A Different Animal

The Mythical, Magical Texas Compound Called Animal Farm

Steven Hempel. Photography Jack Thompson. Art direction Michelle AviƱa.
July 01, 2013

Follow a winding dirt road past a series of Antoni Gaudí-inspired concrete-and-stone arches, orb-shaped structures and rib-like iron sculpture, bordered by Texas roses, wild berries and native trees, and a shimmering amoeba-shaped pool surrounded by thatched chairs and Asian deities, and you have
arrived at Animal Farm in Cat Spring, Texas, just an hour from Houston. The organic farm, inspired by owners Gita and Cas Vanwoerden’s many travels, references favorite destinations New Guinea, Bali, Nepal and Tibet. The result is an incredible mix of cultures — part Tropics, part Orientalist, part Catalan, with East Texas charm, set against a backdrop promulgating natural living and proximity to nature. The hallmarks of the 18th-century master architect Gaudí — organic stylings, twisted iron sculpture, undulating shapes and pops of colored glass and mosaics — are all here, made more extraordinary by the reclusive surround of native trees and plants.

The story of Animal Farm began a little over 20 years ago, when the Vanwoerdens purchased 67 acres in Cat Spring, just south of Bellville. What began as a small garden for the kids turned into a dynamic organic farm that provides produce for some of Houston’s and Austin’s most progressive restaurants. It also became the seed to launch Urban Harvest’s East Side Farmers Market in Houston, and the Vanwoerdens are founders of a continuing education program that promotes environmental stewardship.

Gita Vanwoerden, who was born in Israel and grew up in South Africa, along with husband Cas, moved to Houston some 30 years ago and later purchased the Cat Spring property as a weekend getaway to enjoy nature and ride horses with their three children. They began plans to build a treehouse in 1991 with Pete Dickson, who helped design and construct the primary structure. The couple took over Dickson’s responsibilities in 1993 and designed and hand-built a three-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot home made almost exclusively of recycled woods and locally sourced hardwoods and pine. This was followed by an indoor/outdoor kitchen and dining room-cum-Learning Center, guest cottage, pool and pool house, a second residence for workers, root cellar and an enlarged barn for washing and packing produce.

The Vanwoerdens’ residence at Animal Farm is open and spacious; large windows flood the living area with natural light in a conscious effort to connect the homeowners to the outdoors. The interior features unfinished woods, high ceilings and a collection of carved- and turned-wood furniture chosen during their travels. A large deck wraps the structure almost in its entirety. The overhanging roof shades the deck from direct sun and slopes to provide an optimum mounting surface for a series of solar panels, which supply much of the power. The main living area is raised eight feet from the ground, giving the home its treehouse connotation while taking advantage of the prevailing southern breeze and cooling the home on all but the hottest of days.

But Animal Farm is much more than just a home. The grounds host a number of impressive structures, all designed and built by the Vanwoerdens. Common throughout is the use of a material called flying concrete, which allows for free-form structures to be created from materials harvested from the farm. Throughout the grounds are arches, cottages and gazebos, as well as hand-wrought stone and mortar fences that demarcate various working areas.

It’s important to note that Animal Farm is in fact a working farm. What began as a simple hobby garden has grown into a true organic farm harvesting produce year-round for Houston restaurants such as Monica Pope’s Sparrow, Benjy’s, Local Foods, Haven, Sorrel, Roots, Oxheart and Uchi. Thus began what would become a series of longstanding culinary relationships with pioneering chefs. Environmentally conscious, sincere and progressive, the farm has become an important component of the local restaurant scene and continues to promote the farm-to-table movement. Later this fall, the Vanwoerdens will host dinners by Uchi, Sorrel, Oxheart and The Pass & Provisions. With summer in full bloom, they are harvesting fresh peas and beans, squash, squash blossoms, carrots, radishes and turnips, along with their specialty baby greens, which they grow year-round. You can find these wonders at Urban Harvest’s East Side Farmers Market every Saturday morning. As the Vanwoerdens continue to cultivate heirloom, organic and innovative produce, promote awareness of local producers and the food we eat, and craft their utopian compound, we, dear readers, reap the benefits.