1920s Brick Norman Residence, Brentwood, River Oaks, Houston Texas
Restoration, Renovation, Design, Project Management
In the late 1920s, Katherine Mott, a successful Indianapolis house designer and builder and her husband Harry moved to Houston where she continued her career building both speculative and commissioned houses in River Oaks, Boulevard Oaks, Riverside Terrace, and Devonshire Place. She employed the Indianapolis architectural firm, Burns & James, and incorporated many of the design features she felt important such as one-room deep “principal room” for cross-ventilation, uninterrupted interior site-lines (. . . so the lady of the house could see what was going on at all times), detailed millwork, casement windows, and kitchens designed for staff.
Her predominate style choice was referred to as “Norman,” all the rage after World War I, and best described as a little French, a little Tudor, a little Italianate, with steep roofs, and fancy brickwork.
The Brentwood house was constructed 1928- 1929, and underwent three significant renovations: the first in the 1940s adding modern features and updated baths, the second in the 1960s that almost doubled the square footage but did not significantly alter existing rooms, and the third in the late 1970s, unremarkable except for a strange second-floor appendage that accessed the pool deck from the renovated master bath via a terrifyingly narrow spiral iron staircase.
When it went on the market in 2001, the house’s condition and its square-footage-to-lot valuation put it at serious risk for demolition; a fate suffered just a few years prior to the Mott house on the adjacent property.
Our goal at the outset was quite simple: save this marvelous old house. Even though Mott sold the house in 1929, prior to its completion, she began it as a spec-build and did not include certain expensive exterior refinements to be found in her commissioned houses. Fortunately, old recorded interviews with the builder gave direction, and visits to her remaining River Oaks houses showed how she would have dealt with the rear and side elevations had this been a commissioned project, and it also gave direction as to how to correct design oversight of the previous remodels.
The garage and quarters were in unrepairable condition, and as they were of no architectural significance, they came down immediately along with the unusual second floor appendage. Next was to replace fixed-pane windows with casement. And in place of the simple running bond brick of the 1960s remodel, we added herringbone and diamond clinker brink patterns and limestone lintels consistent with the original plans. No longer was this to be Mott’s spec house, but rather one that showed as beautifully on the back and sides as it did on the front
Evidence of the 1970s second floor “remodel”
Modified brickwork and windows of the restoration
As expected, a total replumbing and rewiring was required, but it was in reconfiguring the spaces, replacing the kitchen, renovating the baths, expanding the closets, and fine-tuning the finishes that the big impact was felt.
We learned that Mott used heavily fossilized stone flooring in her commissioned house entries, so the oak flooring in the entry hall and the manufactured tile in the 1960s room addition was replaced with Marbella limestone that we carried to outside decks and passages.
Mott's kitchens were designed for cooking by staff and not contemporary living, so the walls between the breakfast room, food pantry, butler’s pantry, and kitchen were removed; and in their place, we designed a modern kitchen that respected the “feel” of the house.
Existing kitchen to be remodeled
Demolition of breakfast room and pantry
We next addressed the entertaining spaces. When the family room was added in the 1960s, windows were removed on each side of the fireplace that left the living room feeling dark and confined and the new family room inaccessible except for small passage beneath the entry hall staircase. Our solution to the problem was to add openings between the living room and family room where the windows once appeared.
But once the openings were made, the family room could be seen from both the living room and the entry hall and its incompatible design had to change. Plywood veneer paneling was removed, the back of the firebox was opened to allow for a fireplace in the family room, mahogany French doors were installed, the composition tile flooring was replaced with the fossilized stone, and the room was finished with painted block paneling.
All bathrooms required not only new plumbing and fixtures, but total renovation.
A bathroom before
2nd Master Bath "before"
2nd Master Bath following renovation
One of the striking features of the “Norman” style is the tall, steep rooflines that typically hide high ceilings on the upper floors, but in the case of this house, the master bedroom ceiling was set just above the height of the windows. We raised the ceiling to take advantage of the roof line and, in so doing, gave the room a sense of well-needed spaciousness.
Attention was given to the other bedrooms and upper lounge, and a home office and gym were added to round out the renovation of the interior. Finally, a new carriage/guest house was added and the garden and pool redesigned.
Upon completion of the restoration in 2003, the house was recognized by Preservation Houston as a Good Brick Award property, and in 2011, the City of Houston granted it Landmark Designation. Today, because of the work done on behalf of the house in the 2001-2002 restoration, and the attention and care of two subsequent owners, this once at-risk house was saved from a probable demolition and stands proudly as a beautiful example of an early 20th century River Oaks residence whose future is assured.
Links and Articles;
Modern Homecraft: the Houses of Katherine B. Mott and Harry Mott’, Rice Design Alliance Architectural Tour and Lecture, 1998.
PaperCity Magazine, November 2002.
Houston Preservation Society, Good Brick Award 2003
City of Houston Landmark Designation, 2011
Burns and James, Architects, THE ENCYCOLPEDIA of INDIANAPOLIS