It’s a cold late-December morning, the kind of gray, foggy day where the sky seems to fuse itself to the horizon, the kind of cold where ponds glaze over and mittens are more than mere afterthoughts. But as I step out of my car at Laura Bartell’s Hot Springs hideaway after winding my way through the pines to a mist-covered Lake Hamilton, any notion of chill is quickly spirited away.
“Come on in; get out of this cold!” she calls over the terra cotta-tiled threshold, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Inside, the fire crackles in a red-brick hearth, and overstuffed chairs draped with richly hued textiles beckon from every corner of the airy, whitewashed living room. Piles of throws are at the ready, waiting in stacks next to nubby sofas. Footstools practically beg to be used.
And the hostess has cranberry margaritas in the fridge.
“You must be hungry, so I’ve got a couple of different things to snack on,” she says, offering two types of guacamole and a rattan bowl brimming with chips. “Here, please sit! This is the best seat—it’s got the best view.”
She’s right. Looking out at the sweeping vista, with the lake filling the foreground just 14 feet beyond the window, and with the blue mounds of the Ouachitas and the prickly green of pines layered in the distance, you know immediately that this is a special place. One of the first homes built on Lake Hamilton, “the lake house,” as Bartell calls it, is a relaxed retreat that’s been used by five generations of Bartell’s family, a close-knit clan who value family, far-flung adventures and honest-to-goodness Southern hospitality. But it’s only when you shift your gaze inside, taking in the well-worn leather chairs and Mexican textiles, African masks and shadowboxes filled with faded photos, that the lake house takes on added significance. Taken together, the tokens dotting the walls and lining the shelves indicate that this is more than a place to get away—it’s a hub of family history.
“My grandmother Jenks, who built this house, used to say, ‘There’s nowhere prettier than right here,’” Bartell says, blue eyes fixed on the lakeshore beyond. “And I really believed her because she said so, and she was a pretty wise person, and also because she’d traveled all over the world. I used to ask her, ‘What was China like? What was Africa like?’ She was pretty into traveling through central America, as you can see.”
Following Bartell’s gesture, you can see Jenks’ adventurous spirit on virtually every surface of the space, which is precisely what Bartell intended visitors to see when they walked into the home that she has been restoring since coming back to Arkansas from New York City three years ago. The lake house was well-loved and well-used but hadn’t been updated since it was built in the 1940s. She wanted to breathe new life and functionality into the space as a gift to her family, while maintaining the rustic ease and casual chaos that all who visited knew and loved. “I viewed it as a preservation project,” she says, “a museum exhibit of sorts.” For the Parsons School of Design grad, who spent years working for big-name firms with bigger-name clients in Manhattan, the lake house spruce-up would be a huge departure from the unlimited budget custom-designed projects she was accustomed to. But she also knew her design philosophy would stay the same.
“I’m a chameleon; I’ve done a bit of everything,” Bartell says. “I truly believe that you don’t put a stamp on it. You listen to the person and their needs and build the interior as a visual biography around them.”
Following that philosophy, Laura first addressed the “need-fixes,” ripping up flooring and updating wiring, tearing out bathrooms and updating the galley kitchen. From there, it was all about building that visual biography, which she accomplished by amassing a gathering of sentimental treasures and artifacts that would not only speak to the memories made over six decades in the lake house, but to the vast troves of stories behind the family who made them.
“I could hog all your time talking about Jenks,” Bartell says as she leads me from room to room, umbrella-topped drink in hand. She tells me how her grandmother earned her nickname at Camp Joyzelle, a storied girls camp that now rests at the bottom of Beaver Lake. She tells me that Jenks went to college at 16, that she taught Bill Clinton in grade school, that she invented ready-made biscuit mix, but her lawyer died before she got the patent. She tells me the story of Jenks she and her best friend, Rose, hid excitedly under a table in a general’s home during the El Salvadoran revolution on one of their sojourns to Central America. “She believed in stretching herself, really experiencing a place—not checking into a Ritz Carlton or something,” Bartell says. “I got my travel bug from her, for sure.”
Mola fabric from Panama, African baskets and pots, embroidered Mexican pillows, framed photos of loved ones on globetrotting adventures—these are the objects Bartell used to fill the house. Whereas most of us tuck trip souvenirs and prized memories into photo albums or behind armoire doors, these treasures have become the decor at the lake house, imbuing the space with a design credence that’s equal parts Central American bazaar and grandmother’s attic. Every piece—from the checked bedspreads to the Mexican clay pots lining the kitchen shelves—has a story.
“Now that one, I got that at a little art gallery along the Garden Route in South Africa,” she says, pointing to a stunning oil portrait. “The two animal masks, I got those in Kenya on a safari. These wicker chairs were my grandparents’ on my dad’s side. … Oh, I could go on and on.” Nothing—with the exception of the imported Mexican tiles lining the floor—was purchased for the space.
“A room should tell a story about a person, create comfort and have room for spontaneity and growth,” Bartell says. “But this is a lake house—you also need to be able to flop down in a wet bathing suit and have that be OK.”
And Bartell thinks that’s just the type of feeling that Jenks would have wanted to live on in her beloved lake house. The consummate hostess, Jenks operated under a strict “mi casa es su casa” rule, a sentiment that greets each and every guest at the front door, inscribed on a tile that she picked up during one of her Mexican sojourns.
“It’s always been more about the happiness we’ve experienced here and the spirit of the place than about an interior design project, per se,” Bartell says. “It’s all sentimental and personal, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what an interior should be?”