Blessed by impeccable weather on Sunday, supporters of the new Flower Hill Urban Homestead Museum, located at the old Smoot estate on West Sixth Street, gathered on the front porch of the 1877 home that rises on a slope just west of the Julian Gold store in the Old West Austin neighborhood.
The museum’s director, Robin Grace Soto, welcomed several dozen folks with the self-reliance creed of the Smoots, three generations of educators and public servants who lived here: "Eat it all/Use it up/Save it for the best/Wear it out/Work to earn/Do without."
As early as the 1950s, while she still lived in the two-story house filled with family furniture, décor, books and memories, Jane Smoot, who died in 2013, tried to preserve the estate as a house museum. After protracted legal battles and multiple efforts to find a public role for the house and its extensive gardens, the Flower Hill Foundation is giving limited tours of the astonishingly well-preserved interiors and grounds. The general public can book tours starting in 2020.
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Self-evident to the naked eye, Flower Hill still needs a good deal of work along with the money it takes to improve and keep up a 142-year-old house. Among the challenges most discussed among the opening-day crowd are the large white columns — among the only parts of the estate most passersby can spot from the street, other than the terraces of blossoms in the spring — that were added to the Italianate brick original and tend to overwhelm it visually.
The house has not been without activity during the past few years. Resident artists have created works inspired by the natural and man-made settings. Volunteers led by foundation trustee John Plyler have tended the grounds and preserved the detailed interiors, while Soto spent many months organizing the Smoot family archives.
Why the emphasis on "urban homestead"? Because the Smoot land was once more extensive and included a small lake and space for livestock. Back in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, many if not most Austinites grew or raised a good portion of their food.
"Miss (Jane) Smoot always used to say when you encounter a challenge it is best to go through it, not around it," Soto said. "Well, this house saw her and her family through countless challenges. It carried them through. It sheltered them. It as seen its share of bounty and scarcity and, for a very short period of time, this house stood alone, without a family — which I imagine was the hardest time. And all of you arrived and you dedicated your time and your talent to its preservation and that journey is not over. It is just beginning."
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During the ceremony, the house’s first artist in residence, Valerie Fowler, presented an long, enchanting painted scroll slowly unfurled like a 19th-century "moving panorama," or what is called by enthusiasts a "crankie" because of the way it is manipulated.
"There is something we invite you to say as a form of greeting to this magical space," Soto said. "It is a tradition among the Flower Hill board and volunteers that when we enter the space we shake hands with it, we say hello. So when we cut the ribbon please join us in saying with all the joy and love in your hearts that you can muster: ‘Hello Old House, Hello Miss Smoot.’"