Dream Homes

Houston’s Top Homes

A insider's guide to the greatest houses in the city

By Michael Hardy and John Lomax December 31, 2013 Published in the January 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Perf House; Courtesy Lojo

Frame-Harper House (1960)

Neuhaus & Taylor • 430 Westminster Dr.

Frame-Harper House; Courtesy Hester + Hardaway Photographers

Designed by Harwood Taylor in the early 1960s and renovated several times (most significantly by Stern & Bucek in 2004), the Memorial-area Frame-Harper House inspires complete and utter rhapsody in Rusty Bienvenue, executive director of the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“When I think of a Houston house, this is what I think of,” Bienvenue says. “It was the time when Houston was taking off and inventing everything. It was the same time as the Astrodome. We weren’t looking to other places to define who we were. We were defining ourselves.” 

Like Bayou Bend, the Frame-Harper House positively melds with its wooded, hilly lot sloping down to Buffalo Bayou. “It really embraces the bayou—it’s part of the house, you can see it from everywhere,” Bienvenue continues. “It’s built for entertaining. The cascading levels down to the bayou are just one entertaining space after another. I’ve been to parties there and it just works so beautifully.”

The interior dazzles as well. Panels form doorways into secluded bedrooms—you press on just the right spot, and they slide open. It’s built almost all the way up to the street, but you’d never know it. “From inside the house you don’t even realize that you’re three feet from the curb line,” says Barrie Bradley, former managing editor of Cite. “Spatially, it’s a very inventive house.”

But don’t invite Bienvenue to spend the night unless you’re prepared for a long stay. “If I were a guest here,” he says, laughing, “I would never go home.” —John Nova Lomax

Sewall House (1926)

Cram, Goodhue, & Ferguson • 3456 Inwood Dr.

Sewall House

Image: Peter Molick

Ralph Adams Cram’s architecture for the new Rice Institute, founded in 1912, impressed many Houstonians, none more so than arts patron Blanche Harding Sewall. She and her husband, lawyer/banker Cleveland Sewall, initially commissioned a house from Cram for a new lot on South Boulevard in the new Broadacres neighborhood. But Cleveland Sewall was sued by a future neighbor over deed restrictions—the house was simply too big for its site. After losing the argument, Sewall purchased three lots facing the River Oaks Country Club’s then-new golf course and built the house there instead. (Incidentally, the Sewall House is not to be confused with Rice’s Sewall Hall, built in 1971 and named for Cleveland.)

Image: Peter Molick

Working from a sketch by Blanche Sewall and inspired by houses Cram had seen while spending a winter in Seville, the architect designed a Spanish-style house with a red-tiled roof, pink stucco walls, classical detailing, and a grand entrance portal. As for the interiors, Blanche traveled to Spain with two experts on Spanish decorative arts, returning with a full haul of furniture and artifacts. (Sadly, most of the original furniture has since been sold off.)

The Sewall House is one of the relatively few examples of residential architecture by the Boston-based Cram—who specialized in buildings for institutions like Princeton and Rice—and remains one of the most impressive homes in River Oaks. —M.H.

The Perf House (2011)

Logan and Johnson • 1134 Waverly St.

Perf House; Courtesy Lojo

Imagine two log cabins connected by an open-air passageway, all under a common roof, and you have the dogtrot home, popular throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. (The Kellum-Noble House is a variation on the dogtrot design.) The central breezeway allowed air to circulate freely through the house, cooling it down. The invention of air conditioning would seem to have rendered the dogtrot’s breezeway obsolete, but a surge of interest in sustainability has prompted architects to take a second look at the design.

Perf House; Courtesy Lojo

Jason Logan’s 2,650-square-foot Perf House is an update of the dogtrot home for the 21st century. If one breezeway is good, Logan thought, why not four? Built on a long, narrow lot in the Heights, the two-story home uses quadruple breezeways to provide outdoor spaces in the front and back. Through the ingenious use of cross-ventilation, Logan was able to cut down on energy consumption, while the perforated metal siding that covers many of the interior windows (and gives the house its name) provides plenty of natural light. The long sides of the rectangular house, meanwhile, are oriented north-south to reduce direct sunlight. 

The breezeways aren’t the house’s only homage to Houston’s architectural history. The dark red oak flooring was inspired by Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection building, while the corrugated metal siding evokes the James-Armstrong’s Tin House style. Logan, a native Houstonian, acknowledges the influence of history on the house. “We were interested in the breezeway typology of the dogtrot home,” he says. “But we didn’t want to copy it in a nostalgic way.” —M.H.

William Nash House

Image: Peter Molick

William Nash House (1907)

H.C. Cooke & Co. • 215 Westmoreland Ave.

At the turn of the 20th century, Houston’s wealth was finally fanning out from Main Street. One of the first developments to entice the elite toward what is now Montrose was Westmoreland, modeled on a similarly named enclave in St. Louis—both were designed by Julius Pitzman—and home to Lyndon Johnson in 1930 and ’31, when he was debate coach at Sam Houston High School.

