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Interview with: Alan Bies
Date: July 29, 1983
Archive Number: OH 373.1
I: (00:06) This is a July 29th, 1983, oral history interview with Mr. Alan Bies and accompanied by Mr. Steve Beck. Alan, how did you become interested in owning and restoring the Milroy house?
AB: Well—I guess—when I was real young, I used to like the big houses on Heights Boulevard, and I liked this house and the Cooley house real well. They were, at that time, the most interesting houses here. Of course, the Cooley house was torn down in the late ‘60s, so really this was the only super house left on Heights Boulevard almost in the area. I shouldn’t say super, because there were a couple of really nice houses left down the street—several—but this was the—I felt—the best house. Really, it is probably the best framed Victorian house left in Houston—gingerbread type of house. There are some really fine great revival houses and that sort of thing, but as far as a real hard-core Victorian house, this is probably about the nicest one.
I: How long ago did you first spot it?
AB: Oh, probably when I was 3 years old. I used to just be crazy about big old houses when I was very young. We used to drive down Heights Boulevard every morning when we took my dad to work. I’d just go crazy when I saw these houses.
I: Were you a native Houstonian?
AB: Yeah, uh-hunh (affirmative), right.
I: Where were you born? What part of town were you from at the time?
AB: Garden Oaks.
I: This is the house you saw?
AB: Yeah, I always wanted this house. I really wanted the Cooley house more, but this was my—
I: What happened to the Cooley house?
AB: It was just torn down. There was no interest in these kinds of houses back in the ‘60s. There was very little interest in them, and so they torn down many of them.
I: Do you remember when they tore down the Cooley house?
I: Did you go?
AB: Yeah, I went to the demolition sale. When I walked up in front, they hollered to stay clear, and they threw the cupola—the whole top of the cupola right down on the ground then. We walked in and then just left, because it was ruined. It was really sad, because that house was really a fabulous house.
F: What block on Heights Boulevard was it? Do you remember?
AB: On the corner of 18th and Heights. That is the site of a park now. I think it—what is it—Marmion Park. Marmion Park was their home. The Heights Association built a—like a bandstand—a big gazebo—a pavilion.
F: That house that Bart Truxillo owns now—do you know who owned that before he did?
AB: Yeah, I think it was a family called Fakes—F-a-k-e-s—that owned that house. Now, Bart feels that house was designed by the same architect that did this one. There were great similarities in the two, even in the floor plan when you get inside of it. There are quite a few similarities.
I: That’s an interesting house.
SB: Who did he say the architect was—Butler?
AB: He said it was Butler.
SB: We don’t know where he came up with that, and he won’t elaborate, so I don’t know if he just pulled that name out of his head or something or what.
I: Do you remember the first name of Butler? He is just Butler?
SB: No. He just said Butler. That is about all we know about it. See, we tore the—it was a practice a lot of times in Victorian times if there were house plans, to roll them up and put them in the newel posts at the time of completion of the house. We completely dismantled the newel posts, when we were looking for the house plans for this house, but—
AB: I think probably there was a lack of records about Heights houses, because Heights was a—
SB: —separate city at that point.
AB: That all has been gone.
SB: That is the Harris County, though, isn’t it? Don’t those records appear in Harris County?
AB: We need to do that sometime. Maybe we could find out a little more about it.
SB: Also there is a little question in the book on the Heights. It says that the Milroy’s bought this house from a Mr. McGregor, and when we talked to Hamilton Milroy about that, he said definitely that his dad had built this house. He didn’t know who this Mr. McGregor was. Now, that information had come from Helen, his older sister, the woman that lived here all of her life.
I: Which information? That he bought it from McGregor?
AB: (05:10) Right, and so that probably would be more accurate, because she was older. I mean—he was born in this house, so he doesn’t really know about the construction, but she was—like—I don’t know—
AB: Was she only five?
SB: Yeah, she was pretty young.
I: —when they moved into the house?
SB: Well, her sister was born then.
I: Was it just the house itself or was it the Heights, in general, that interested you?
AB: No, I liked the Heights real well. I liked it real well, and then I didn’t like it—you know—when it sort of went down, because we could’ve bought the Cooley property very inexpensively—
SB: —but it’s the house.
AB: —but the Heights was such a mess at the time.
SB: It still is.
AB: Yeah, it still is sort of a mess. I guess everybody felt that way.
I: During the ‘60s, you’re saying?
SB: (06:09) These big old houses were sort of dragged on the market.
AB: I really do like the Heights, and it’s not a pretentious place, by any means. It’s just very relaxed and a nice atmosphere.
I: When did you first start thinking seriously about buying the house?
AB: Well, in 1978,—I believe—I was visiting with some friends, and I saw on the wall a picture of a fabulous Victorian house. I’d always had this tremendous interest in houses, and so we started talking about it. They said, “Well, that was her family’s home in Nacogdoches.” She said, in Navasota there is a house that is almost identical for sale, and so when I came home that night from down at the gallery, I mentioned that, and my mother and dad the next day drove up to Navasota just to find this house and look it over. They found several houses there that were for sale pretty reasonably. Then almost every other day they were going on a trip somewhere looking for houses. It was amazing. I had in mind—well, they were down in Werkman and found a real nice old house that was going to be torn down to put the street through. We went down and looked at it, and my dad bought it. Then he dismantled it. He and a friend of his dismantled it. I mean—it was a big house. It wasn’t just a small house. It was a three-story house—a real neat old house.
