Some houses, like people and animals, are destined to be saved. Nothing about the tiny, charming but dilapidated Texas Queen Anne Victorian house in the Robertson Hill area of East Austin would have made anyone stop and say, “This one is extra special.” Except for the people who knew that it was — and did something about it.
Katie Bullard and husband Jeff Bullard are managing partners of Avenue B Development, LLC, an Austin-based company they founded in 2009 to indulge their passion for restoration and renovation, particularly of historic homes in historic neighborhoods. He’s the principal contractor; she’s the principal designer. In four short years, their projects in Hyde Park and Judges Hill, among others, have brought them awards and recognition for their outstanding work in historic preservation.
The Robertson Hill property was the Peterson House — named for its first owner, Swedish merchant George A. Peterson — and it had been through the good, bad and ugly times since its construction in 1901. Passed from owner to owner, plumbing and electrical wiring deteriorating over time, it was getting older but definitely not better. Somewhere around the 1940s, a makeshift 500-square-foot addition of scrap materials and shoddy construction had been slapped on the original 1,200 square feet. By the 1980s, it landed in the hands of Dagmar Grieder, a retired banker who bought it only as a rental investment, but realized the house needed help when she saw that a tenant “had stuffed an athletic sock” into the hole of the leaky ceiling. “The first thing I did was put a solid roof” on the old addition, she recalls, but knew the house needed much more. Grieder, a seasoned property owner, loved the house, but as time went by the reality of a massive makeover hit hard. “I had to decide whether to do it myself or let somebody else do it.”
Reluctantly, in 2010 Grieder put up a “For Sale by Owner” sign in the front yard — at the same time the Bullards’ real estate agent Lindsay K. Harris was driving by. When Katie Bullard got the call about “a really great property,” she wasn’t surprised. “She loves the [Robertson Hill] neighborhood. The houses that come up for sale there are few and far between, so she was always proactively monitoring the area.”
Harris’s enthusiasm for this diamond in the rough was matched by the Bullard’s the minute they saw it. According to Bullard, the house had everything they wanted in a historic property. “We look for a lot of its original characteristics, regardless of the state it’s in.” And it was in a state. Still, Bullard could see beyond the disrepair to the house’s true treasures: “Beautiful 11-foot high ceilings. Glass transoms in all of the doorways. Beautiful bay windows.” Not to mention original floors, doors, hardware and lots of windows. The icing on the cake was the level of Victorian details on the front of the wing-and-gable house with its rafters and turrets, as well as the detail inside — well-preserved trim throughout and original beadboard wainscoting in the center hall. “We knew we could work with all of those really well, and that when we restored it they would add to its charm.”
The first thing to go was the old slapdash addition, to be replaced with a carefully planned and suitable expansion in keeping with the house’s original style and to make it infinitely more appealing — and marketable — to a growing family or young urban professionals who wanted to be close to downtown or the university. Plans were drawn up for a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath. At just under a total of 2,400 square feet, says Bullard, “we basically doubled the size of the original property.” The house also needed rewiring and replumbing.
Because the house had been designated an Austin City Landmark, the rules were clear: “The front of the house, the facade, could not change,” explains Bullard. The goal was “to design an addition that looked like it had always been there. With the number of gables this house had, that was a bit tricky.” The roof over the new section “could not look like it had been plopped onto the back of the house.” The trim also had to match from the front to the back. The roof on the addition was metal, just like the original.
Inside, another challenge awaited: The original flooring was a striking feature of the house, but how to match it to the new section? “We had to find reclaimed heart pine flooring,” says Bullard, which they did, at a reclaimed flooring vender in Austin. But pine flooring gets redder over time. “The difference between old floor and new is depth of the color. So it was important to get flooring that was about the same age as the original.” After all of the floors were sanded and restained, “they all looked like they had all been there forever.”
The kitchen “didn’t change dramatically,” says Bullard. “It got a little bit longer, but the width was the same.” New Frigidaire® appliances, glass-front cabinets, and Santa Cecilia Classico granite counters with a beadboard backsplash brought the room into the 21st century while staying true to the vintage feel. Same for the baths, bath fixtures by Vintage ub and Bath blend perfectly with a period claw foot tub, reclaimed and refinished.
As for the addition itself, it starts next to the kitchen with the family room, with its fireplace, half-bath and French doors opening to the flagstone patio, and continues to two bedrooms including the master suite and bath. The entire yard was landscaped, including new sod, beds, driveway and fence.
The house was repainted inside and out, using colors from the Benjamin oore Historic line. The exterior is Saybrook Sage, and the interior is predominantly Litchfield Gray.
The finished product was stunning in its seamlessness from old to new — exactly the outcome Bullard had wanted, and one that in 2011 netted Avenue B Development a prestigious CotY (Contractor of the Year) award by NARI for historic preservation. The house was also on the NARI our of Remodeled Homes the same year. “We constantly get comments that you couldn’t tell there was an addition to the house,” says Bullard. “That’s what we had hoped for.” Previous owner Dagmar Grieder says simply, “I was blown away. I could not possibly have dreamed of the transformation that occurred. It was wonderfully modern, yet kept the character of the house alive.”
Even more special was the bundle of old records that Grieder possessed: the original title book to the property, going back to the abstract when it was just a lot, then later titles and deeds, all handwritten with personal notations throughout the years — which she then gave to the Bullards who in turn gave it to the new owners who bought the house in 2010. Katie Bullard loves the sense of continuity with the past, but always has an eye toward the future. “Once we’re able in some sense to bring a property back to life and pass it on, we’re ready to find the next house that needs saving.”
By JULIE CATALANO
Urban Home Austin Magazine, Fall 2012