Space City

A Bigger Bungalow

How to maximize a small space.

Photography by Jill Hunter By Katharine Shilcutt August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Paula Murphy’s brick bungalow on Sul Ross St. is the epitome of a classic Montrose charmer, its cherry-red front door flanked by two red maples. “I bought this house because I loved the look of it,” she says. “As cheesy as it sounds, I feel privileged to live here.”

When she bought the Craftsman-style bungalow 12 years ago, living in the heart of the city was important to Murphy, as was owning a small piece of Houston history—even if she wasn’t quite sure when the brick home was built. “The paperwork said 1910, but that seems too early,” says Murphy, a Houston resident of 30 years and the owner of Patterson & Murphy, a public relations firm. “I think it was built in the 1930s.”

Murphy wasn’t interested in buying a sprawling, new-construction home that had more room than she needed, but at the same time, that extra space seemed like a real luxury. If her beloved bungalow presented some challenges, she was still determined to make it work. For help making the most of her small rooms—as well as dealing with an old home’s eccentricities—she turned to a friend, design consultant Betty Maccagnan. Like Murphy, Maccagnan had bought and fixed up her own classic bungalow, in Southampton.

It was a match from the beginning. Both women favor simple, timeless, functional design and, most importantly, they’re both interested in maximizing small spaces—for more actual storage, and for a lighter, airier look and feel. “So many people aren’t using their homes efficiently,” says Maccagnan.

Murphy was already on her way, having completed an earlier kitchen renovation with the aim of enlarging it. She had replaced upper cabinets with open shelves and disguised her dishwasher with a seamless, custom-designed cabinetry façade, giving the appearance of an enlarged kitchen without tearing out walls or making drastic changes. Open shelving in particular discourages clutter and allows more light to filter through, giving the impression of an open, clean space.

The kitchen done, the two turned their attention to Murphy’s guest room, office, and master bedroom. In each room, they decided to build brand-new closets, all of them floor-to-ceiling but narrow and hugging one wall, with banks of doors that open like modern-day armoires to reveal tidy shelves and plenty of room inside. For Maccagnan, part of the trick is neatness and organization. For example, hangers, she says, should match and be made out of wood, out of respect for clothing and for visual effect. “IKEA has great wood hangers. Your clothes will automatically all hang correctly and line up nicely.”

Murphy works from home, and in her office Maccagnan emphasized the same clean lines. “In a small room, you don’t want big furniture or tall things encroaching on you,” says Maccagnan. They turned Ikea bookshelves on their sides, so they were no taller than a bench. “You don’t want your bookcases in the line of sight.”

Above a banquette of bookshelves, Maccagnan employed another favorite technique (one that’s echoed in the dining room). Two ledges painted the same warm beige tone of the office walls, barely visible, are used to showcase Murphy’s extensive art collection. “You don’t leave holes in the wall when you switch the pieces out,” says Maccagnan, “and if you get bored, you can change it out frequently —maybe add a bit of coral, or a piece of shell—and display all of that in a cohesive way.” 

Maccagnan encourages curating and grouping objects into tight, focused sets when living in a smaller space. It makes a larger impact than scattering them around, and with attention focused on a few key spots, a room will automatically open up. “It’s about editing, choosing, reflecting your personality,” says Maccagnan. “Grouping things en masse creates drama and impact.”

Murphy and Maccagnan recently tackled the Montrose bungalow’s seriously cramped master bathroom. They barely changed its footprint, instead relocating a too-large linen closet that ate into the shower stall’s space. Moving it to another wall and making it much more shallow opened up the entire space—as did the white tiles that run from floor to ceiling. “Scale and proportion are key,” Maccagnan says. “If you have a long, narrow space, consider reducing the depth of cabinets to make the area seem bigger—just a few inches can make a world of difference.”

Amidst all the changes, it’s important to Murphy to preserve the house’s historic appeal too: there’s original wood throughout, and original, white-and-lime-green tiles in the guest bathroom. She’s also saved something from every room she and Maccagnan have renovated so far, even finding an old brown glass whiskey bottle and wax paper sandwich bag from a now-closed Montrose deli inside one wall—seemingly discarded there by a worker during the home’s construction in the 1930s. It inspired her to leave a time capsule of her own.

Murphy says she put in a picture of the house, a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey, a note, the front page of the Houston Chronicle that day, and a photo of herself. “I want someone to know this house was loved.” 

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