House of the rising sunPublished 9:19am Wednesday, April 30, 2014
After 30 years living in Japan, Peggy Keener has instilled a culture she loves into her Austin home
Peggy and Glen Keener are ready to settle down after their 28th move.
Peggy, who grew up in Austin, was ready to settle back in town in a lovely Chicago-brick home in the southwest side of the city after a lifetime of adventure overseas. After all, the Keeners spent more than 30 years in Japan, and it shows as their home is full of memories and memorabilia from the whirlwind years they spent teaching English and working in the military.
“We’re settling down right here,” Peggy said. “There are so many wonderful memories here.”
For Peggy, the home was an opportunity to display the memorabilia she and Glen collected over the years, as well as to change a beautiful home to suit their needs. The home, spread over three lots, was built in the 1970s and remodeled in the ‘90s, according to Peggy. Yet when the Keeners moved in toward the end of February, Peggy knew the house would need more changes. So she spent about three weeks remodeling her new home.
Peggy took down wallpaper throughout the home and repainted it all in white, adding a simple, clean elegance to every room. She replaced the carpet in certain rooms and at one point, contractors removed a sink that sat only a few feet away from a bathroom.
“We’re not sure why that was there,” Peggy said.
Perhaps the biggest change was when the Keeners converted what used to be a sun porch into a gorgeous, luminous viewing room on the north side of the home overlooking Turtle Creek. The room, which catches the sun at almost every time of day, is also temperature controlled so the Keeners can enjoy a view of the trees or watch a little TV whenever they want.
“It’s reverse-cycle heating,” Glen explained. “It heats in the wintertime but cools in the summertime.”
The contractor raised the ceiling and added insulation throughout the sun room, while new carpet was put in and Peggy added a few touches of her own — a daruma (a large statue of the founder of Zen Buddhism, which is seen as good luck and a talisman of encouragement in Japan) here, comfortable chairs there.
“It just made no sense to me to have a room that you couldn’t use everyday,” Peggy said. “That was a concept I just couldn’t imagine.”
Peggy had the countertops and sink replaced in the kitchen and the gold-colored fixtures in the bathroom with silver, to match her sensibilities. In the basement, she decided to use what used to be the recreation room as an office and alternate guest bedroom for her grandchildren. To that end, she recreated her favorite version of a desk — a 20-foot island spanning one side of the wall.
It’s something she has put in several of her previous homes, always using kitchen desk cabinets “to get the right height.” With just four of those, she not only has foundations to hold up the two-foot island, she also has storage space and plenty of room for her sewing and writing.
She has plenty to write about, after all. She, her husband and their children went to Japan in the 1960s after Glen accepted a military contract to serve there. While Glen stayed busy, Peggy found herself as a TV personality on the NHK, Japan’s national network. She carved a career out of teaching English on TV, through radio programs, in several books and on nationwide lecture tours. Her first memoir, “Potato in a Rice Bowl,” was released in 2010 and has earned six international awards thus far. Keener is already working on her second memoir, of course.
There is a lot of inspiration inside the Keener home. Peggy can point out each large cabinet, hutch and decoration and recite its story. As she explains it, the Japanese didn’t mass produce furniture, so more often than not she either commissioned certain pieces or picked up items that are hundreds of years old. She developed a passion for pieces built from the 1860s to 1912, during the Meiji period. During that time, politicians overthrew the previous Tokugawa shogunate, a military dictatorship of sorts, and gave much of Japan’s governing power back to the imperial throne.
Under Emperor Meiji’s rule, Japan opened its borders to trade with the west after a 200-year self-imposed exile, which caused Japanese tradition to blend with Western ideals and technology in all facets of life, including carpentry.
“I think I must have lived in the Meiji Era, in a previous life,” Peggy said. “I just love things from that period.”
There are banners sewn into pillows, medical equipment and tea pots, baskets and trinkets, shop signs with bawdy backstories and ornate chests that were once filled with treasures inside the Keener residence. All of which Peggy and Glen plan to pass on one day, either to museums or to their children and grandchildren.
“There’s a lot of history in this house,” she said.
For now, Peggy and Glen are excited to be back in Austin and share their stories with the community. For Peggy, who graduated from Austin High School, there’s simply no place quite like her hometown.