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Owner Mike McAdams Turns a '40s-era Fishing Camp into
 the Award Winning Lake Austin Spa Resort
By Christopher Wynn, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 3, 2008 - If there's such a thing as a nature reserve for humans, it might look something like Lake Austin Spa Resort.

Guests clad in sandals and fluffy white robes pad through gardens lined with fragrant lavender, rosemary and mint. A row of rustic cabins overlooks the meandering river and backdrop of tree-covered hills that Texans can be excused for calling mountains.

Up another path, past two swimming pools and across a tumbling creek, is a state-of-the-art spa that trades Zen trappings for pure Southern comfort -- sun porches, rocking chairs, even Texas State Fair blue-ribbon quilts.

That's exactly how owner Mike McAdams planned it. Like the wizard hiding behind the curtain, McAdams has discreetly worked his magic here. Pine-paneled rooms are filled with mismatched antiques and art he scavenged in markets from Paris to Dallas: a Chinoiserie mirror, oilcans turned into lamps, hand-crocheted coverlets, vintage cookie jars, an old cricket table repurposed as a nightstand.

McAdams' hand extends even to the grounds, where the herb garden's centerpiece is an old cast-iron Louisiana sugar kettle (so heavy it broke an axle on the truck used to haul it to Texas), and fresh rosemary he had planted is used for everything from penne positano served in the resort cafe to body-scrub treatments in the spa.

It's an impressive makeover for a '40s-era fishing camp that's gone through multiple evolutions over the decades -- nudist colony, rodeo ranch, fat farm -- and has now achieved golden status under McAdams' touch.

This spring, Lake Austin Spa Resort earned kudos as the No. 1 destination spa in North America in the Conde Nast Traveler readers' poll (McAdams likens this to winning an Academy Award). That was followed in June by a Best Vacation Spa nod from the readers of Allure.

These are heady affirmations for McAdams, who took on the project in 1997 with best friend and former LSU roommate Billy Rucks, after both corporate warriors decided they needed a change of pace.

McAdams calls it his Green Acres moment: Some men buy a sports car during a midlife crisis; he bought a Hill Country resort.

It wasn't a complete stretch. The well-pressed Dallasite had spent 13 years with Trammell Crow, brokering commercial real estate deals and later honing his makeover chops as president of Trammell Crow Design Centers, where he pioneered the controversial idea of trade showrooms opening to the public.

McAdams had even channeled his decor savvy into the renovation of the Highland Park Georgian he shares with partner Eric Paulson, and, more recently, the couple's historic garden mansion near downtown Santa Fe.

Of course, redoing a house is one thing; tackling an aging lakeside compound is something else entirely. Early challenges ranged from a crumbling spa building and neglected cabins (one guest's foot went right through a rusted bathtub), to concrete walkways so steep and uneven that housekeeping carts routinely rolled off and crashed into the honeysuckle.

"Everything was broken," McAdams says, "right down to the ice machine."

McAdams did a comprehensive overhaul, tackling the main compound -- restaurant, library, cooking room -- and guest cabins first. Steve Henry, a native of Fort Worth and now principal designer for San Francisco firm Bamo, did the heavy lifting, but McAdams stayed hands-on. His design ideas for one row of cabins, sketched on a napkin during a plane flight, became the working blueprint.

This is a man obsessed with details. Visiting with guests on the spa's screened porch, McAdams stops mid-conversation to adjust an imperceptibly crooked lamp shade. And he jokingly calls the shortcut he had built through the spa's serpentine garden trail the "Mike McAdams Type-A path."

Renovations on the original buildings complete, he turned his eye to creating the property's crown jewel: the two-story, 25,000-square-foot LakeHouse Spa, opened in 2004.

Austin architect Robert Jackson of Jackson & McElhaney Architects fleshed out McAdams' vision of an "old barn and an old stone house connected by a modern breezeway." It took a local stonemason 10 tries to get the right combination of Austin stone for the project's exterior.

An adjacent "pool barn" makes another big splash. McAdams hired a New England company to build the structure. Massive barn doors slide open for fresh air and an enormous vaulted, beamed ceiling forms a rough-hewn canopy over the Olympic-length pool. McAdams explains: "I wanted a cathedral to swim in."