Well, we thought possibly we could obtain the Cooley property and build the thing back and make some changes to it, so it appeared like the old Cooley house somewhat. I mean—it wouldn’t be just the same thing, but it was a very similar house to that, as far as the porches and the shape of the house, but we could never make a deal on that property. Finally, the man increased his—he kept raising the price he had in mind to sell the house, until we got up to the point where he was close to what—just for that property—for 3 lots—what they wanted here for 4 lots with this house on it—the house constructed. We just said, “Well, this is ridiculous. We might as well try to buy the Milroy house.” Then we did that.
I: When did you come to know that the Milroy house was being for sale?
AB: (09:07) Well, my mother had melt Helen Milroy sometime ago, and she found out that she was residing at St. Anthony’s. It’s a Catholic nursing home in Missouri—exclusive, from what I understand. She went down to visit her one time. They talked a while. She said, “Well, she would never sell her house as long as she was alive,” and when she died, it would be handled by Texas Commerce bank. Everything was in trust.
SB: See, we had heard rumors that the house would be torn down upon her death, because the rumors were floating around all over town about this house was haunted.
AB: People said that it was haunted.
SB: First of all, somebody said her son,—which she didn’t have a son— but then somebody else said her nephew thought the house was haunted. He was the one that was going to inherit it, and he was going to tear it down immediately upon her death.
AB: My mom confronted her with all of this, and she said, “Absolutely not.” She didn’t want the house torn down. She loved that house more than anything. That is why she wouldn’t sell it as long as she was alive.
SB: Well, she always hoped that she would be able to come back. In fact, one time she did come back. We were talking to Hamilton, her brother, about that. She had become a little senile, and she had left St. Anthony’s and come home with a nurse, but she had only been home about 2 or 3 hours when she fired the nurse. Then she was here in this great big house by herself, and so then they had to put her back in and say, “Well, this is it. You can’t.”
I: She was infirmed at that time?
SB: Well, actually, she had been living downstairs for quite some time anyway, because she was having trouble climbing the stairs, and the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom was not good.
AB: In fact, that was the reason why the back porch was so massacred. She had a bathroom put in right off the kitchen.
I: Then how long did she live after you all found that out?
SB: (11:23) Not to terribly long. It was probably half a year or something like that—I believe.
I: Approximately, what time this? Approximately, what time when your mother made contact with her?
SB: Well, let’s see. It was in the winter of 1978, and she died in—I think—in March of ’79.
AB: It was February. I think it was the end of February, early March in ’79. Then the house came on the market late in ’79—I guess.
SB: No, I think—see, first of all, they wanted bids on the house. They wanted you to make an offer on the house, is what the bank said. They wanted you to—
AB: They didn’t have a price.
SB: They had a price in mind, but they didn’t say what it was. They wanted to make offers. Then, all of a sudden, they came back with the price of $300,000.
AB: Two ninety-five with no terms.
SB: With no terms—cash—within a couple of days of acceptance.
AB: Ten-day contract—or something.
SB: —which made the house very inaccessible to 99.9 percent of the populous.
I: Were they quite a few bidders that you know?
SB: (12:46) I don’t think there were a whole lot of people. One of the problems was that they would not list it with a real estate agency, because they didn’t want to pay the—
AB: —real estate fee.
I: The 6 percent or whatever?
AB: Right. They just refused—
SB: I mean—the bank—this was the bank.
AB: This was not the Milroy family. The Milroy family was very anxious for the house to be sold to somebody that was going to keep the house—
SB: —restore it.
AB: —restore it and love the house.
SB: That was their first concern, but the bank fooled around so long with their no terms and their $295,000 that finally they approached the point where the taxes were due. They went through another tax period, and the house could’ve been taken over by the government and sold at auction. They had the house appraised for $250,000. They had a very professional appraisal done on it. It was bound, and it was really a fine thing. It was a split.
AB: Yeah, it cost them $1,500 or $1,700 to have that appraisal made.
SB: Texas Commerce bank would not show it. They refused to show it, because they were just set on getting $295,000 out of this house, and they just—when we told Hamilton this—filled him out on how this deal was handled—he was just shaken—I mean—visibly shaken by that, because they had no idea what was going on down here.
AB: Plus the bank kept taunting that they didn’t care who they sold it to. If some developer wanted to come in here and tear it down and build apartments or townhouses or a condominium or a filling station or a stop-and-go or whatever, they didn’t care, as long as they got the money.
SB: I mean—4 lots in a row—you could do a lot of building on it. It could be a very big project.
I: Where was Hamilton at this time?
SB: (14:44) In Connecticut.
I: He was in Connecticut?
SB: Yeah, he lives in Hamden, Connecticut.
I: What was the resolution of that? How did it proceed from there?
AB: Well, finally, I just made an offer on it, with some terms, which weren’t great for me, but what we felt that probably would be the only thing acceptable. They just accepted it immediately. I mean—one phone call and they accepted the terms. We gave them earnest money on the house and submitted the contract, and it’s all through.
