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Home once used to advertise Houston’s Heights 125 years ago gets a fresh upgrade

Home once used to advertise Houston’s Heights 125 years ago gets a fresh upgrade

It would be hard to find a house that more identifies with the Houston Heights than the one now owned by Jan Rynda Greer and Tyson Greer.

Built in 1892 as a spec home by the developers of the Heights — the Omaha and South Texas Land Co. — it was intended to make a statement about the quality of what was to come in this neighborhood that sprang from the ground more than 125 years ago as its own city before being annexed into the city of Houston in 1918.

Stately and towering, the 2½-story home on Harvard Street has a full basement and enough gingerbread trim to prompt many to call it a “life-sized dollhouse.” Adapted from a house plan by prominent Knoxville, Tenn., architect George F. Barber, it’s one of only two of the Omaha company’s original homes still standing in the Heights.

Bart Truxillo — who graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in architecture and spent his career restoring and redeveloping old homes and other structures — bought the house in the 1970s and restored it. The home is both a city of Houston historic landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Truxillo, one of the founders of what is now Preservation Houston, died in 2017 at the age of 74. His house sat vacant for a couple of years as the many properties in his estate were sold.

In 2019, it was purchased by the Greers, who worked with Greymark Construction on the restoration that stretched into the fall of 2020, suffering stops and starts related to the coronavirus pandemic as well as the death of Greymark founder Leslie King.

The Greers were already living in the Heights and looking for a new place when the Truxillo property — the main home, a garage/carriage house and another small home — went on the market. After losing out on other options, Tyson was looking on the internet and declared to his wife: “I think I found a house for you.”

“I’ve always loved old stuff,” said Jan, an Oklahoma native who came to Houston after college for a consulting job at Quorum Software. “My mom and I didn’t have a lot of money, but we would go to estate sales together. My mom would get things that were more practical, and I liked old things. I have such happy memories of that.”

It was at Quorum that Jan, now 38, and Tyson, 42, met. Tyson, a native of Jackson, Miss., still works there, but Jan left her job to raise their children; son John will turn 10 soon and Moses is 7. The couple has been married 11 years.

For their efforts, the Greers received a 2022 Good Brick Award from Preservation Houston.

From the start, the Greers wanted a restoration — not a renovation — and they soon learned that everyone familiar with the house had an opinion on what could and should be done.

Neighbors who loved the house made clear that they’d be upset if it was painted anything other than white. The Greers did repaint it white, but they contemplated other colors because, in stripping down front windows, they discovered that maroon and two shades of tan were once used on the exterior.

In fact, bright white paint may have been its color for many years, but it couldn’t have been its original color because bright white paint wasn’t available for home exteriors until the 1920s.

Another sign of true restoration are the newly installed copper gutters. The Greers could have opted to install more contemporary standard gutters and saved a lot of money, but they thought the copper ones would be true to the home’s history.

When the rotting front stairs fell apart, the city had to come out to assess the damage and then sign off on how they could be replaced.

Tropical Storm Imelda revealed a leak in the foyer, so that had to be dealt with. And when they removed an aviary from the back of the house, extensive termite damage to that structure prompted them to pause to assess what similar damage there might be elsewhere. (There was none, it turns out, because the old wood is so hard that termites didn’t want to eat it.)

Many changes were made in the house’s long life. What was likely a side porch was enclosed and used as a breakfast room at some point. The kitchen was choppy and disorganized, and the primary bathroom on the second floor, created with small steps up and down to its various parts, likely was amended several times through the years, said Kelly Kirk, Greymark’s new president and the daughter of the firm’s late founder.

On the main floor, the Greers opted to keep all of the walls where they were, keeping a formal living room in the front, plus a parlor — now their TV room — and a formal dining room, in addition to the breakfast room that has rows of windows, including some stained glass that Truxillo added.

The kitchen got a dramatic makeover but still has an Old World feel.

Jan fell in love with red tile floors in the Breakers, the Vanderbilt family’s summer “cottage” — actually a Gilded Age mansion that’s now a house museum — built in the 1890s in Newport, R.I. (You’ll also find similar flooring laid basket weave style in the Julia Ideson Library in downtown Houston.)

She found similar floor tile for her own kitchen at Pyramid Imports Tile and Flooring in Houston and hired craftsmen at Dan’s Custom Woodworking in the Heights to create a butcher block top for her oversized island, using a beeswax seal instead of a shiny poly seal.

A pair of antique chandeliers, made the same year the house was built, hang over the island from a stamped tin ceiling. The lighting fixtures were an early find of Jan’s, shipped in from an antique lighting vendor in upstate New York.

It’s a beautiful kitchen that gets a workout every day, whether the Greers are making their own daily meals or entertaining friends.

“We prepare two meals a day here during the school year and three when the boys aren’t in school. Today, I made French toast; this kitchen sees major action,” Jan said. “I truly love to cook, so the kitchen had to be functional, but it also had to be more than that.”

At the end of a long hallway on the second floor is an fanciful library, with stained-glass windows and shelves loaded with books lining the walls all the way up into an attic, now used as a playroom by the Greer boys. During the COVID lockdown, the boys used the attic as their classroom.

Truxillo had installed ladderlike stairs that led to the attic — with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling above. The Greers’ version has a sturdier iron circular stairs and a beautiful chandelier in place of the disco ball.

John and Moses love their “Harry Potter”-themed bedroom and their special playroom, too. Jan says that even they get questions about the house and love showing it off.

“There’s a special room the kids have all to themselves. I will say that they love the house, but I think their friends love it more,” Jan said. “They like that people want to visit. They like that other people like it.”

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