His­toric-home ren­o­va­tion paired wheel­chair ac­ces­si­bil­ity with preser­va­tion

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - STYLE - By Richard A. Marini STAFF WRITER rmarini@ex­press-news.net twit­ter.com/RichardMar­ini

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.”

Pho­tos by Kin Man Hui / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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