Historic Homes

This Galveston Estate Was 144 Years in the Making

Restoring this old beauty was a labor of love.

By Abby Ledoux and Laura Furr Mericas May 29, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Diane Wallace’s new home has been 144 years in the making. Over 35 of those years, it was left vacant. For the last four, it’s been under an intense restoration.

The 1870s-era Italianate-style house off Broadway in Galveston originally was built as a vacation home for land speculator J. Mayrant Smith, but was soon purchased by Susan Hartley, the widow of Texas legislator Oliver Cromwell Hartley and sister-in-law of prominent Galvestonian John Seely. Over the years, the massive house has been divvied up into apartments, survived some of Texas’s most devastating storms, and served as the home—and first lumber yard—of the McCoy family, whose McCoy’s Building Supply is still in operation today.  

When Wallace, a retired ER nurse–turned–real estate guru from Fort Worth, entered the picture in 2014, the house was something else entirely. Left abandoned for decades, it was occupied by squatters; parts of unsupported ceiling draped down like hammocks; windows were boarded up; large chunks of floorboard were missing; there was no plumbing, electricity, or air-conditioning; the floor plan was, Wallace says, a complete puzzle with “no rhyme or reason.”

The house was originally built as a vacation home for land speculator J. Mayrant Smith

But what the home lacked in niceties, it made up for in character. Armed with a flashlight, Wallace was struck by three elements as she explored the property: high ceilings, giant windows, and a grand, seemingly endless staircase. “I knew I could make something spectacular out of it,” she says. “I just didn’t know it was going to cost me as much as the Taj Mahal.”

Wallace has flipped about 75 homes—she bought 10 in one week during the 2008 crash—but this one, she knew, would be different. First, it would be hers. Second, it wouldn’t make her any money. “It’s something that you love to do and you enjoy,” she says.

She found Chuck Morris of Chuck Morris Homes, who’d restored and remodeled a number of historic homes on the island, including his own—built by Thomas J. Overmire, the same famed Chicago architect as Wallace’s. Morris understood that bringing the property to life would be a deliberate, slow-going process. Together, over the next four years, the two would hold out for just the right contractor, say, or for Wallace to save enough money to re-create a particular historic feature.

“If you are buying a historic home … and you research and look and find just the right piece,” she says, “absolutely everything is more expensive to do, but it’s also so much more rewarding.”

The home’s artistic crown moldings were handmade from plaster just as they were in the 19th century. Millwork was outsourced to a New Orleans specialist, and the plentiful crystal chandeliers—there’s not a canned light in sight—and period furniture were hand-picked by Wallace over the years, stored in one of five air-conditioned storage units she’s kept for the project.

Today the house looks the way it did a century ago, although it now has electricity, plumbing, and an actual floor plan, updated for modernity’s sake: What was once three small rooms in the back is now a huge, open kitchen with a long center island. Upstairs, an old apartment unit has become Wallace’s master suite; its former kitchen now her L-shaped bathroom and walk-in closet. Fireplaces—smaller than most, as they originally burned coal—dot the rooms, and island breezes proliferate thanks to the walk-through windows, which lead to wraparound porches.

A wrought-iron bed is tucked beneath a nook of the home’s giant staircase.

Wallace’s beloved staircase is a wonder to behold, leading to nooks and crannies filled with antiques and, in one case, a tucked-away, wrought-iron bed. At the top of the house sits a charming belvedere re-created from old photos of the house—the McCoy family had the original removed because their young sons kept sneaking out and playing on the roof.

The home, well-known in Galveston as the Smith-Hartley House, went back on the island’s historic homes tour last month; it was first introduced in 2014 as a restoration-in-progress. That year, Wallace was told to expect the fewest visitors of any home on tour. Instead, she welcomed thousands. More recently, she made the drive from Fort Worth—she splits her time between the two cities—ahead of Hurricane Harvey, hunkering down for a front-row seat to the storm’s havoc. Luckily, her dream home was spared.

Neighbors, Wallace says, often stop by to thank her for her years of careful, respectful work. Some have even said they bought nearby homes because of her. Others liken her to Susan Hartley, the original homeowner, calling the two “like spirits.”

For Wallace, the home is a true labor of love—and something rare to call her own. “I have always had to make do with trying to make someone else happy. I did not have to do that this time,” she says. “This is just for me.”

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