SB: There had been a contract earlier on the house that—
AB: —quite early.
SB: —the same year, although the guy could not raise the money, and the deal fell through.
AB: You know—I was real happy when they got a contract on it, because I thought well, then I can just put this out of my mind. I don’t have to worry about it constantly.
SB: Well, see, Marcela Perry was working on a deal through the Heights Association simultaneously. They wanted to buy the house and just open it up as a museum, but they weren’t going to pay more than $200,000.
AB: Two-twenty—I think—was their maximum, depending on—
SB: The house needed massive help, because the roof was gone, and the siding was falling off, and the front porch was deteriorating and had some termite damage.
I: Was the family insistent upon it being bought and restored, or was all to be handled by Texas Commerce bank?
I: Was the decision there to be made by whom?
SB: I mean—the family wanted that. They wanted the house saved, because that was always real important. This house was always real important to the Milroy family. They were up in Connecticut, and they didn’t want to live down here. They wanted it saved, but yet they just had reached the point where something had to be done with it. No matter what was done with it, the deal had to be completed, because of the tax situation. I don’t think anybody there had money to pay them.
I: Was the house—say in—well, she died in ’79 or ’78?
SB: I’m not sure exactly when she did die.
I: Upon her death, was there—during the sale of the house—was there a possibility of the house going the way of the wrecking ball?
AB: (17:33) Oh, I think definitely so, yeah. I really do.
SB: I would say—especially, they dragged it out for such a long period of time that they had to do something with it towards the end there. There was that possibility. Although the Heights Association, in an effort to try and save the house and protect it, had gone along and spent—I don’t know—something like $2,000 of their own money to get the house listed on the Texas register and also the national register, and had done that at their own expense in some attempt to try and preserve the house to intimidate anyone who might buy it from trying to tear it down or do something terrible with it—make it into a disco or something.
AB: —a haunted house.
SB: —although there really there is no real protection for the house.
AB: —not against private funds, no. You could just—
SB: All you have to do is give them notice if you’re going to tear it down or whatever. They have 60 days or something to come up with an offer to either buy it or—
AB: I don’t even think it is that long.
SB: There really isn’t a whole lot of protection there, although the Heights Association did do that.
I: Even before you all bought the house?
SB: Right. They kept those—put it on the national register in 1980 and the state also.
I: In 1980?
SB: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: When did you all actually buy the house?
SB: (19:19) In May of 1980.
I: That had been done before you all moved in?
AB: Uh-hunh (affirmative), yeah, all of the groundwork was done. Then, after I bought it, then it was dedicated for the Texas Historical Commission. Then a little later in the year, I received notification that it had been accepted for the national registry. We knew it was all in the works, which is good.
I: Okay, what kind of condition was the house in when you first bought it?
AB: Well, structurally, it was pretty sound, but cosmetically not too good. The roof was just a disaster, and you could go upstairs and just look right up. If it hadn’t of been for the extreme pitch of the roof, I’m sure a lot more damage would’ve been done to the house. I mean—you could stand anywhere in the attic and look up and see the clouds and birds flying by and stuff, so the roof was in very bad condition—just the shingles. The structure of the roof was like brand new in almost every case. First of all, we had to get a roof on the house, because where there was a valley that was completely disintegrated by the chimney, water just had poured down in. It had gone into the second bedroom and the whole ceiling had fallen out of the second—or I should say—the middle bedroom. Then, of course, it had continued down along the chimney into the basement. We had been in the house several times after a rainstorm before we bought it, and there was lots of water in the basement.
SB: It was—sort of—a funny deal. There was a bed up in that center bedroom. Well, the house was furnished, except for just a few things that the family took after her death. The plaster had fallen into this bed, and it looked like a decomposed body laying in it.
AB: It really did.
SB: It was really eerie to walk in there.
AB: The water had just been pouring down on this bed. It was really scary.
SB: It was all mildewed and this big mass lying in the bed. It really looked eerie. A lot of people say they felt the house was haunted or it had a lot of—
I: Did they ever get specific about the haunted-ness? What was supposed to be here?
AB: (21:57) There were a lot of rumors. See, Helen was—sort of—a recluse. She never married and lived in this great big house, literally—I guess—by herself after he mother died, which I think was in about 1927. She was a businesswoman. She took over her dad’s real estate business, and that is how she supported herself. I don’t know how all of these rumors got started, but since she was—especially in later years—somewhat of a recluse—didn’t allow anybody in the house or have too many friends, other than friends she had had much earlier in life. There just became an aura around the house that something bad was going on simply because there was nobody that really knew what was going on. In actuality, there wasn’t anything going on.
I: What was in the house when you got it?
AB: It was all furnished. I mean—you could move right into it, and live just fine—a lot of antique things. There weren’t many things that were really super, but just everything was old and nice. We sold some of the things out of it, if we didn’t feel we could use them, and kept some of it. We still have a lot of things in the house that came out of it originally. It was really great, though, because coming in this house, you would just be taken back in time. It was a real fabulous experience. In a way, I sort of hated to disturb it, because you just—for 2 weeks I’d come here and spend all day long, and I’d just be in a totally different world. It was just really something.
