EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
1874 Smith-Hartley House, 1121 33rd Street, Galveston
By Barbara Canetti • Photos by Illumine Photographic Services
Diana Wallace admits that the 1874 Galveston house she found in 2012 was a mess, but it was the winding staircase in the hallway that caught her eye and told her that this was the house for her.
“Isn’t that the most amazing staircase ever,” said Wallace, who divides her time between Galveston and Weatherford near Dallas. “This place had no electricity or water, everything had to be redone but I loved the high ceilings and the staircase and the feeling I got when I looked around.”
So began her journey to make this large boarded up Italianate eyesore an exquisite example of elegant island living. The restored house at 1121 33rd Street is part of the 44th Annual Galveston Historic Homes Tour set for May 5-6 and May 12-13.
The house, which sits on three lots near the center of the island, had been designed by architect Thomas J. Overmire for early land speculator J. Mayrant Smith. He lived there briefly before selling it in 1880 to Susan Hartley, the sister of Rebecca Sealy who was married to prominent Galvestonian John Sealy. In 1930 Frank McCoy – owner of McCoy Building Supply Company — bought the house and made some drastic changes. Later, it became an apartment building until it was eventually abandoned. Wallace said she and contractor Chuck Morris had to use flashlights to get around until they could rewire the structure and install some lights.
But today, it is almost complete. Wallace said it has been a labor of love, but way more than she anticipated. Morris agreed. Through his company Chuck Morris Coastal Homes he has restored dozens of houses in the area, although he found this one very challenging.
“It was a derelict house and it just looked awful. The plaster [walls were] falling apart, it had to be replumbed, rewired and sheetrocked. All the cabinets and trim had to be recreated and the belvedere on the top had to be rebuilt,” said Morris. The belvedere, a small room on the top floor and surrounded by windows, had been original to the house but removed by the McCoys because the children were caught climbing out onto the roof. It now has been restored and is big enough for a trundle bed for some of Wallace’s ten grandchildren to stay when they visit.
The grand entry hallway with its massive carved hall tree opens onto a light-filled music room with a grand piano and large walk-though windows that lead out to the porches. Wallace had been able to preserve some of the original touches in the house, including setbacks adjacent to the windows that allow for interior shutters in the formal rooms and six fireplaces with a variety of finishes. The original pocket doors between rooms were restored and can be closed for privacy. The large living room contiguous to the front room has been decorated in period furniture, including a turn-of-the-century Sonora Victrola and glass enclosed bookcases for special collectibles.
One of Wallace’s most treasured items is a series of diaries her mother-in-law kept for 15 years in the 1930s and 1940s. “She wrote in it every day,” she said, adding that some of the entries describe the attack on Pearl Harbor and events during World War II.
The expansive kitchen, brightly decorated with bold magnolia print wallpaper and soft green cabinets, was carved from three smaller rooms. A large marble-topped island sits in the middle of the room, and a massive Italian-made Bertazzoni gas range was purchased to complete the kitchen. All of the cabinets were custom built on site and tailor made to Wallace’s requests. The kitchen also opens onto a side porch that faces south and catches the cool Gulf breezes.
The only room Wallace said she is sure that remained in place is the dining room, because of its swinging door that leads to the kitchen area. This room also opens out to a porch.
The hallway features a showstopping crystal chandelier that was in a hundred pieces before it was reassembled. Look closely at the floor underneath and visitors will spot a deep cut in the long leaf pine. Wallace said she chose to leave this imperfection intact because it was a reminder of The Great Storm of 1900, a time when rushing flood waters pushed houses off their bases. Morris said it is documented that homeowners used hatchets to make holes in the floor to let the waters rush in and keep the structure from floating away. She has found several hatchet holes in the floor and they’re still there, a somber reminder of the power of nature’s wrath.
Visitors climb up the winding staircase to the second floor where three bedrooms and three bathrooms were rebuilt. The view down the curved staircase shows a sculptured spiral design that demonstrates the precision craftsmanship of the early builders. Some of the wooden banisters and balusters had to be replaced and hand-carved to match existing posts. Century-old advertisements from Harper’s Bazaar have been framed and hang on the walls.
The bedrooms all have fireplaces and many windows; one of the bedrooms is decorated with toys, dolls, books and tokens enjoyed by Wallace’s four children when they were young.
“This is a very special room to me. I don’t think I ever threw anything away and then I moved it all here,” she said.
The master bedroom is more than a suite of rooms. It features a large sitting room with television and other entertainment equipment that opens to an attached room with an immense canopy bed. Around the corner is the master bathroom with a slipper tub and double sinks. It is all finished in marble and feels quite luxurious. A huge, deep closet is attached.
Between the second and third floors is a landing with a double bed tucked into a corner, giving Wallace additional space for her large family. At the top of the stairs is the belvedere with unobstructed views of the Gulf of Mexico, the Port of Galveston and nearby St. Patrick’s Church.
“We found pictures at the Rosenberg Library [in Galveston] which documented the original house. We built it to look like it did, but this time it meets modern wind storm requirements. But it looks like the early pictures again,” Morris said.
Wallace said the process of rehabbing a piece of Galveston’s history has been a great experience.
“This is my happy place,” she said, adding that she sometimes senses people’s spirits in the house. “It’s all good. I just say ‘It’s OK, Sue [Hartley]; it’s just me here. I’m friendly.’”
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