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Shell Shocked

An expressive property in Old West Austin

Written by Ethne Clarke
  • John Granen

    Every house has a story to tell, but the unique decoration inside and outside this century-old Austin bungalow is more than usually the result of the residents’ personal history. Indeed, what started life as a duplex built by two gentleman ranchers to house themselves and their wives when they came to the city is now one of the most expressive properties in Old West Austin.  "We’ve been absolutely ruthless with this little house," notes Berthold Haas, who with his wife, Emily Tracy, have been living in the house for the past 10 years. "I don’t think there is a surface we haven’t engaged."

    Berthold built the ersatz palm trees at the street gate using "holey stone," as the native karst rock is nicknamed. These perforated lumps of limestone litter the ground in areas throughout the Hill Country. "I made the front grotto first," he explains, "but then I suggested to Emily that she add a shell mosaic. The dynamic between the formal shell centerpiece and the informality of the rough-hewn look of the karst stone surround is especially pleasing."

    Photography: John Granen
    Text by Ethne Clarke

    Landscape design: Berthold Haas Design, 618 Lavaca St., Suite 11, Austin, TX 78701; 512/236-9645, bertholdhaasdesign.com.
    Shell art: Emily Haas, Shells on Twelfth, 512/740-1668, shellsontwelfth.com.

  • John Granen

    Years ago, Emily came across a book, Shell Chic, by Marlene Hurley Marshall (Storey Books, 2002) about decorative techniques and projects using shells. "The beauty and purity of natural forms had always sustained me, and I recognized that shells had always given me pleasure." Three years ago she took a road trip to Florida’s Sanibel Island to attend the Shell Fair, which is held annually during March. Now, Emily admits, "I’d rather buy a shell than eat. I’m a complete shellaholic."

  • John Granen

    The front garden's spectacular shell grotto.

  • John Granen

    The bungalow's decorative saga that began with the fireplace continued when Emily's first shell piece was added to Berthold's mantel. "It needed something, so I started with the framed mirror but ended up covering the whole thing." The attraction of the glistening, light-reflective surfaces found on the polished shells soon extended to other aspects of Emily's collecting and design life. These are brought together by a meticulously arranged interior, set off by the saturated paint colors on the walls and the silken brocades and old lace used on soft furnishings. "The house is entirely Emily's work," says Berthold. "I really have nothing to do with it."

  • John Granen

    A detail of the fireplace.

  • John Granen

    Next to the grotto is Emily’s boudoir dans le jardin, a tester bed frame also embellished with shells. Many Austin homes feature outdoor sleeping areas, with beds outfitted in comfortable mattresses, colorful throws, and stacks of pillows—throwbacks to the days before air-conditioning replaced open windows.

    "Gardens are for relaxing in, but we never do," says Emily with a note of regret. "So the bed is there to remind us," chides Berthold. And, perhaps as a further nudge to taking five, he added a seating alcove complete with a wood-burning fireplace and a vivid blue surround decorated with gold mosaics.

  • John Granen

    Detail of a shell-covered chest of drawers.

  • John Granen

    In the garden behind the house there's another, larger grotto with a koi-filled pond as its base. Space has also been found for two more sitting areas and Emily's studio. Every surface is covered with shells waiting to be used. "It's how I stay in shape," claims Emily, "moving shells around!"

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