I: What percentage of the furniture would you say you kept?
AB: (24:01) Oh, probably about 30 percent. I mean—maybe a little less than that. I don’t know—there were so many things that we just couldn’t use—you know—with all of these music boxes.
SB: We kept the rolled-top desk and all of the file cabinets, and there was a little library area upstairs. We kept that in its entirety. We still have one of those bedroom suites, except we didn’t have beds with it.
AB: Lots of chairs.
SB: Chairs and tables—quite a bit of stuff that we sold. We couldn’t use it.
AB: It’s sort of interesting to have some things that were originally from the house. Most everything we kept probably was in the house when it was originally built. The things that were put in later, then generally, we got rid of those.
I: When was the house built?
AB: Well, the Milroy’s moved into it in 1898. We figure it was built just shortly before that time.
SB: When the Heights was first developed, I don’t think there was actually any house construction at that point, but it was laid out—I know—in 1893, so somewhere in that period. I imagine this house probably took about 2 years to build, since it has a full basement and things like that, which are unique features for a house in this area.
I: Other than the roof, what else was significantly wrong?
AB: The siding was in terrible shape, because it hadn’t been painted in many years. It couldn’t be nailed back down. We tried everything. We tried soaking it to nail it back down. First of all, you couldn’t drive a nail through it. You had to drill through it. Then you when you tried to nail it down, it would crack in half. Most of it was just curled up real badly. Then we tried wetting the boards. When they were soaked, they nailed down. When they dried out, they would split, so we had to put on—probably almost completely reside the house. We didn’t have to reside under the front porch and some of the north side, but we used the identical material, or very close to it.
SB: (26:33) We tried to leave on the original siding, which was cypress, and that is not available anymore.
AB: —which is fine, so we used yellow pine.
I: Where did you go to get the siding?
SB: Well, we found it down at Jones Lumber. That is the only place we could locate it. They are the only one that has that. I think maybe now several other people handle it.
I: Is it a particular kind of siding?
SB: It’s just called doven(??) siding, but just at that time, you just couldn’t find it anywhere else.
AB: I think we found a couple of sources for it, but it was so unreasonable. They were probably buying it from Jones Lumber Company, and selling it, because it was twice the price. We were paying—like 31 cents a foot for it, and everybody else was 60 cents.
I: What was the first step that you all took after getting the house? Did you hire an architect or a contractor?
AB: No, the first thing we did was put a roof on it, instantly. I mean—that had to be done immediately, or every time it rained hard, there was a lot of damage occurring. Then we hired—we had two carpenters in about a 6-month period. Then after that was done, we started doing everything ourselves, because—you know—I just haven’t had the funds to have anybody else do anything, other than just those carpenters, and that was it. It is a big project, but I put a tremendous amount of money it in the first year—just a massive amount of money in it. You can see it is still not done, by any means, but at least it is safe now from collapsing or much water damage or anything.
SB: There was some damage to the foundation too. Like I said earlier, it has a full basement, which is brick. The mortar in a lot of areas is just completely—
AB: It’s been a lot of tough work.
I: You say the first year you put a lot of money in it, okay. First, the roof went on?
AB: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: What were then the succeeding steps that you did?
AB: While the roof was going on, then we had a carpenter. He was replacing siding, and we had some guys scraping old paint off. As John would put up siding, then my dad would come along with primer and put primer on it. For probably the first month, Steve and I were completely busy trying to get some things sold to pay the down payment on the house, which—
F: Was it difficult to find qualified people to work on the house?
AB: (29:40) Yeah, really so. I didn’t want to get, at that time—get a contractor in here that just brought in a crew of people, and they started knocking holes in this and that and doing a lot of bad things. Before I bought the house, a friend of ours who is a carpenter, was very interested in hearing about getting the house, so we brought him over. He said, well, he was going to be out of work shortly, and so we hired him. Immediately, after we bought the house—I mean—I think we took about a week to go through things in the house and enjoy it a week or two, Then we started on that.
I: What, again, did you do with the basement?
AB: What do you mean?
I: You mentioned that you had to do something in the basement?
AB: No—Steve did a lot of tuck work on the brick—up on the foundation—but we haven’t done much with it. We’re going to really fix the basement up—make it usable living space, but that’s in a few years—just like the third floor—to fix them up. Right now we just use it for storage. It’s been about—
SB: One of the unusual features of this house is that basement, because in this area of the country, a basement is a very unusual thing. For that reason, we think this house was designed by a northern architect and the Milroy’s themselves were originally from New York, and probably had experienced—
AB: We found a lithograph in the house of Mrs. Milroy’s family’s home in New York, and there are some similarities. I think I showed them to you when we were going through all of the paperwork.
SB: There is copula on top that looks very similar to this.
AB: The house had original central heat with a big coal-burning furnace down in the basement, which is all—
I: This house did?
AB: Yeah, and it is still there. Have you ever been in the basement?
I: Yes, I believe I went in there one time when I first got here, but it was—let me flip this over.
[OH373_01 ends] (32:05)
I: The interview, too, was really neat.
F: Did you all have—and your father dismantled that house?
F: Did you all have any building experience in your family?
