By Steve Austin | Photos by Philip Clayton-Thompson
As the doors were shut on our moving van in September of 2008, we heard that Hurricane Ike, speeding toward Texas, was expected to make a direct hit onto Galveston Island. That’s where we were headed from Portland, Oregon, to a Victorian house we’d bought for our retirement. Two nights later, in a Wyoming motel, we watched on TV as the island flooded.
Our Portland friends couldn’t believe our misfortune. But our new friends in Galveston envied our extraordinary good luck: when we were 50 miles from the island, the hurricane stopped us. All of our stuff, including antiques collected over decades, was safe in the van. The house, though, was badly damaged.
Between the flood damage and the stock-market crash—which began two days later—we found we had to downsize our restoration plans. Oddly, this became a blessing. We stenciled several rooms that were to have been expensively wallpapered, and thoroughly enjoyed the compliments. We dropped a plan to add a modern pantry, instead finding adequate storage in our practical and authentic re-creation of a turn-of-the-century kitchen.
Our tendency to overdo Victorian decoration was replaced (believe it or not) with a restraint we’d like to chalk up to maturity, but was actually due to our slashed budget. Also, we spent months taking cold showers, using candles and flashlights, trying to sleep together on a 30″-wide slab of foam, and eating rations from the FEMA truck. We had lots of time to plan and reflect. Slowing the pace of a restoration helps prevent mistakes.
The 1907 house is typical of 19th-century Southern town houses, with upper and lower halls pushed to one side and rooms on the other. The plan remained popular in Galveston even beyond the Victorian era. Typical, too, were the roadblocks we encountered, starting with termites. A four-month delay before we could install new downstairs flooring left us with just the subfloor, so we couldn’t move our furniture into the house. Another cloud with a silver lining: It was much easier to wire, plumb, paint, paper, and stencil without the interference of furniture.
In planning a late-Victorian interior, we needed to consider Galveston’s semi-tropical climate. We couldn’t afford restored antique ceiling fans. But we found that some nice reproductions could be special-ordered with an old-fashioned, four-blade configuration. Heavy Victorian drapery was not as common down South, leading us to focus instead on lace curtains. (We added modern window film to reduce heat transfer and protect the furnishings against the sun damage.)
This house lacked picture rails, but we hate making holes in the plaster. Picture rails are as practical now as in Victorian times. So we bought standard picture-rail moldings made from cheap pine and painted them gold, as in the library. In less important rooms, however, the gilded look would be too fancy. It’s ironic that, to achieve a more modest look, minor rooms got picture rails milled from antique longleaf pine, which cost ten times as much per linear foot. To match them to the surrounding woodwork, we used an old recipe that specified a walnut glaze and multiple coats of shellac.
Our budget no longer allowed wallpaper for the library. So we stole from Tiffany; we’ve always admired the stencil designs in the Mark Twain House, which was decorated in the Aesthetic manner by Tiffany’s Associated Artists. We cut the stencils ourselves, and two and a half weeks later we’d created a little stepsister of the room that contributed to Samuel Clemens’ financial woes. Our cost: the price of two cans of paint.
Late Victorian decorating conventions are used throughout the house. The parlor is layered with multiple wallpapers, plaster and Parian busts, oil paintings on easels, antique light fixtures, and vintage cut velvet on 19th-century furniture. In one corner, a century-old Ersari tribal rug sits beneath a Meiji-era room screen designed for the American market during the Anglo–Japanese craze of the 1870s and 1880s. We use “art groupings,” artistic vignettes that pull together small decorative objects on mantels, tables, and shelves. This is how Victorians personalized their interiors during a time when a slew of manufactured goods were replacing the handmade items of their parents’ generation.
The period piece my wife Cathy and I created is arguably the result of two cases of undiagnosed obsessive–compulsive disorder. We’ve had so much fun, regardless, bringing this old house back into its past. Our work recently won a preservation award from the Galveston Historic Foundation. Best of all, our 19th-century interior provides us with a perfect escape from the frenzy of this modern world.Published in: Old-House Interiors September/October 2011