“Walk until your day gets interesting,” Rolf Potts had said in his TravelCon 2018 keynote talk. In a city whose slogan is “Keep Austin weird,” that didn’t take very long. I was in Austin, Texas for TravelCon, which happened to take place within walking distance of the O. Henry House Museum. Being both unfamiliar with the author and the city, I set out to visit the historic author’s house ready for anything- interesting or weird.
As the museum was only a few blocks from the conference hotel, I wasn’t sure my day could get that weird between the two. I found an ordinary looking place for breakfast along the way, found a seat outside along the sidewalk, and probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see Batman and female Robin walk by. I hadn’t had my morning caffeine yet and the city was already living up to its reputation. (I later learned there was a ComicCon in Austin at the same time, so at least there was a reasonable explanation for my breakfast-time apparitions.)
The O. Henry House Museum feels very incongruous with its more modern, taller downtown surroundings. If you weren’t looking for it, you almost wouldn’t notice the small yellow house set back from the sidewalk and hidden behind voluminous flowering trees. On the day I visited, however, an eye-catching poster-board sign waved gently with the wind and advertised “FREE CAKE”. Smaller lettering underneath said, “Happy Birthday O. Henry”. Apparently O. Henry’s birthday coincided with Austin Museum Day so lucky for me there was free entrance and free cake! (The funny thing was that I visited on September 23rd and Wikipedia claims O. Henry’s birthday is September 11th…)
Passing the birthday cake on the porch, I let myself through the door into the former residence. It was a four-room house with a central vestibule. Just inside the door, a soft-spoken girl dressed in an old fashioned maid’s outfit greeted visitors. She had just finished with another visitor who I saw passing into one of the side rooms as I entered, so she started her narrative over as the two of us stood in the small entryway almost face to face. She ran through a brief biography of the author and description of all four rooms.
William Sydney Porter rented this house with his wife and daughter from 1893-1895. Although he was a jack of all trades, worked several different professions throughout his life, as well as becoming a convicted embezzler from a bank where he had worked, he’s most famous for the 300+ short stories he wrote, most under the pen name, O. Henry.
Thanking the maid, I picked a room to her left to start my tour. A man in a long skirt exited as I entered and I found myself alone in what is now a library/reading room. The only furniture in the room were a couple bookcases, a table covered in books from several different decades, and a rocking chair, still moving from having been vacated recently. None looked old enough to be from the late 1800s. I fingered the books haphazardly lying on the table. Some were copies of O. Henry’s writing, others were commentaries about his stories. He’s famous for ending his stories with a surprising twist. One of the most well known is The Gift of the Magi. On the walls were framed clippings of The Rolling Stone, a short-lived humerus weekly paper he started, but it failed about a year later.
Across the hall was a bedroom. The furniture in this room were period pieces from the correct time period the Porter’s lived in the house. The placement of the furniture, however, at an angle in the middle of the room, looked more like it was on display than I imagined it would have been functionally used by a 3-person family with only four rooms. None of the rooms indicated where the family had cooked, eaten, or washed. I was slightly disappointed that this was not the type of museum where one could imagine the author actually living in the space.
The room next door contained the one piece left of original furniture from O. Henry’s time in the house. His writing desk. Reverently approaching the author’s desk, I peered over the chair at his original drawings on the desk. He had not only been a writer but a comic illustrator as well. The rest of the room contained displays about the other, more lucrative, jobs he had held in the city. This included work from his time as a draftsman, and the story of his stint as a bank teller and bookkeeper, which eventually ended in time in prison- but only after running away to Honduras, befriending a notorious train robber, writing a book, and eventually returning when he was sent word that his wife was fatally ill.
The last room I visited was set up with a temporary display about one more of the author’s talents. He was also a musician… Though the recorded sounds coming out of the instruments in the room sounded more like clattering and clanging mixed with street noises than anything I might have called music. The strangest thing in the room, however, was a gramophone with a digital photo frame sitting next to it. The frozen image in the frame had a large “play” button so I hesitantly tapped the screen. What happened next was quite surprising. While the author’s voice came through the gramophone, the lips of the portrait image on the screen began to move. The effect was quite weird and hilarious.
Exiting the museum after the short, but informative visit, I found next door was another small house museum. This one of a woman who survived the Alamo and then 5 husbands. It seems O. Henry was not the only one with an interesting story on this block. And a block away the famous Pecan Street Festival was taking place. I started walking, wondering if my day would get any more interesting or weird.
For solo female travelers:
Austin has a service similar to Uber/Lyft called Ride Austin which allows females to choose a female driver. You may have to wait a little longer to be picked up, but I found it alleviated some of my anxiety about traveling alone through the city. The money also goes back into the city, unlike Uber or Lyft, so I would recommend it to both male and females traveling in Austin.
Have you been to Austin, Texas? Are you familiar with O. Henry’s stories? Do you have a favorite author who has an interesting life story? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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