AB: No, not really. My dad has done things like that. When we were over in Garden Oaks we built a couple of small buildings and things like that.
SB: We built that garage in the back.
AB: Yeah, he really did. I guess—he really did have quite works and stuff—quite a bit of experience. I mean—he worked for the Humble Oil Company—and later became Exxon. He was always very mechanical and could do just about anything with his hands.
I: What role have your parents played in this?
AB: Well, quite a role, to say the least. They have been very supportive of this—tremendously. In fact, they sold their house in Garden Oaks, because I needed some money. It has been very—I couldn’t have gotten this place without the help of my parents and Steve. I mean—everybody has worked very hard and put a lot into it. That is the only reason that we got the house.
I: This may or may not go on the record, and if you don’t want to divulge it is fine. At this point, how much money have you all spent on it?
AB: (01:30) We’ve probably spent around a hundred thousand on this and done almost all of the work ourselves.
SB: That is after the cost of the house.
AB: Right—just in the—but I think one of the greatest costs in something like this is labor. We only had really 6 months of any help here, and that was on the exterior of the house. Of course, maybe that is why the interior is not progressing too well, but—
I: Have you all put most of the work—where is most of the work—on the outside?
AB: Yeah, well, the outside needed immediate help. I mean—that was imperative that that be worked on right away. We wanted to get that in order before winter came. I think it was good, because, as I recall, we had some pretty bad weather that winter. The following spring it flooded.
SB: It’s a funny thing too, because the house—like I said—had original central heat with that furnace downstairs, but that was originally a coal-burning furnace. Then they hooked it up to burn natural gas—I mean—out of a pipe—a natural gas pipe going into about this size, and a gas meter downstairs that looked like a meter for a hotel or something.
AB: That was just giant.
SB: The gas company came and removed that, because really they wanted the meter to be outside, so somebody didn’t have to come in the basement to read it. The guy was saying it cost about $2,000 a month to crank that furnace up. In the thirties, she had run gas lines on the outside of the building. They were just pipes right up the side and drill the hole into the wall, and then put a gas jet there. All the rooms had individual gas heaters, so you could heat each room individually at that point.
(03:27) I mean—when we restored the outside, we naturally didn’t want these gas pipes running up the outside of the buildings, so we removed all of that. Then the winter came along, and the big furnace was not functional enough to crank up. We had removed all of the gas jets from all of the rooms. We were depending on heating the house through the fireplace, and we still had a gas jet in the kitchen for the stove.
AB: We put a gas heater in the kitchen, which the heat came out here into the dining room. That was a very cold winter too. We had purchased air conditioning equipment in 1980—I believe. Well, I shouldn’t put a date on it, but we purchased it.
SB: It was that same summer. We thought we’d have it installed by wintertime, but we had never got down to that point. That was a tremendous job getting this house air conditioned, because of all of the things to consider. We didn’t want to just make a big mess and lower ceilings and do things like that that would detract from the house.
AB: Plus we wanted to have a split-level system, where you could just use one section at a time, so the whole house wouldn’t have to be heated or cooled. It is a fairly good-sized house. The rooms are not that many rooms, but they are all large-scale rooms. Especially, we’ve noticed, with the high ceilings, it is sort of hard to heat.
I: The heating and cooling has been a more recent addition, as far as the total system?
AB: Yeah, really just about a year ago we really got the thing to where it was semi-operable. We’ve learned a lot about air conditioning too in doing it. We finally had to resort to doing all of our repair work on the units, because it seemed like everybody that came here made a bigger mess than before.
SB: (05:49) We installed heat pumps—which I don’t know if you all are familiar with that or not—but they are reverse-cycle air conditioning for heating purposes in the winter. The reason we did that was because of the size and the space available to us to install the units. Since we wanted to keep it on a floor-by-floor basis, if you had gas heat, you require that much more space to put a furnace in, plus you have to have venting for the furnace and that sort of thing, which was not too compatible with where we wanted to install the units.
AB: Well, and too, I just sort of wanted to avoid a gas furnace upstairs in the house. I just thought that that might be a good thing not to—I mean—gas is great. I really wish we had it, because it sure heats a lot better than this heat pump, but still—in this house—it wouldn’t take much, and this would be gone—you know—if there was some kind of an accident. We’ve been very careful.
SB: Too, we have not put any insulation in yet, and that will help, especially for the heat.
AB: Yeah, right.
SB: The hot air rises, and it will just go right out the attic, because there is no insulation.
I: This is an ignorant question here and won’t go on the tape, but is it more difficult to heat a house like this or cool a house like this, or can you tell a difference?
AB: I think it’s probably easier to cool it.
SB: Right—it’s easier to cool it, especially—you know—we have the vents at the top. The cool air goes down, but the hot air rises, and with these high ceilings, you can heat it, but the hot air will go right up to the ceiling pretty quick. This house has so many windows that are not very weather tight that if you get a strong north wind and the windows are rattling, and you can just feel the cold air just whistling right through the wall.
F: Did you lower the ceilings at all?
AB: Just in the kitchen, and we lowered it about a foot in upstairs in the hall—the central hall—up about a foot too for the ductwork. In the kitchen, we had a lot of other ducting for the hood and the oven and all sorts of things had to have a vent, so it was necessary.
