particularly well, both owner Jackie Gaer and architect Sherri Wooley Ancipink say, is the screened-in patio, formerly part of the living room but now its own space, bridging the indoors and lush green outdoors. The fireplace mantel uses stone quarried in Italy.
Pathways meander around the house, edged with Italian pines, hydrangeas, antique rosebushes and other shrubs and plants. The home was formerly owned by writer Molly Ivins.
Spaces such as the open kitchen and dining area and a sitting room spiral off the living room; ‘the house is like a pinwheel,’ says architect Ancipink. Artwork and possessions that carry personal meaning establish the personality of owner Gaer.
Collections of fabric from many years of designing fill Jackie Gaer’s shelves. Other ledges hold personal items and mementoes from an antique fan to colored pencils corralled in a vase.