Restoring a 1908 home to its original glory was a “respectful exercise,” say homeowners Dominic Yap and Lin Chong of Woodland Heights. When they first saw the bedraggled property, it had been divided into three apartments, and a trio of units occupied the back yard.
After a 14-month transformation, ending last May, the house is single again and the yard is just a yard, a feature the couple’s dogs especially enjoy.
“The house was crying out for a long time,” Chong said. As they ripped out apartment-related air conditioners, mail boxes, kitchens, walls and toilets, they could almost hear their home’s sighs of relief.
Fortunately, their project “just had to bring back the beauty,” she said, “not recreate it.” That meant removing previous “improvements” and staying close to the home’s original footprint when adding a kitchen and mud room at the back of the house, with a new master suite above it.
Restoration-minded, the renovators aren’t new to epic-scale projects. Their award-winning home renovation business, FW Heritage, rescues vintage properties, primarily ones located in the First Ward.
At Preservation Houston’s 2016 Good Brick Awards, their work on two Victorian First Ward properties earned them the Martha Peterson Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the community and commitment to historic preservation in Houston.
Since their Woodland Heights project applied similar standards, quality and finesse, the renovating residents hope its transformation also will be recognized. Moreover, they’d like their Woodland Heights undertaking to inspire others in the area “to preserve and restore their homes and the history within the walls,” Chong said.
Just don’t think such projects are a breezy HG-TV kind of undertaking, she warns: “TV shows show what can be done, but not what it takes.”
LOVE IN RUINS
“We got as far as the pocket doors and fireplace and bought it,” Chong recalls. They thought it held promise as more than just another project. It would become their home.
At the time, the rejiggered property was in foreclosure. Its likely future was to be razed and redone as a commercial property because it was not located within Woodland Heights Historic District, Yap said. “We thought it was a travesty, and feared it would be torn down.”
Among their reference materials are photos of the original homestead. The home is believed to be one of the first built north of Buffalo Bayou. It might have been a Sears “kit home,” she says, though some of the original materials were local.
Over time, various owners had converted the house into three apartments and added three rental units to the back yard. Accommodating the home’s apartments meant removing the lower section of the foyer’s dramatic and super-spindled original staircase. An add-on exterior staircase tied into the former landing and upper stairs for access to the reconfigured second floor, where previously added sleeping porches had become kitchens for units fore and aft.
Enclosing the original front porch, meanwhile, expanded the parlor and enabled a front bedroom in what had been the original foyer. Its bathroom, located where the staircase had been, had a sunken tub, which had cut into the floor joists (now repaired).
The back yard, meanwhile, contained a ‘40s-ish structure housing three units.
“We lived, breathed and ate it (restoration) for over a full year,” says Chon g, a former teacher. The couple — and their dogs — lived in one of back yard apartments (about 300-sq.-ft. of space), used the second as their office and the third to storage for building materials and salvaged components that later went back into the home.
Given their business, there was no escape or relief from renovations, Chong says. By day, they’d handle their First Ward projects only to return home to a second shift of decisions and problem-solving.
Their plans for the home’s redo were straight-forward: restore the original splendor, retain what didn’t need replacing and limit any extra square footage to keep the structure in proportion to its early footprint.
“Just because you have the space (to add more room) doesn’t mean you have to fill it,” Chong says. In doing that, they reclaimed the urban-scale lot’s back yard.
Reclaimed and Replicated
As renovated – make that rescued — the dramatic front staircase is back to anchor a refurbished foyer off the restored front porch. New stairs and spindles connect with the original upper section, which Chong said kept its squeaks.
Replicating the original staircase’s appearance and style meant locating a similar home of the period in the neighborhood. In a twist of renovation fate, that home has since been altered, so the doppelganger is now the remaining example.
The layout downstairs gained a new kitchen in the style of yesteryear. The original bathroom is a study now, with the old bead board and shiplap spruced up and exposed. The former kitchen’s brick chimney stack, repaired as needed, also remains “a statement.” Upstairs, four original bedrooms regained their purpose, with one expanded for the new master suite, walk-in closets and cozy back porch.
The couple gravitates to vintage homes because they appreciate the workmanship, artistry and mill work, which Yap considers well thought out and created to add beauty. While such decorative abundance represents “an excess of aesthetics,” it also showcases carpentry as an art form, where the design and attention to detail exudes creativity.
Yap, a former energy company geologist, aspires to producing similar woodwork and hopes to add a workshop in the back yard so he can craft some of the mill work other projects need.
Earlier this year, the couple’s project wrapped up the interior work. Finishing the exterior, now painted a cheery shade of yellow, is a matter of side-fencing, landscaping and some sort of carport/workroom.
Meanwhile, they’ll pursue protected landmark status for the single-again home and get their submission ready for consideration for the 2017 Good Brick Awards.
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