SB: I mean—the ceilings are 11 foot. When you drop them 1 foot to 10 foot, they still look considerably higher than—I mean—most people, when they look in the kitchen, can’t even tell that we’ve dropped it about a foot.
I: I may have been playing with the tape and not listening when you all were telling Deborah about the air conditioning. Did you have to close off any areas or deal with any special problems on the air conditioning?
AB: We really didn’t. We built this archway that goes out. We definitely did that. We kept the same look and everything, so it—kind of—for the location of our unit. Now, if we had put one unit in the basement and one unit on the third floor, we could’ve eliminated a lot of problems, but we did not want to have a big old ugly air conditioning unit sitting down in the basement, and we wanted to keep the third floor free for—
AB: —to finish it, and so that’s why we did it the way we did. It was a much more expensive installation doing it that way—I think.
I: Then is that an instance of trying to keep the restoration true to the outlines of the house, as opposed to—?
AB: Yeah, I think so. We’ve tried to do that everywhere—not destroy anything that was important to the house and change the house much at all. There were a few things that you have to give up. I feel like the kitchen—you know—we wanted a useable kitchen. We have friends out in California that just bought a fabulous Victorian house in downtown Los Angeles. We were comparing notes. In fact, two other friends of ours bought Victorian houses almost at the same time we did, and so we’re all discussing this. The fellow in Vermont—his restoration is—we felt—more—his house seems more modern inside.
SB: (10:45) Well, his house really wasn’t Victorian anyway. It was built about 1910, and it was not a Victorian style of house.
I: It was sort of the latter days of Victorian.
SB: When you walk in his house, you don’t have this feel of nostalgia. You just feel like you walked into—although, he has done a very nice job on his house.
I: Is the kitchen the main place where you had to compromise?
AB: Yeah, I think so and, as I was saying, these friends out in California were horrified when I said what I wanted to do with the kitchen. They said, “Oh, no. You need a real old stove, and you need one of these real early ice boxes and that.” As Steve and I told them, their ideas were not absolutely original with their house. They had an electric refrigerator, although it was an old type, with the coil on the top. Their stove was a—
AB: Yeah, they were thinking of a 1920’s kitchen and not an 1890’s kitchen.
SB: I mean—who would want to cook on a wood-burning stove in the middle of the summer.
I: Did this have a wood-burning stove at the beginning?
SB: At one time, yes.
AB: Originally it did, in the 1890s. In fact, the chimney—right here behind this wall, we opened up the vent where it used to vent into. You could see on the floor—now it is covered up—but you could see where the feet of the stove had actually burned little grooves into the floor where the original wood-burning stove had been. She had later on—had put gas in.
SB: We did try and keep the right flavor in the kitchen with the new appliances. We’ve got to keep it—so we felt we were—
AB: Well, the kitchen was very hard to deal with anyway, because it was all doors and windows.
SB: We did have an architect help us—give us some ideas on that.
I: On the kitchen—on re-doing it?
I: What you’ve got now is a modern kitchen, which looks—
SB: Right, but has an old flavor, and I think that would be acceptable for just about anybody.
AB: We used the beaded seal and wainscoting around the island, and then we put on that simulated marble top.
SB: —the Corian, which looks just like old marble, but yet it is a usable thing.
AB: Then we have an old kerosene chandelier from 1880s and that sort of thing to help. Plus we put wooden door panels on the refrigerator and the dishwasher and stuff like that, so it doesn’t look blatantly like a stainless steel kitchen.
SB: We made the effort to do this.
AB: It is a pretty nice kitchen. There are some drawbacks—like the lack of cabinet space in certain areas.
I: When you all moved into it, how did she have it lighted?
AB: (13:52) Well, it was—
SB: It was horrible.
AB: —a sad situation. There was one chandelier in here, which was right from the 50s.
SB: It might have been earlier than that.
AB: It was sort of art deco. In the kitchen, there was a florescent light and a little light in the butler’s pantry, and all of the other rooms downstairs, except for the front hall and those two sconces that you see on the front wall, there was no other lighting—just floor lamps and things like that—floor and table lamps.
SB: —and really not even not much of that. There were very few plugs. The house had original electricity.
I: It did have electricity originally?
SB: Right, and plumbing.
AB: It had some of the original wiring from the 1890s still in the house.
SB: It was still being used.
AB: (14:45) In fact, we’re eliminating some of it—we were last week. We brought an electrician down from Dallas and helped him with that project. I don’t know if I want to say anything, because we don’t have a permit for that.
SB: That will be stricken from the tape from the transcript.
AB: You just have to go along. This whole house has to go along in stages, because when you’re living in it, you can’t just completely tear everything up and have a crew of people in here and just start welding a sledge hammer and knocking out walls to put in wiring and things like that. It has to be done real carefully. I mean—just like the air conditioning. The company that we finally had install the ductwork and set up the air conditioning—after we designed what we wanted—told us where we should cut the holes and how big they should be for the vents, and we did that very carefully. I mean—it probably took a week for this floor and the second floor, working all day long.
SB: We were cutting lap and plastic.
