Jack and Sophia Blalock knew how to throw a party. Jack, an attorney, was active in local politics, and the well-traveled couple had a large circle of friends in Houston and beyond. Social gatherings in the formal living room of their River Oaks home are among the earliest memories of Tracy Vaught, their granddaughter.
Sophia died a widow in 1991, and three years later, Vaught, the owner of Backstreet Café, bought the Tudor Revival house with the help of her mother and a little inheritance. With the purchase, she became the fourth generation to call the place home since Jack and Sophia bought it from the developers in 1935 (Vaught’s great-grandmother was also a resident in the early years, and her mother and uncle were raised there, too). The same year, she married Hugo Ortega, the now-famous Houston chef she met working at Backstreet, and soon their daughter Sophie, the fifth generation to reside there, was born.
But that was just the beginning of the story. Though the home’s brick exterior is timeless, the interiors didn’t hold up quite as well. “You could tell it was decorated back in the ’70s,” says Vaught. “She did it in 1970, and then she went blind. And there weren’t any redos after that.”
Among the many issues, the bare-bones kitchen looked like something out of the Depression era, and the main floor was poorly lit and broken up into several small, single-function rooms rather than one cohesive space. Vaught knew that if the house went on the market in that state, it would be gone—demolished.
“Hugo was like, ‘Ugggh, let’s just go buy a new house,’” Vaught recalls. “But he understood. You talk about what you want in life, and set your goals and all that, and this was the big one in my life, to fix this house for Sophie, basically. It just was a lot bigger project than I had any clue it would be.”
Determined not to borrow money to work on the house, the couple had architect Rudy Colby, who also designed Hugo’s Mexican restaurant on Westheimer, draw up a plan to make the old house into something that would work for modern family life. They then executed it in slow motion, in three big chunks, over the next 20 years.
“You wait and you wait and you wait, and everybody else has these beautiful houses, and it’s like wow, I’m just living in this dump. But I love it. It’s my family dump,” laughs Vaught.
The first phase of the renovation focused on the upstairs bedrooms. The layout was kept mostly intact, with bathrooms and closets getting much-needed updates. Out went the wallpaper featuring English country scenes in each bedroom, replaced by a neutral palette that’s heavy on blue, Vaught’s favorite color. The family added transitional pieces that work with the home’s bones but have a more modern feel. And in homage to her grandparents, the twin beds they’d slept in stayed, moved to the guest room.
“We lived here through all three renovations, and the most horrible one was upstairs,” says Vaught. “Sophie slept in the dining room; we turned the living room into our bedroom. There was no full bath, so we had to go to the country club to bathe every single day for six months. I’d be getting dressed in the dark from a rack of clothes next to the bed on the floor, and I couldn’t see if the clothes were brown or blue. I thought I was going to go crazy.”
Next came the back wing, a sort of attached garage apartment where the housekeeper lived. “She had it the worst—it was free, but it was horrible,” says Vaught. In addition to renovating the private living space, the family turned part of the structure into a poolside den, outfitted by designer Cathy Chapman in airy colors for a slightly beachy vibe.
“This is Hugo’s area, where he watches TV and studies his books,” says Vaught. “Sophie, whenever she had friends over to spend the night, would stay back here, and they could use the pool, and have a full bathroom, and drinks from the kitchenette over there. It’s a very self-sufficient little living area.”
The biggest update of all, to the exterior and main floor of the house, finally got underway in 2014. Those timeless bricks, it turned out, needed attention. The original mortar between them was turning to dust, so every single brick had to be removed and re-applied. Meanwhile, the downstairs renovation took the house down to the studs in some places—particularly around the kitchen—and drastically changed the floor plan.
Colby scrapped the home’s small breakfast room to make way for an expanded kitchen, turning the adjoining dining room into a small den. And two small sitting rooms became a large central dining room that connects all the main floor spaces, including a screened-in porch. The result is a space that feels true to the original, yet lighter and more open.
The first floor now has fewer, but larger, pieces of furniture, mixed in with the occasional heirloom piece. Among them are several portraits painted by Joi Carrington, Vaught’s great-aunt on her father’s side, as well as another artwork, hanging in the dining room, of more mysterious provenance.
“When [my grandmother] bought it in New Orleans, it was of a different man. When she gave it to the museum to clean, they discovered another painting underneath it, and this is the painting that came out. The guy before looked more like George Washington, a little thinner, with different hair. This guy’s a little chubbier and not quite as handsome as the other guy,” says Vaught.
Another family heirloom is a large music box made in 1886 that plays 10 songs, a favorite piece of Vaught’s since she was a child. It still has pride of place in the formal living room where her grandparents used to throw all those parties. The space, still anchored by the original hearth, has remained relatively untouched, and now that the house is finally finished—the final update was a new front door, finished last summer—Vaught has started throwing parties there too.
“I used it this Christmas for three parties … For Thanksgiving, we had about 25 people, and I did all the cooking myself. It’s so much work! But then at Christmas I got smart and ordered some things from the restaurant,” says Vaught. “It’s nice to think that after 80 years we’re still doing family dinners here.”