Living the Dream: We Turned a Historic Texas Home Into a ‘Luxury Boardinghouse’
Ever thought about renovating an old house or opening your own B&B? You definitely need to read this.
Livability’s Living the Dream series highlights people who are doing cool things in cool places. Today we’re featuring J. and Sara Ewing, a couple who transformed a dilapidated historic home in the charming town of Lockhart, TX, into a luxury boardinghouse called Ellison House. If you’ve ever thought about restoring an old house or opening your own B&B, you’ll definitely want to read their story.
Names: J. Ewing and Sara Ewing
Location: Lockhart, TX (about 30 miles south of Austin)
Tell us about Ellison House.
The house is an original Texas 1870’s wood-built two-story house that was home to several prominent Lockhart families in the early part of the 20th century and fell into disrepair over the last few decades. We immediately saw how the house could be converted into our luxury boardinghouse concept [the home has four private suites and a communal living room, kitchen and outdoor areas].
We bought the house in April of 2016 and opened the house to “boarders” on July 9, 2017.
What was your first reaction when you saw the house? Did you know it was "the one" right away?
The house had been for sale for about a year. Many people had looked at it and decided it wasn’t the right house due to its dilapidated state. The front door glass was broken, and anyone could walk right in to take a look around. Many people told me they did just that. But we saw the potential.
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The Ellison House sits on almost an acre, three blocks from the Caldwell County courthouse and is surrounded by natural springs. The huge yard and ramshackle old house called to us immediately. You can smell the barbecue smoking at Black’s when the breeze blows north.
We made a reckless decision to jump on the house, made an offer, and started sketching our plans to turn it into a ‘Luxury Boardinghouse.” It all fell into place.
What was your renovation experience like when you took this on? Had you ever done a project like this before?
Sara and I love to renovate and restore old houses. We have bought and remodeled a few houses in San Francisco and Austin over the years. We gravitate towards projects other people would shy away from. Our projects are often in rough shape, but the bones and shapes are there to transform into something special.
Tell us about the process for renovating and restoring a historic property like this. How long did it take? Did you run into any problems or surprises along the way?
Ellison house was completely renovated over the course of 15 months. No part of the house was untouched. We added on bathrooms for all the front rooms (they didn’t put bathrooms in houses in the 1800’s). The floors are original but required patching and repairs. A clawfoot tub that was in the house was restored and refinished and put back in the house in the Temple room upstairs.
We’ve remodeled a few old houses, but this one was on a different level. The extent of the work needed and the endless days spent getting the project done before our second daughter was born was tough.
Surprisingly, one of the more daunting aspects of this project was piecing the technology together needed to run the boardinghouse — websites, booking software, accounting and customer communication.
What was your favorite part of the process?
Buying a house is so exciting. We see the potential in dilapidated grandeur and design. The creative process and planning is fun. Sara was point on all design aspects, color choices, art and furnishings. We made decisions together about how the interior should be designed and decorated. We strived for ‘Lockhart meets Modern’ design and tried to find a good balance.
It can be humbling when you realize how much time and expense will be needed to complete the project. The time sacrifice is what you don’t prepare for.
What does a typical day look like for you now that the boardinghouse is up and running?
Now that we are in the day-to-day of managing bookings, guests, and boardinghouse maintenance the days seem to run together. It’s fun to take time to talk to the guests. We have had people from Sweden, Japan, Ireland, England and all around the U.S. come to Lockhart for barbecue and stay at Ellison House. We also can’t stop thinking about what the next project will be. Should we build a pool, expand, add more rooms or a garden?
How has being in Lockhart affected your experience? Has the community been supportive?
We’ve met so many great people and the community is vibrant and open. Many of the people who came by to see what we were doing have become close friends. One of the best parts of the experience is the people you meet. There is a special zeitgeist in Lockhart right now. A lot of creatives, artists, musicians are deciding to move 30 miles south of Austin and leave the stress and expense of the city behind. It’s an alluring proposition and it seems a lot more people are making the choice.
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What's your favorite thing about Lockhart? What makes it a great place to live or visit?
Everyone comes for the barbecue, but the town is fun to explore on many levels. Lockhart is full of magnificent old homes and the downtown area is filling up with boutique stores, vintage shops and a new brewery. We love Magic Mirror Vintage, Caracara Brewery, Robuck Antiques, Fields Stable Antiques, Rollfast Ranchwear, La Cantera Mexican Food, and Loop and Lil’s Pizza.
What advice would you give to others who are dreaming about undertaking a similar project?
Follow your passions but have an end game. Make sure you have access to the resources you need to take on a big project. It’s not just financial resources, but also the fortitude and stamina to see a multiyear effort through from start to finish.
Also, you can’t rely on AirBnB, Booking.com, VRBO, etc in small-town hospitality endeavors. We have had to build a lot of community outreach, local advertising, social media and everything else you can think of to get local buy-in and support. We spend a lot of time on marketing and promotions. In Austin you can get away with AirBnB alone, but outside of the major cities, you have to get creative to get the word out.