AB: We felt—and we were very careful and did as little amount of damage we could. We had to move the—you know—we’d start to cut through in a spot and determine that there was a structural member there that we didn’t feel we could remove, and we have to change things up. It was quite a project, but they were like—in one hole they made the ductwork like an eighth of an inch larger than what it was supposed to be. They just sent anybody over here, in a couple of cases, to do this job.
SB: Really they were a bunch of high school kids.
AB: One of them just took a hammer and just started beating on the wall, and he knocked big hunks of plaster off like that. Well, needless to say, that was sort of traumatic for Steve and I, because we had worked on this thing so hard not to make a big mess.
SB: (16:56) Well, and the same thing with the wiring, when you’re running a wire. All of these walls between the studs have what they call a fire barrier, which is either a 1-by-4 or a 2-by-4 nailed between the studs. This house has what they called balloon framing, which means that the studs go all the way from the ground floor, all the way up to the attic in one piece. If you don’t put these fire barriers between the walls—if you ever had a fire, since there is no insulation or anything, those—
AB: —from the attic from the chimney.
SB: In order to help prevent that, they put these in between each stud on both the first and the second floor—they put what they call fire barriers.
SB: That stabilizes the house tremendously too, because the studs can’t—
AB: Although it does present a problem when you go to run some wiring. You can’t just dangle the wire down through the stud. You have to find out where the fire barrier is, drill a little hole there—actually cut a little piece out, and then fish the wire through. The fire barrier is not necessarily in the same place between each stud.
SB: No, they just put them in—
AB: They just put them in randomly.
SB: They put them in anywhere.
AB: We’d have to run a tape down there and sort of feel around where it was and then measure it all outside, and then take a little drill and drill few little holes. We actually hit the stud.
SB: This house could probably be rewired in a day easily by several real good electricians, but when you have to go around with all of this, it could run into weeks. We just don’t want people trying to—
AB: Those kinds of people are not careful.
SB: Well, some of them aren’t.
AB: Most of them aren’t. They’re interested in their own aspect of the job, and if something is in their way, they just take a hammer or a hatchet and knock a hole in there and run there thing anywhere along. Then it is up to you to get a plaster man or something in here and repair the mess they’ve made in order to get their job done.
I: In the restoration that you’ve done thus far, what is the most problematical and costly thing?
AB: (19:21) I don’t know. Everything seems to be.
SB: This type of work just fights you every step of the way.
AB: There are so many unknowns.
SB: You need a part—you need a special screw or something and you go to the hardware store, and you look through 500 different sizes, and the exact thing you need is just not there. We make stuff. We have a little machine shop, and we make a lot of stuff we need, because it is just not available. There are so many of these restoration companies that are selling all of this stuff today to restore it with, but a lot of things we need—they’re just not available, and that look the same way.
I: What is the story of getting it re-roofed? It is an awfully high roof.
AB: That was sort of an interesting thing. We got bids from probably 4 or 5 roofing companies. Finally, we got a bid from one fellow that he seemed like he knew what he was talking about, and his bid was reasonable. I thought it was very reasonable for redoing this roof, and they did do a very good job, which his company—his roofers were good. First of all, he got a crew of Mexicans out here. My dad met them down here—I think—the second day after I bought the house. They got up on the roof and wandered around and came down and had a conference under the Magnolia tree. They told my dad that they were not going to reroof this house under any circumstances—that he owed them $50 for coming out there.
He ran them off and called the roofing contractor, and he said that he would get another crew. He got another crew out here in several days. Several days later he had a crew that would do the job. They reroofed it, and it didn’t take them horribly long, but there was some work that had to be done. The front porch was just completely termite-eaten up. The roof of the front porch was in terrible shape. When they took off the roof, we had our carpenter working on that at the same time that they were working up above and he was doing that. They were having massive flare-ups, as we a couple of guys. One guy was the roofing company and the carpenter that were very tangible.
AB: They just—it was just a constant battle between these two guys. These roofers were—
I: One getting in the other one’s way?
AB: (22:04) Oh yeah. One would say do such and such, and the other one would be, “No, you can’t do that.”
SB: The roofers were anxious just to get in there and cover up all of this rotten wood by putting shingles on top of it. The carpenter was very conscientious. He wanted to replace all of the studs that were rotten.
AB: The carpenter would turn his back, and a couple of roofers would run down a bale shingles and—we had a couple of battles here.
I: You went with wood shingles, didn’t you?
AB: That is what it originally had. The originally roof—I think—had cypress shingles. Then it was re-roofed at one point. I don’t even know when.
SB: Probably in the ‘30s.
AB: This is the third roof that has been on the house right now. Always it has a wood roof. That is what we wanted. Actually, it was the wood roof and a composition roof cost the same amount of money, because they were going to have to sheet this roof with plywood. I thought, well, I would much rather have the wooden shingle roof, because it looks right with the house.
SB: We did have the shingles treated with a fire retardant to help.
F: This won’t go on the tape or anything. What company was it?
AB: I think it was Birdwell—was the roofing man. Then we had some of his men do some work for us at a later time—you know—on their own. Steve cut all new fish scale shingles for these little awnings on the house, and we had one of the roofers come back and do that just on his own.