The creature comforts extend to the spa's interior, where McAdams warmed up walls with art ranging from photographs taken on the grounds by Ann Stautberg (a familiar name at Dallas' Barry Whistler Gallery) to quilts by State Fair champion Joyce Massey.

Many of McAdams' favorite pieces are in the spa's celebrated Blue Room (so named for the wall's periwinkle-washed pine walls and beadboard ceiling), where guests sip herbal tea and await their treatments. A pair of rare American needlepoints was a find through Dallas antiques dealer and friend Nick Brock. Brock says the turn-of-the-20th-century works sat in his Henderson Avenue shop for months because "nobody got them, but Mike got them right away. He has a great eye."

Brock also helped McAdams score the oil painting of a comely '20s-era flapper. Both men liked it right away because, as Brock says, the woman in the picture has "a bit of attitude."

For all Lake Austin's grandness and indulgent pampering, the resort was renovated with deliberate restraint.

McAdams credits his late mother, Sarah Jane Wadsworth, for her pivotal advice: "Just don't tear this place down and make it fancy," she told him after her first visit. "It may be ugly, but there's a lot of soul here."

It's an idea that resonated with McAdams, who spent childhood days roaming his great aunt's heart-pine Arkansas farmhouse, known as Journey's End. He still delights in memories of the "beautiful wallpapers, draperies and simple details" that made it so homey. A similar homespun charm informed the renovation of 40 guest cabins, including the Lady Bird Suite, completed early this year. The bedroom is cozy with a pair of Shaker-style beds crafted in Pennsylvania and topped by crisp white canopies. A painting by artist Otis Dozier (one of the Dallas Nine, known for their Southwest regional aesthetic) hangs near the fireplace in the connecting sitting room.

McAdams, long a fan of Lady Bird Johnson and her beautification achievements, was thrilled when the former first lady spent three nights at the spa to dedicate her namesake suite.

On the day the LakeHouse Spa opened, an emotional McAdams sat down to write a letter.

It wasn't to investors, shareholders or even his staff, but to the amazing women in his life growing up in Mer Rouge, La. -- his mother, grandmothers, aunts, all now gone -- whom he describes as "gardeners, bakers and lovers of life."

In the letter, he thanks each one for teaching him the importance of "birds, butterflies, daffodils" and a "great piece of cake." McAdams writes that these special women showed him how to "recognize the beauty in nature and the importance of surrounding yourself in an environment, both indoors and out, that makes you feel warm, nurtured and visually stimulated."

It's a mission he clearly took to heart. "If I had dreamed up something as my next career, I would never have been able to dream this."


Lake Austin Spa Resort's resident "Director of Flora and Fauna," Trisha Shirey, says McAdams had a vision of what he wanted for the spa grounds and her job was to "put plants with it." The grounds are organically maintained and include a lush herb garden where chefs and guests alike come to take clippings. Spent flowers are even dried and recycled as ingredients for dream pillows, bath teas, and salts and potpourri.

For landscaping around the guest cottages, Shirey wanted each cabin to be as distinctive outside as it is on the inside. "We have guests who love cabin 15 because the germanica blooms in the summertime, and others who prefer cabin 13, which is amazing right now, because it has Confederate jasmine that's blooming, amaryllis in the beds, and the most prolific columbine you've ever seen.

"A guest told me last week that she always leaves her gate open so people can see how beautiful her garden is. That's the best compliment you can give a plant geek."

What's her favorite planting? "That's like trying to name your favorite dog or child! But if I had to choose, I love any kind of crape myrtle, and my favorite rose is Belinda's Dream -- it's well-adapted and easy to care for with large, gorgeous blooms."

Lake Austin Spa Resort is open year-round. Rates, which include lodging, three daily meals and unlimited fitness activities, start at $1,455 for a three-night-minimum stay. The adjacent LakeHouse Spa serves resort guests as well as day-spa clients, offering more than 100 services, a swimming pool with cabanas and spa cuisine in the Aster Cafe.

Lake Austin Spa Resort

1705 South Quinlan Park Road in Austin



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