Built by rancher and oilman William Nash, the house was designed to be a flashy showpiece of Colonial Revival architecture. With its enormous quartet of Corinthian columns flanking an ornate portico, the Nash House survives as one of only two first-rate Westmoreland reminders of the palmy days of the South End, as the larger area around it was known. (Approximately 42 similar homes were destroyed from the 1950s through the 1980s, razed mainly to make way for small, undistinguished apartment complexes, some of which were eventually replaced by townhomes more in tune with what remains of their lovely surroundings.)

Colonial Revival architecture’s vogue was short—prosperous Houstonians opted for variations on English country styles from the period after World War I until the late 1970s, when less ornate variations on the Nash House started popping up all over suburbia. “Houstonians don’t understand that we have these kinds of houses here,” says architectural historian Barrie Bradley. “It’s a pretty impressive place.” 

This was once the home of the fearsome “Ma” Graham, an indomitable force of nature who took it upon herself to gift Houston a permanent opera company of the first chop. As the era’s preeminent local music critic Hubert Roussel put it, “Nobody in Houston said nay to the ideas of Ma Graham; the prudent had learned to take cover and give her full freedom of movement.” And if architecture really is frozen music, Ma Graham’s old house is an aria, ascending heavenward as the tympani rumble and horns swell. —J.N.L.

James-Armstrong House; courtesy Cameron Armstrong Architects

James-Armstrong House (1993)

Cameron Armstrong • 5423 Gibson St.

In 1969, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Eugene Aubrey to build Rice University’s Media Center out of galvanized sheet iron, making the metal building stand out like a shimmering sore thumb amidst the college’s more conservative architecture. Despite its detractors, who called it “The Barn,” the Media Center would give birth to Houston’s so-called “Tin Houses”—the most significant architectural movement ever to emerge from the city. 

One of the finest examples of this style is the rigorous, uncompromising James-Armstrong House, built by architect Cameron Armstrong for himself and his wife, artist Terrell James, in the West End. In the 1970s, the West End was a neighborhood in transition. Artists and other bohemians were snapping up bungalows in the blue-collar area, restoring some and tearing down others to start from scratch. Gallerists Ian Glennie and Fredericka Hunter hired Aubrey to build a two-story house along the lines of the Media Center at 507 Roy St.; its exterior, almost devoid of adornment, would also be made of corrugated metal.

Après Roy, le deluge: by the mid-’90s, the West End was studded with Tin Houses, their silver sheets setting off the area’s lush greenery perfectly. Among the ones that remain, Stephen Fox praises the James-Armstrong House above all others for the “taut geometries” and “play of plane and void” of its exterior. He hastens to add that these homes weren’t about ostentatious, ornamented curb appeal, but rather economically constructed receptacles for the art collections within. As Armstrong told Fox, “most of his clients were people who would rather spend their money on art than on fancy finishes.” —J.N.L.

The Menil House

Image: Grant Mudford

Menil House (1951)

Philip C. Johnson Associates and Cowell & Neuhaus

In the late 1940s, John and Dominique de Menil purchased several acres of land on San Felipe Rd. in the Briarwood area of River Oaks. Disdaining the country house architecture favored by Houston’s elite at the time, the de Menils wanted their house to make a cutting-edge statement, so they hired the hot young New York–based architect and protégé of Mies van der Rohe—Philip Johnson.

The Menil House

Image: Grant Mudford

Johnson’s design called for a one-story, flat-roofed house set well back from the street, with a nearly blank brick wall facing the driveway. Once inside, the de Menils passed through a wide entrance hall into the spacious living room, with sliding glass doors that opened onto an expansive backyard garden. The natural world was captured inside the house via an interior garden court, which was later roofed over with a translucent canopy installed by architect Howard Barnstone. 

Although they loved Johnson’s design, the de Menils were less enthusiastic about his stark modernist interiors, so they hired couturier Charles James to help choose the furniture and decor. Over time, the couple filled the home with their eclectic, expansive art collection. A sensitive renovation by local architectural firm Stern & Bucek, completed in 2004, restored the house to its original condition, although it is administered by the Menil Collection and can only be viewed on a private tour. 

Rusty Bienvenue, executive director of AIA Houston, doubts that a Houstonian would have the courage to build such an exquisite home these days. “It’s hard to believe that somebody who owned that lot today, and had that kind of money in Houston, would build a house this tasteful.”—M.H.

Durst-Gee House

Image: Grant Mudford

Durst-Gee House (1960)

Bruce Goff • 323 Tynebrook Ln.

Seemingly inspired by the Nautilus submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, this extraordinary home features three enormous porthole-like windows facing onto the street. Located on a cul-de-sac in the Memorial area, the entire house is based on circular motifs, from its cylindrical, glass-enclosed spiral staircase to the fanciful wheel-and-spoke contraption that crowns the chimney. 