I: There has been a minor tempest in a tea pot that I would like to address here, and that is the tempest over the color on the side. I wanted to hear about that.
AB: We feel a little better about it, because we’ve seen some houses that are being restored that had this same color scheme here and there.
I: What did it have originally on it?
AB: (23:58) Well, the original color—from what we can tell—was sort of a cream going into a custom color.
SB: There was a slight yellow.
AB: It was very similar to the color we painted the trim on the house, but the body of the house was painted that with dark green trim. I think the next time it was painted, the body of the house was painted dark green and the trim white, and that’s the way it was—
SB: The trim was first custom-colored—in sort of a reverse—and then later on was painted white.
AB: The trim was white—right. I wanted to have the house still stay in a green color, because everybody knew the house as the green house for many years. We did pick this color, which was sort of a compromise.
I: How would you describe this color on this house? Is it a light green?
AB: Yeah, this is sort of a light green. It is sort of an antique green. It is sort of the—I don’t know. I’ve seen it on certain city things—this exact color of green. I don’t know what—
SB: They did have one color specially mixed. We went over to James Bute, which is an original paint company here in Houston. They were somewhat interested in donating paint—not actually donating it, but they gave it to us at cost. They worked with us on developing that color. It was not one of their pre-made colors. It was something that they had custom made for us.
AB: (25:40) We felt that this is one green that we could go with on the house that sort of represented a lot of the things that was on it in the past. We used the dark green for the accent colors and the windows and things like that. I think our colors are fairly good for the house. The paint has been very good too. We’ve had it on for 3 years now, and there have been no problems with it. We prepared it pretty well to start with, and we used good paint. A lot of these houses that are being restored around, and after a year, the paint is all coming right off.
F: It’s an oil-based paint?
AB: No, it’s latex.
SB: There were two schools of thought on that, although since the majority of the siding had been replaced—or I’d say—at least two-thirds of it—they recommended the acrylic as opposed to the oil. Some people say, “Well, you need the oil, because it penetrates the wood and helps keep it from drying out.” Then others say, “Well, you get better protection from an acrylic.” One thing we did have to be careful about—most of the old paint—I guess—was a lead base paint, which is sort of dangerous to work with. We’ve been finding, especially in the upstairs, woodwork that was originally just varnished and had been painted over many times. It is quite a problem.
AB: Horrible, horrible job. It is dirty and nasty. Now, there is so much——it is somewhat dangerous because of all of the lead dust.
SB: You worry about how much lead are you taking in today and that sort of thing.
I: What was originally on the walls of this house? Was it paint? Was there any—?
AB: The interior?
I: Yeah, was there any wallpaper?
AB: Well, this room—we know—was papered. The music room or whatever—what we call it—it was originally the family room. Many of the other rooms did have paper. I don’t know about the dining room—
SB: I’d say it’s hard to say about this, because you had this stippled painted over it.
AB: —but just about all of the house was papered.
SB: All of the rooms that had paper originally—when we’ve gone to remove paper—you’d see evidence of paper underneath plus the plaster had never been painted, so we can assume that it always had paper of some sort. We’ve tried to—when we repapered—pick out paper that is compatible with that era.
I: What rooms—what parts have you repapered?
AB: Well, we redid the kitchen and the music room so far. We’ve purchased our paper for the upstairs, but we haven’t gotten the woodwork stripped.
SB: No, just the hallway.
I: At this point in your restoration job, what is more advanced, as far as—what is the more advanced part—the downstairs?
AB: Well, I think the downstairs is much more advanced, but there are a lot of things upstairs that have been done that you don’t see—like wiring and plumbing and things like that that are hidden. The first interior project we had really was the kitchen. That was the first thing, because my mother was cooking on a hot plate and in an electric skillet. It was insane.
SB: We were talking about problems that developed. We got real enthusiastic about working on the kitchen, since it was such a hardship to be shuffling between the little butler’s pantry. We had a makeshift kitchen and a little burner in there. We decided well, we’re going to get busy and get the kitchen done. Then we determined that the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom was just completely gone. It had to be completely redone. Well, the only access to that is through the ceiling in the kitchen. Naturally, all of that plumbing work had to be done before we could drop our ceiling in the kitchen and do our ductwork and stuff like that for the kitchen stuff.
(30:31) Then we determined well, to remove this old cast iron drainpipe and stuff that had almost rusted through in some spots—we thought well, it will take a week. No, we thought it would take a couple of days maybe—to get all of that out of there. Well, it ended up taking a week getting it all out of there. That is the kind of thing we’ve been running into. We’re not exactly experts in the field of restoration or doing these things, but we have done enough work on antique things to sort of have a rule of thumb on what it takes to do something. In most cases, it has taken at least twice as long as what we’ve estimated to do a job.
I: That is a rule of thumb, then about twice?
AB: About twice—yeah.
SB: There are so many unknowns involved. You look at a job, and it looks simple and straightforward. By the time you tear it all apart, you’ve run into all kinds of problems that you didn’t even think were there at the time of planning it out. That’s generally been the case in everything we’ve done.
I: At the time of this interview, what are the major things yet to be done?
AB: Well, we have to—we need to complete the electrical, and we really need to add—
[OH373_02 ends] (32:04)