Historic-home renovation paired wheelchair accessibility with preservation
SAN ANTONIO — Anyone who has ever renovated an old home knows how difficult a task that can be. If it’s a historic house, requiring approvals from city government, the task gets even harder. Add the Veterans Affairs office to the mix, and the complexity gets turned up to 11.
That’s what Rachel and Larkin O’Hern faced two years ago when they began renovating their newly purchased, three-bedroom, 1½bath English Cottage-style home in San Antonio’s Tobin Hill neighborhood. The 1923 house had already been designated a historic structure by the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, so they knew they needed to meet certain conditions during the renovation.
But Larkin also is an Army veteran, severely injured in 2011 while serving in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. So the couple was relying on an $80,000 Specially Adapted Housing grant from the VA to help them make the house wheelchair accessible.
“We wanted to maintain the historical integrity of the house while also making it easy for Larkin to live in,” said Rachel, who works for the Army Medical Department Museum Foundation.
When the OHP and the VA rules contradicted one another, the O’Herns, along with their architects, Morgan Penix and Peter DeWitt of Adapt Architecture and Construction, had to come up with creative compromises to get approval from both.
The VA, for example, requires two wheelchair-accessible exits for Larkin to use in the event of an emergency, such as a fire. But the OHP requires the exterior of homes such as the O’Herns’ to remain historically accurate. The solution: Install French doors leading to an outside ramp from a 300-square-foot extension added to the back of the house.
Because it’s new construction, the opening doesn’t fall under the OHP’s purview. And together the doors are wide enough to accommodate Larkin’s wheelchair.
“The only thing the historic office required was that the doors be historically accurate,” Penix said. “So we had to find a pair in an antique store, so that was hard.”
Though most of the problems that arose from such competing regulations were eventually ironed out, Penix estimated that filing paperwork, waiting for rulings and updating plans added two months to what became a yearlong renovation job.
With wood shake siding painted red on the lower walls and Tudorlike stucco and trim mimicking wattle and daub in the gables, the house also features an exaggerated, fairytale roofline. The whimsy continues with two cutouts that flank the triplearched front windows; the one on the right serves as the entrance to the front porch and doorway, the one on the left leads nowhere, only echoing its twin.
Fortunately for the couple, who’ve been married 10 years, the house was well maintained when they bought it. The family that lived there previously had been in it for 50 years, so it hadn’t been abandoned like so many other fixer-uppers near downtown.
That was good news because many of the home’s small treasures — vintage glass doorknobs, wall sconces — hadn’t been filched or damaged. Two of the sconces that flanked the large stucco fireplace in the main living room, for example, were reassigned to the master suite, where they provide bedside lighting.
They were also able to reuse a number of handsome singlepanel painted and stained interior doors.
“I see that style of interior door in a number of 1920s homes in the area,” Penix said. “They’re typically all painted the same color, but the ones in Rachel and Larkin’s house had the stained element to them. So they’re really very special.”
Larkin lost his right leg below the knee, his left above the knee, and his right arm at the wrist when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while deployed in Afghanistan. He eventually received a medical retirement from the military and today is a mortgage analyst with USAA. Though he is able to walk, he spends much of his time in a wheelchair, so the standard 32inch door openings in the interior of the house often made for a tight fit.
Because the OHP is concerned only with changes to the exterior of historic homes, the O’Herns were able to widen the door openings into the master bedroom, the master bath and the bedroom closet to 36 inches. They also removed a dining-room wall, which opened up enough space in the kitchen that Larkin can do doughnuts in his wheelchair, should the spirit so move him.
The extension they added to the home also created a master bath specifically designed for Larkin’s needs, including a roll-in shower and wheelchair-adapted sink.
Both exits, one through the back mudroom, the other through the French doors in the master bedroom, required installing ramps for Larkin’s wheelchair. Penix and DeWitt were able to site both so they’re not readily apparent from the street.
“We didn’t want to just add a ramp over the front steps,” Larkin explained. “So the one off the bedroom runs along the side of the house where you can hardly see it.”
There was plenty of straight-on renovation work done, too. They removed the stucco sheathing from around the living-room fireplace, rebuilding it with a wood frame and mantle and tile that spills onto the floor.
In the kitchen, they pulled up the laminate flooring to reveal wide planks of handsome pine. The renovation combined installation of modern appliances, including a farmhouse sink that is also wheelchair accessible, with touches both vintage and personal. The crystal cabinet knobs in the kitchen come from her grandmother’s East Texas ranch. And the cabinets themselves are, by turn, white, stained and painted red (the last to echo the outside facade of the home).
They also demolished the pink-tiled, Mamie Eisenhower (Rachel’s words) guest bathroom, retaining the vintage tub and sink and replacing the rest with a more modern, woven tile flooring and wainscoting that is not only handsomely vintage, it also doesn’t scuff (much) from wheelchair bumps.
With the work complete, the couple say they’re satisfied with the way Penix and DeWitt balanced the need for historical accuracy while also making it as accessible as possible.
“Other places we’ve lived in, like in base housing, I’ve had to adapt to the house,” Larkin said. “Here, the house is adapted to me. It’s a great feeling to just roll into the shower or roll from the bedroom into the kitchen without worrying. It makes this a home I hope we can live in for a long time.”
With red-painted wood shake siding and stucco and trim gables, Rachel and Larkin O’Hern’s home is English Cottage style with a fairy-tale roofline.
The O’Herns enjoy their home in San Antonio. An Army veteran, Larkin was severely injured in 2011 while serving in Afghanistan.
The Department of Veterans Affairs required two wheelchair-accessible exits from the house. This one in the back cleverly combines steps and a ramp that is not readily apparent from the street.
A new wheelchair-accessible master bath was added to the master bedroom, and the wall-sconce reading lamp was repurposed from the living room.