Commodore Perry Estate ready to set social sail
Michael Barnes, Out & About
Aprediction: Within the next few years, virtually every Austin charity will throw a party at the newly revitalized Commodore Perry Estate at East 41st and Red River streets. So, too, scores of brides and grooms dreaming of a picture-perfect wedding will vie to make their vows among the estate's terraces, gardens and fountains.
Your social columnist has attended enough parties to know what hosts seek. First, the right amount of space, indoors and outdoors. The grand 10,800-square-foot Perry Mansion sits on a 10-acre wooded estate overlooking Hancock Golf Course, just 10 minutes from downtown. The pièce de résistance is a rescued formal garden ringed by graceful esplanades. A restored, Gothic-inspired chapel — attention brides! — is available for rental, while a half-dozen surrounding structures await either renovation or demolition.
Party hosts also need support spaces. The mansion houses a large kitchen complex that will undergo a more complete renovation when the owners, led by developer and filmmaker Clark Lyda, put in a proposed culinary center and restaurant. Nearby sit rooms once occupied by six live-in servants. Informal parking is available on the estate's lowlands near the headwaters of Waller Creek. Some of that land is slated for urban gardens.
Finally, hosts want character. The Italian Renaissance Revival mansion is loaded with character, historical and otherwise.
This week, two invitation-only parties reintroduce the estate to Austinites. Some guests will remember the cluster of buildings as a school. Since the 1940s, the former home of Edgar Howard "Commodore" Perry and his wife, Lutie Perry, housed St. Mary's Academy (the city's oldest parochial school), Holy Cross High School, Christian Academy of Austin, Town-Country School, Sri Atmananda Memorial School and the Griffin School. Several microscopic schools currently employ the estate's classroom building and former bowling alley.
Other Austinites will recall huge flings at the mansion, including one for the late Gov. Ann Richards, another for a designer showcase in the 1980s that left the place with some unfortunate wallpaper, light fixtures and window treatments.
Tall, thin and bespectacled, Lyda looks like an architect and speaks with arid wit about the project that has captured his imagination for decades. He actually attended school on the grounds in the 1970s.
"I had a strange fixation with this real estate," says Lyda, who, with business partners, once owned the disorienting Austin Opera House complex in South Austin, and still maintains the Monument Cafe and Monument Market in Georgetown. "It's an odd duck. ... Everything is off-kilter."
A wealthy cotton trader who made his fortune in Taylor and Austin, Edgar Perry — not to be confused with the early American naval leaders — was determined to enjoy his adoptive city and make it better. From the Austin Country Club, now Hancock Golf Course (which once included the land where Hancock Center now sits) Perry noticed an old gravel pit across the street. He first built decorative stone walls around it and turned the enclosed land into sunken gardens that Lyda and crew excavated, saving or rebuilding the brick walks, fountains and walls. Later, an adjacent dairy farm was added to the property.
The 1928 hilltop mansion, designed by Dallas architect Henry Bowers Thompson, looks like a cross between an English country home and an Italian villa. There, the Perry family entertained Austin's prominent civic and business leaders, some cultivated through the Austin Club, which Edgar Perry founded.
One story puts a young Congressman Lyndon Johnson in a meeting with Perry and Austin Mayor Tom Miller at the mansion to confirm Perry's role as head of the new Austin Public Housing Authority, among the first of its kind in the nation.
Perry — his joking rank was related to his houseboat, lost in one of Austin's many floods — also developed suburban tracts and downtown towers, including the Perry-Brooks Building, now condos, and the Commodore Perry Hotel. In 1944, the Perry family moved into the Driskill Hotel when the estate became too unwieldy for an aging couple. Lyda tells of a spoiled, freewheeling adult Perry son whose rooms inside the mansion outstripped his father's. One can only imagine the scandalous rumors that raced up and down the back stairs, miniature elevator and handy dumbwaiter.
The upstairs rooms will not be open for this week's parties, but no matter. The walnut-paneled, oak-floored public spaces — the renovations were overseen by architect John Volz — are quite welcoming and opulent enough.
One particular addition to the complex is a long way from reopening: A midcentury hall formerly clad in glass that served as a school library and someday could become a restaurant.
The first wedding is scheduled for February. To that bride and groom: "mazel tov!" You are now part of history.