Perched on a hill, Casa Cartel was a local symbol of the American dream but it had fallen into disrepair.
Abraham Kennedy immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1929. He opened a successful Tex-Mex restaurant called El Gallo and in 1975, built the 6,000-square-foot Casa Cartel, which played host to fabulous parties for local politicians. The Texas Senate even honored him with a proclamation when he died.
Kennedy’s story inspired local visionaries for decades.
“I moved down here with a crappy car and a couple thousand dollars wanting to make something of myself,” said Jantzen Matzdorff, the “Flip That House” reality TV star who purchased and restored the home,.“So I felt inspired when I heard about Abraham Kennedy going somewhere unfamiliar, working his butt off and bringing a piece of himself and his culture and his food from there — and deciding to do that here in a way that brought people together seemed like something good to aspire to.”
When the home went up for sale in 2016, Matzdorff was afraid it would be bought, demolished, and redeveloped. So he wrote a letter to the Kennedy family, asking them to sell it to him for less than the $875,000 listing price — not to flip it but to restore it, “contributing positively to the architectural fingerprint of Austin,” he said. The home is currently his primary residence, but he also hosts groups who rent the property for private events and getaways starting at $550 a night.
“With awareness of my own unique talents, I knew only a handful of people could save this property,” said Matzdorff, who said his metalworking, investment capital and fluency in Spanish gave him the tools to restore the local treasure. “It’s like a never-ending art project, working on the house,” he said.
Matzdorff visited the Kennedy family in Mexico, researching historical cultural influences that should be represented in the house. There, he collected local antiques, paintings, hand-carved wood pieces and pottery for the house. He also realized he needed to incorporate crucifixes and religious imagery into design plans.
“Having done the research, there is an inextricable interplay with design in that area of Mexico [central Mexico] and design of the cathedrals as well. It gave me a sense for the importance of that element in that area of the world. I wanted to honor that so it didn’t come off as trite or trying to pull off some appropriation. At the same time, I wanted to create a space that didn’t feel like it was forcing dogma on anyone,” said Matzdorff. To pull off that balance, he commissioned world famous muralist Curiot Tlalpazotl to create a 20-foot Mayan mural at the entrance of the home, chronicling a history of religion and mythology.
‘Place of restitution’
The original house was designed for hosting, and Matzdorff’s renovation seeks to preserve that legacy. At Kennedy’s parties, guests would enter through the central courtyard, one of seven patios. Huge doors hid the maids quarters, kitchen and dining room, and when dinner was ready, the rest of the home would be revealed. The house also was originally designed with an indoor and an outdoor bar, interconnected by a tap system, like in a bar.
Matzdorff has added modern comforts to maintain a comfortable environment for guests. Sonos speakers are wired throughout the residence, and although Matzdorff excluded televisions from the house to foster intimate connections, there is a home theater in the basement. Also in the basement, which is an uncommon feature in the Austin area, Matzdorff built a dark, candlelit speakeasy with a confessional booth.
“The house and the remodel feels not like a weighty obligation but like an immense privilege,” said Matzdorff, who partnered with Interior design studio McCray & Co. on the house and outdoor courtyards, which are filled with intricate tilework, chandeliers and explosive color.
The rental starts at $900 a night for the entire five-bed, five-bath home. When Matzdorff is in town, guests can request to be picked up from the airport in a 1969 Cadillac limo convertible, for no extra charge. If you’re a car buff, you’ll know that the 1969 Cadillac limo was never made as a convertible, but Matzdorff customized and rehabilitated the car to be one-of-a-kind. He said he likes to begin the experience at the airport as guests are transformed back in time.
“When you are here, you are in another world — because of what we’ve created, and also because the nature of the lot is a very private sanctuary. Even so, it is still downtown, and it is easy to get to everything, but it is a complete place of restitution,” he said, noting that when the time is right, he will sell the home to the right owner and move on to another fulfilling project.
Sarah Paynter is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @sarahapaynter.
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