By Cynthia Lescalleet
The only skeleton revealed during the award-winning renovation of a 1920s bungalow in Sunset Heights was the eight-inch skeleton key that came with the property when Ellie and Christian Busker of Renovative Thinking began their project.
Its completion earned a 2015 Good Brick Award from Preservation Houston, which honored recipients at The Cornerstone Dinner on Feb. 20.
Seasoned renovators, the Buskers’ complementary skills cover redesign and rebuild of older homes, transforming them into light-filled, highly functioning open spaces that are suitable for modern living, but mindful of their place and period.
“We can kind of walk in and think the same thing,” Christian Busker said of their walking through a potential property.
An architectural designer and space planner, Ellie Busker gravitates toward
homes with smaller footprints and strives to maximize every inch. She dislikes wasted space and thinks efficient floor plans can encourage tidy use.
For her husband, who had learned carpentry from his father and grandfathers, home renovations had long beckoned.
Once pursued part-time, home renovations became the couple’s business in 2007. Since then, they’ve transformed 18 homes in neighborhoods in and around Houston Heights, Brooke Smith and Sunset Heights. Their current project, number 19, is in Lindale Park.
By living in these little homes along the way, she said, they get to know the communities, the housing market — and the house itself.
“We build a home for ourselves every time,” he said.
Aspiring to the White House
Since the Buskers had lived and worked up the street from the bungalow in Sunset Heights – the 2015 Good Brick Award winner – it was a special property to them.
They had noticed its simplicity, charm and nearly-untouched condition. Older than other homes on the street, it had an intriguing carriage-era garage with marooned quarters, its exterior staircase long gone.
“I have a thing for peeling paint on white houses,” she said.
This one, acquired after waiting five years for it to be available, they called “The White House.”
Among the pleasant surprises within its near-original interior: cheesecloth wallpaper over shiplap walls.
“Usually, we have to take off the ‘ugly’,” she said. There were no layers of previous updates to peel back.
The 2013 project kicked off by moving the porch-entry house eight feet to the west to make room for a permeable driveway scaled to today’s vehicles.
The scope added 459 sq. ft. to the home for a master suite and laundry room off a short new hallway at the back of the former two-bedroom, one-bath floor plan. Single-story, the addition can’t be seen from the street and blends into the back, a seamlessness the Buskers strive to achieve in all their projects.
A small attic dormer facing the street, meanwhile, gives the illusion of height, she said, since newer and remodeled homes nearby trend taller.
The renovated home reused original doors, flooring and hardware when possible and was patched with reclaimed materials as merited.
While initially an iffy undertaking, he said, the two-story garage and its quarters proved salvageable. That effort lifted the building, poured a slab floor and deepened the structure to house a car vs. a carriage, and it restored the still-intact quarters upstairs.
Among the challenges of any renovation, the Buskers said, are making new space look as if it were always there and having it function correctly for the room flow and sight lines.
An example: “You don’t want to have to walk through the master bedroom to get to the yard,” she said.
“Sometimes, you have to flip the house,” he said, though not in the case in their award-winning project.
The project held few surprises, she said, except for some pleasant ones, like the skeleton key.
It, too, has been restored for use by the current owner.
Extra: Restoring the Store
Candlelight Estates residents Brenda Hughes and her mother, Eva Hughes, hadn’t set out to restore the family’s commercial building in the Washington Corridor’s Magnolia Addition. The exterior-only project initially sought simply to bring the bedraggled Art Deco building up to code. Soon into the work, however, the 1936 concrete-and-brick structure seemed to speak up and ask for treatment true to its period, Brenda Hughes said.
Their renovation earned a 2015 Good Brick Award from Preservation Houston.
Known as the Loggins-Hughes building, the 3,780-sq.-ft. property at 4216 and 4218 Washington Ave. had been family-owned since the ‘70s. A portion of it housed one of the Hughes’ liquor stores until 1989. Prior to that, a series of pharmacies had operated in one end of the two-tenant building. Next door, the Great A&P Tea Co. initially operated in space that later housed a used furniture shop, a home supplies outlet, and, more recently, a series of bars. The current tenant is the Pearl Lounge; Pearl Sports Bar now occupies the old pharmacy space. Interior updates are tenant territory.
Recalling what became a five-year renovation, Hughes said part of the challenge was a lack of access to old photos to help guide the process. Many of the storefront windows had been boarded up or covered in tar paper. As decades of paint layers slowly gave way to hand-washing (power-washing would have eradicated the details, she said), the exterior’s original chevron accents emerged.
“We never knew it was there,” she said.
Meanwhile, the original wood-and-metal awning over the front sidewalk had gained so many add-ons over the years that its weight was pulling the support cables off the façade. It has been stripped down to a lighter, more manageable form, she said. The windows and doors have been replaced, but their original forms have been lost to history.
Hughes said securing an architect familiar with historical properties – Margaret Douglass of CDI Douglass Pye Inc. — was a game-changer for the project. So was landing contractor with an eye to cost-efficient solutions. Randy Meador “was a life-saver,” she said.
While pleased with the outcome, Hughes said she’s not eager to go through that process again.
And yet, she talks a bit about the family’s old farmhouse in North Carolina that needs some work.