OHJ Serial Restorers
This October, Old-House Journal celebrates its 45th Anniversary— and many readers have been along for the ride! A recent survey told us that and also gave us these stats:
• 10% of readers are serial restorers who have restored three or more houses
• 8 ½ % are in the building trades
• 30% have a professional or civic involvement in renovation or historic preservation
• 65% of respondents say they are well versed in renovation basics. We decided to go looking for our “serial restorers,” inviting them to submit photos and thoughts on the journey. Find some of their stories at oldhousejournal.com/articles/serial-restorers. In the meantime, what follows is an old-house love story.
well into adulthood, Cathy Hitchcock and her husband, Steve Austin, went back to school, Cathy for a master’s in social work and Steve for a doctorate in naturopathic medicine. When they finished, in 1985, restoring a Victorian was the last thing on their minds. But “it was all we could afford,” Cathy says— they paid $30,000 for a tiny fixer-upper. An old Portland (Oregon) City Directory listed the 800-sq.ft. house as a “common laborer’s home.” Steve preferred “vestpocket Victorian” for the 1899 cottage.
The couple thought they’d just clean it up and sell it in a few years. But enthusiasm kept them here; they would often redo a project until they got it right. “We learned from plenty of mistakes,” Cathy says. Off came red siding and the ersatzColonial door. Gone was the high-gloss pink that had been painted right over peeling wallpaper.
A collection of Victorian antiques began to grow. Fringed portières of cut velvet and chenille were hung in double swags. A local artisan was commissioned to create stained-glass windows in the style of the famous Victorian-era Povey brothers. Austin and Hitchcock ended up with a Victorian jewel box that was the talk of the neighborhood. Steve’s passion for research and the couple’s example set off a wave of restoration fever.
The couple moved to Galveston, Texas, in 2008—just as Hurricane Ike sped toward Texas, where it would make a direct hit on Galveston Island. While Portland friends were horrified, folks in Galveston thought them lucky: Although the 1907 house they’d purchased was badly damaged, the moving van full of antiques was still safely 50 miles away. Two days later, the stock market crashed and a housing bust ensued.
Steve and Cathy had to curtail plans for restoration. “Oddly, that became a blessing,” Cathy says. “We stenciled several rooms that were to have been papered with expensive wallpapers. We dropped a plan to add a modern pantry, and instead did an authentic re-creation of a turn-of-the century kitchen. The result was our most authentic interior.”
This house was actually more typical of 19th-century Southern town houses, with a plan that remained popular in Galveston into the early 20th century. Late-Victorian decorating conventions were used throughout.
The Austin–Hitchcocks won a preservation award from the Galveston Historic Foundation. When they decided to move back to Portland, miraculously they found a buyer who appreciated their vision for the house, authentic kitchen and all. “He said he wanted to live in a museum,” Steve told us then.
Next the couple moved into a whitebox condo apartment in a good prewar building. They sold off Victorian furniture. But “we kept our 19th-century Chinese and Japanese collections,” Cathy explains. “We envisioned an ‘Eclectic Oriental’ approach. Our Meijiera (1868–1912) pieces are timeless.”
Soon the serial restorers were in a small 1920 bungalow in Portland. Plain wood trim, already painted black, fit well with an Asian aesthetic. “We’d started out with Japanese pieces,” Cathy says, “then incorporated them as exotica in our Victorian houses, and returned to an appropriate Japanese aesthetic in this Arts & Crafts-era bungalow.”
Cathy reports that she’s “happily ensconced in the Portland bungalow, retired, playing mah jongg, and studying Japanese flower arranging— ikebana.” Steve Austin passed away in March of this year. Their friendship with Donna Pizzi and Philip Clayton–Thompson of Blackstone Edge Studios assured that Steve’s legacy with Cathy has been preserved: Philip had photographed their projects for almost 25 years.
Cathy Hitchcock and Steve Austin.