Call an Uber to 2701 Westheimer, and as often as not, the driver will pull up at neighboring West Ave instead. As addresses go, it’s easy to miss. The nondescript 13-story building, partially hidden behind gates and a tall hedge, isn’t as noticeable as its newer, showier neighbor. Its official name is the Regency House, but no one calls it that. The building is, simply, the Regency, the unlikely hub of Houston’s design scene.
“You know the Sierra Tower in Los Angeles? It’s the building where Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Zoe and Elton John and all the celebrities live. I think of this as the Sierra Tower of Houston,” says designer and resident Garrett Hunter. Artist Tamara de Lempicka lived here in the ’70s, and there’s even a Camelot connection, as the sister of Ted Kennedy’s first wife calls the building home.
Over the years, the Regency has made a habit of drawing in East Coast émigrés, designers, architects, artists, fashion-industry types, antiques dealers and interesting Houstonians of all stripes who have remade the building, unit by unit, into a collection of stylishly singular spaces.
“We have a cool factor over here. We have, and have had, so many architects and designers and artistic people living here,” says designer and resident Barbara Hill. “There’s a younger vibe here, a creative vibe.”
Regency House was built in 1963 by William Dickey, who owned much of what’s now Upper Kirby and developed the River Oaks–adjacent enclave of Avalon Place. The building was one of the first high-rises to go up outside the city’s downtown core, with stark midcentury lines that aspire to a Mies van der Rohe aesthetic. For most of its early history, the people moving in were older residents of River Oaks who wanted to stay in the neighborhood without the burden of a house to care for.
“A friend of mine who grew up in River Oaks, his mother moved in when she got old. She said, ‘You know, I always thought it was tacky to live in a high-rise until I moved to the Regency, and then it was just like being on a yacht,’” says former resident and antiques-shop owner Kay O’Toole.
By the time the building went condo in 1980, it was on the decline, upstaged by the new towers rising in Greenway Plaza, a descent that continued a few years later when a fire destroyed the private Napoleon Club on the top floor—beloved for its bringing drinks and food straight to residents’ units, or the pool, if they desired.
But eventually old turned into vintage, and cheap real estate prices, along with the intrinsic charms of the building—its central location, plus a lush two-acre backyard filled with oaks and magnolias—led to its re-discovery by an artsy crew of up-and-coming Houston insiders.
Mickey Rosmarin, the late founder of Tootsies, was among the first of a new generation to call it home, revamping a 12th-floor unit into an art deco oasis. Not far behind him were designer Randy Powers, Shabby Slips owner Renea Abbott, designer Cathy Echols, architect Scott Strasser, Sloan/Hall owners Shannon Hall and Marcus Sloan, Benjy’s owners Benjy and Erica Levit and celebrity hairstylist Cerón.
“We used to call it the country club, because nobody would lock their doors. Everybody was friends—you would think nothing of going down the hall and making a vodka soda and going back,” says Powers.
The units themselves aren’t particularly large—the smallest are barely over 500 square feet—but they’re well laid out, long and narrow to maximize the views. Their low cost in the ’90s and early 2000s—when a unit could be snapped up for as little as $50,000, a bargain compared to current prices, which range from $150,000 to nearly $1 million—led to a habit among residents of buying up neighboring places and combining them into a single unit. Add in clean midcentury lines and the building’s concrete frame, which makes virtually every interior wall disposable, and you’ve got the perfect petri dish for remarkable design.
Many credit the Levits, who arrived at the Regency from New York, as the first to embrace the stripped-down, industrial-chic loft look in 1999, mixing contemporary features with exposed surfaces. From there, the design bug seemed to spread through the walls by osmosis, helped along by an annual residents-only holiday tour in which owners who had updated their spaces opened them up for neighbors to come in and be inspired.
“Everybody did their apartment in different ways. There were people doing completely stark-modern to high English. That’s one of the cool things about it, how everybody comes up with their own spin. It’s part of the experience,” says Powers.
Barbara Hill’s current unit, her second, had mirrored walls when she bought it a decade ago, so she gutted it, removing every wall and exposing the concrete ceiling and floor, taking the urban, deconstructed look to its most extreme conclusion. Deciding she liked what she saw, she left it that way. The result is a space that feels textured, earthy and open, with all the focus on her eclectic art collection and high-design furnishings, gorgeously lit by central south-facing windows.
Other owners embrace a mix of modern and traditional styles. Stuart Rosenberg’s 12th-floor unit—the same one formerly owned by Rosmarin—melds an open layout with global textures in the form of kilim rugs and wooden furniture with distinctive Asian details. Designer Brent McCaleb of William Design Group, who lives on the same floor and has designed several apartments in the building, including Elizabeth Hoff's first-floor unit, prefers a contemporary display kitchen, midcentury furnishings and natural accents that play up the panoramic views of the River Oaks canopy below.
Audrey Maloney, who lives in half of the former Napolean Club space on the 13th floor with her husband William, updated the space by bringing in dark pinewood floors and doorways, letting the 12-foot concrete ceilings and virtually floor-to-ceiling windows emphasize the historic bones of the apartment.
“The Regency, you either love it or you hate it. You have to accept the fact that it’s older and not try to make it something that it isn’t,” says Maloney, who is also—you guessed it—an interior designer. “The same day we saw the unit, we looked at 2727 Kirby, and I didn’t like it at all. It’s not us. It’s got no heart. This building has so much character and soul. You don’t see that everywhere else.”