OHJ Se­rial Re­stor­ers

Old House Journal - - Ohj - By Pa­tri­cia Poore

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.

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