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Heart of the City

This couple is keeping Austin’s most beautiful historic properties alive.

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There is a small, somewhat secret club in town, a sort of fraternity for the bohemian set. There are no meetings, and most members are only revealed to one another when asked a single question: “Do you live in a Barkley House?”

The Barkley Houses are beautifully restored, mostly pre-war properties peppered throughout Central Austin in neighborhoods like Cherrywood, West Campus, and Clarksville. Their inhabitants vary from eager graduate students to renowned artists and filmmakers to families drawn to the aesthetic of early 20th century architecture. Before we go any further, I should disclose that I am a member of this club. I have lived in a Barkley House since 2013 when I walked into one of their apartments and saw original hardwood floors, 1930s vintage hardware, and a black and white bathroom filled with vintage white tile. I instantly knew I was home.

And I am not alone. For nearly four decades, hundreds of Austinites have been proud members of the Barkley House club. Owned and operated by John and Medora Barkley, a couple who have called Austin home since the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, the properties are as much a reflection of their owners as they are of our city’s history.

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Like most good ideas, it was never John Barkley’s intention to become a bellwether of Austin’s hippest neighborhoods. If things had gone according to plan, John Barkley probably wouldn’t live here at all. The son of a farmer, John originally came to Austin to attend St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. After graduation, he studied furniture design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and earned a degree from Vassar College. “I had applied for a fellowship to go study in Japan, and didn’t get it,” says John, who wanted to study furniture making with Japanese masters. “I didn’t want to use my savings for that, so I came back to Texas and got a job working in the oil field.”

An accident took him out of the oil field, and by the late 1970s, he was working with a friend to restore old houses on Lake Buchanan. “We worked our butts off and I ended up with more money than I needed for this Japan idea,” explains John. “I had come to understand something about these houses I was working on [in Lake Buchanan].” And so when they returned to Austin, his friend bought a Porsche and John bought a duplex in Cherrywood.

John moved into the ground floor, rented out the top, and began restoring his new home. Just as he was getting ready to finally head to Japan, the duplex next door came up for sale and he snapped it up. “I just liked the way they looked,” he says. “They were sturdy.”

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This cycle continued for the next three years. John would make plans to go to Japan only to see a must-have property pop up in the neighborhood. With renters in place, John was able to buy the properties that attracted him, the houses, cottages, and apartments that were often looked over by other buyers, but in which John saw the good bones and impeccable attention to detail that made them different from the more modern homes nearby. “Wood-frame houses with a lot of lumber, well-built, windows that opened onto yards with trees, [these are] the kinds of things that appeal to me,” he says. Plus, in the late 1970s John Barkley already had an idea about the future of the city. “I was thinking I really liked Austin, Austin was a really cool place, and it was getting to be changing,” John says. “Traffic was already getting to be a problem, and I realized because of that it was going to put pressure on the inner city.”

Over the next decade, John continued to work long hours renovating and managing properties, stopping only to sleep or grab breakfast at Trudy’s on 30th Street. He drove to places like Gonzales in search of original parts. With all his work, Barkley Houses continued to attract students, artists, and creatives from Austin’s booming bohemian subculture.

“I was working on all of this myself, I wasn’t interested in more modern ‘60s and ‘70s stuff,” he says. “Because of that inclination, I ended up in these older neighborhoods with these inner city houses, and the people that liked those houses and wanted to rent them from me were kinda like me and had the same aesthetics and values.” Those “people” include local artists, renowned filmmakers, and more than a few writers (ahem). The Barkley Houses’ Guadalupe Street offices are filled with artwork given to them by tenants, and the company even calls on Austin artist Jennifer Chenoweth (another former resident) to help pick out paint colors.

By the late 1990s, Austin was changing, and so too was John’s personal life. In 1998, he was set up on a blind date with the sister of his friend. A Laredo native, Medora had grown up about 90 miles away from John. As their relationship unfolded, the pair discovered they had more in common than their South Texas roots. Despite running in the same circles, both being in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, and attending a bamboo festival here in Austin, they had never met. “Soon after we met we started working together,” says Medora. They married shortly after and welcomed a daughter, Eleanor, in 2008.

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Over the past 17 years, the couple has kept the business a family affair. With only a very small, tightly-knit staff, John is still a familiar face to Barkley dwellers, and is often the first to respond to requests to make repairs. Though they have all but stopped buying properties, when a can’t-miss house becomes available, they pay attention. In the fall when a 1916 German made duplex on Speedway came on the market, John raced over to see it. Says Medora, “He called me and said, ‘Honey, you’ve got to come see this.’” I hadn’t heard him like that in a long time.” They made an offer, and a few days later that Speedway duplex was a bonafide Barkley House.

While there may not be many new additions to the Barkley Houses roster, John and Medora say they will continue to maintain their properties. Almost 40 years after John purchased that first Cherrywood duplex, Austin has transformed from a small city into a booming metropolis with major housing issues spanning from downtown to the city limits. The Barkleys say they are thinking of ways to help combat those issues, whether through partnerships or infilling. However they choose to do it, it will be with the same sense of history and respect for beautiful spaces that make a Barkley House a home.

Credits

Photography by Jessica Pages

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