Durst-Gee House

Image: Grant Mudford

The house was built by Bruce Goff, a visionary architect who taught at the University of Oklahoma and designed hundreds of futuristic buildings around the country before dying in 1982. The Durst-Gee House is positively restrained, believe it or not, compared to some of Goff’s other wild designs, although it still stands in stark contrast to the traditional mansions that surround it. And while the exterior might conjure claustrophobic images a la Das Boot, the house is surprisingly expansive inside, another testament to the architect’s ingenuity.

Although not everyone appreciates Goff’s eccentric brand of architecture, his homes’ owners are often fanatical in their devotion. The Durst-Gee’s current owner, Julia Gee, likes the home so much she commissioned an addition from Goff, which was completed a year before the architect died. “Mrs. Gee worships Bruce Goff, like many people who live in his houses,” says Stephen Fox. “There’s almost a cult of Goff.” —M.H.

Bayou Bend; Courtesy Rick Gardner / Bayou Bend Gardens, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Bayou Bend (1928)

John Staub • 1 Westcott St.

Since 1966, Bayou Bend has been open to the public as an exhibition space for the American decorative arts collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, but it was built as a home, and by two brothers, Will and Mike Hogg, for their sister Ima in 1928. It is considered the quintessence of architect John F. Staub’s style, a mélange of American Federal, Louisiana Creole, and English Regency traditions. “Latin Colonial” was Miss Ima’s own term for the design of her pink stucco, copper-roofed home, one she believed was more attuned to Houston’s humid, rainy climate than the Spanish Mediterranean style then in vogue among Houston’s elite. 

“It was a house consciously designed to be a model for how architecture should relate to Houston,” says Stephen Fox. “It embodied Ima Hogg’s notions about how people should live in Houston. It was deeply embedded in the cultural aspirations of the most aware Houstonians of the 1920s.”

The Hoggs took great care to leave as small a footprint as possible on their site—only one tree was cut down for the house’s construction and the landscaping of its wondrous gardens, a series of terraces descending from the front steps of the home down to the murky, roiling bayou. Miss Ima insisted on acknowledging that waterway when naming the house, over the objections of brother Mike, who thought the name sounded “too muddy and ‘muskeetery’ and malarial.” 

“Not everyone can have a bayou,” Miss Ima replied, and that was that. —J.N.L.

St. Emanuel House

Image: Paul Hester

St. Emanuel House (2009)

Ronnie Self • 3308 St Emanuel St.

Take Philip Johnson’s Glass House out of the Connecticut woods, drop it down near Highway 59 in Houston’s Third Ward, and raise it up on stilts. That gives a rough approximation of the brilliant, 1,850-square-foot home Ronnie Self built on one of the city’s least promising pieces of land a few years ago. 

St. Emanuel House

Image: Paul Hester

Self is a Texas architect who worked for a time at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris, where he seems to have acquired a European taste for small, efficient homes. When he returned to Houston, Self chose a weedy site overlooking the highway—indeed, the house is sometimes called the Highway House—and set about building his dream home. To provide a better view of the downtown skyline, the architect raised the house up one level above grade on a concrete base, and then added a rooftop terrace, complete with its own Austin-style moon tower. 

The home may appear small, but don’t be fooled, says Stephen Fox, who’s been inside. “It’s just a marvel of spatial compactness, but also a house that feels extremely spacious because of the way that Self has managed the views.” —M.H.

Keelum-Noble House; courtesy Annette Boatwright / CTSY Heritage Society

The Kellum-Noble House (1847)

Francis McHugh • Sam Houston Park, 1000 Bagby St.

Unlike the rescue homes trucked into downtown’s Sam Houston Park from all across the county, the 1847 Kellum-Noble House has always been there. The Louisiana Plantation–style dwelling first belonged to Nathaniel Kelly Kellum, one of the city’s earliest suburbanites, as the home stands outside surveyor Gail Borden’s original town plot in what was once known as the “upper part” of Houston.

Kellum built a brickyard, a sawmill, and a tannery nearby, and about 35,000 of his hand-fired bricks were used in the house’s construction. Though it employs a traditional Gulf Coast dogtrot layout (two cabins separated by a central breezeway, all under a common roof), the use of those bricks, the vast encircling galleries, and the hipped roof were all cutting-edge in the 1840s. 

The home was purchased by Abram and Zerviah Noble for $2,000 in 1850, after which Zerviah Noble ran what a contemporary ad called the “large, airy and commodious house” as a private school for 26 years and later as Fourth Ward Public School.  

In 1899, the city purchased the home and several surrounding acres to establish Sam Houston Park, with the building serving as park headquarters. Dark days were coming, though: by 1954, it was slated for a date with the wrecking ball. But at that precise moment—and because of this very house—Houston’s ever-harried, oft-ignored preservationist movement was born. The Harris County Heritage Society was chartered, and the organization went on not only to save the house but open it to tours, in 1958. Kellum-Noble is more than a handsome old home in an architectural zoo: it represents a line in the sand for lovers of Houston history and heritage. —J.N.L. 

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