By Rich Heiland
For Walker County News Today
Dan Phillips sat quietly in the corner of the porch on his recently-finished “Cowboy Hat House” and soaked it all in. It was a warm, early summer Saturday morning and he and his team were hosting a community open house.
The quiet local man who has drawn attention to a small East Texas city by using what some would consider trash to build small homes, a lot of them for artists in need, is taking in good wishes, congratulations and answering questions about what he does next.
Is the Hat House, next to the Boot House on 11th Street across from 1836 Steak House, his “last rodeo?”
“Well, it’s certainly my last cowboy house. I don’t know about anything beyond that,” he said.
It’s been rumored that he was going to hang up the saw and hammer and move to the role of “tribal elder,” helping others to carry on what he started some in 1997 with his non-profit Phoenix Commotion.
“My next project will be my own house,” he said, a reference to the Avenues home he and his wife Marsha share. That’s the house they mortgaged to start Phoenix Commotion. “I’ve been kicking that can down the road for 15 years.”
He’s not quitting though.
“I still do speaking, which brings in revenue, and we are still working on Smither Park,” a reference to the Houston park the late Stephanie Smither created in memory of her husband. Phillips and his crew have been working in the park doing what they’ve always done – using recycled materials and throw-aways to create offbeat works of art.
THAT’S REALLY what a Phillips house is – a work of art. It all started out with an idea to help save the planet and starving artists. If you could build a small home out of recycled materials, often donated, foraged or purchased for a song, you could create a living space for someone without money for a conventional home. Originally part of the deal was the artists would help build the house. Over time that has become a critical part of Phillips’ mission – training others to create and build.
In the process he’s quietly made Huntsville a well-known place nationally and internationally when it comes to innovative housing and environmental sensitivity. He has been on the Today Show, done a TED Talk, been featured in the New York Times and even travelled to Italy to spread the word about what he has helped create.
At one point two small boys approached Phillips and asked him what his favorite house is. Out of the couple dozen he has built, he tells them he has trouble bringing one to mind. “They are all special in their own way,” he told the boys. Their father said, “they really like the treehouse.” Dan smiles “Ah yes, well that would be a favorite.”
Ask about the one he “built twice,” he laughs. He can do that now. Several years ago, the “Bone House” in the Avenues was almost done when, just before dawn neighbors noticed a glow coming from the house. It was on fire. The house, wood adorned with cow bones, disappeared into ashes.
Phillips was down, for about a half-hour. Friends rallied around with financial donations and moral support and the house was built – a second time. On another job site Phillips arrived one morning to find his tool trailer had been broken into and he had been cleaned out. Again, he was down, for about a half-hour. The word went out and friends and strangers showed up with tools.
BUILDING HOUSES is not Phillips first career. He has been a former rodeo bull rider, US Army intelligence analyst, dancer and dance instructor at Sam Houston State University. He and Marsha are partners in Bluebonnet Square Antique Mall as well as Phoenix Commotion.
The Hat and Boot houses are original designs by Dan. Marsha, a former art instructor, also has had a hand in the aesthetic end of the business. While this past Saturday’s open house was to highlight those two houses, two others stand on 11th Street at Oak Drive (The Pumpkin House) and Pecan Drive (The Wave House).
But, the hat and boot are the ones that jump out into the middle of the street when you drive by. Originally Dan, inspired by “Old Mother Hubbard,” had thought about a shoe house, but a friend said in Texas it ought to be a boot. The wheels started turning and once that house was done, a hat just made sense.
A whole host of materials went into the houses – recycled plastic bags, bottles, salvaged Bois D’Arc wood, salvaged granite and even toothpaste tubs and boxes. Friends faithfully saved toothpaste tubs and boxes and now they grace the ceiling of the Boot House bathroom. Previous houses featured cow bones, old beer cans, CDs, LP records, broken glass and a host of other items pulled from landfills and salvage yards.
All of the homes comply with city building codes. The 11th Street homes are owned by Pauline C. and T.E. Blackard of the Texas and Ambassador Global Group. The Blackards and AGC are longtime benefactors of Phillips’ efforts. They are renting out the houses to artists below market value as a part of their support for free-society, free-expression and artistic causes in Texas.
On this Saturday morning a steady stream of supporters and the curious flowed through the houses, including a lot of children. The children, especially, seemed fascinated by houses that seemed their size. A common comment from adults was “wow, it’s small but I could live here.”
And, both houses offer views from the top, even if it’s just of 11th Street, the Brookshire Brothers parking lot, Sonic and other businesses.
As it all wound down a small boy, who had just had a question answered, said “”thank you.” And that seemed an appropriate thing to say to the 73-year-old artist and housing revolutionary.
Links to pictures and information about Phoenix Commotion: