A restored 19th-century home in Texas
Hiram Butler has restored his 1880s Texan home with integrity. The look of the interior is time-worn, which acts as a contrast to his contemporary art collections. Feature Johanna Thornycroft. Photographs Andreas Von Einsiedel
It is one thing to take the climate into account when building a house but, in the case of Hiram Butler’s Pecan Nut home, the builder catered for a very specific problem – howling hurricanes from roughly June to November and 38 degree summer temperatures. The house dates from the 1880s and was one of many in what was a ‘frontier’ area, built by German immigrants who came to develop the railways and to connect the interior to the Port of Galveston in Texas.
Some of the men were cabinetmakers, who constructed their houses using wooden stud ‘balloon’ frames that were developed in the 1830s. Inside, they made virtually paper-thin walls with wood-slatted ceilings so that when a big storm hit, as happened in 1900, and many houses blew down, they could simply pull them back up with a block and tackle. ‘The Pecan Nut name came about as we found that the wall voids had been filled with nuts and shells by past generations of squirrels,’ explains Hiram.
A fifth generation Texan from the Rio Grande, Hiram is a greatly respected academic (he is an Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts at Houston’s Rice University) and contemporary art dealer working with big names such as Terrell James, Ellsworth Kelly, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jasper Johns, to name a few.
You might also like Barnaba Fornasetti's elegant Milan townhouse
He discovered this magic residential enclave some miles outside the Houston city centre over 25 years ago and, realising he had stumbled upon a gem of a location with great local history, he bought six plots with three derelict houses. One he had to remove as it has burned down, one he gave to a friend (who removed it on a truck) and one he restored for himself.
More like this
The roof had fallen in (although, fortunately, the window glass and dado bead-boarding had mostly survived) and the ceilings were a mess. But he saved absolutely everything possible including some of the cypress floors from southern Louisiana and door frames. ‘I moved in without a bathroom. There was just a shower outside and I slept in the book room,’ he says.
For such a modest structure there is a certain pleasing elegance to it: nearly 12ft ceilings, Georgian-style sash windows and typical screened porches at each end. ‘It’s a very happy house,’ says Hiram. ‘Perhaps something to do with having such good proportions and air-flow in the days before air-conditioning. People used to ask if anyone lived here as I owned so little, but my husband Andrew is an antiques dealer, so we’ve gradually collected things,’ explains Hiram.
You might also like a 19th-century cottage with dark colours and interesting antiques
Naturally, his personal collection of artworks and photography is judiciously placed throughout the rooms. ‘Most of the things in my house are gifts from artists and several of which (a small Robert Rauschenberg, the Joseph Havel and a Terrell James), were wedding presents,’ says Hiram. ‘We always try to hang objects together that speak to one another formally – somehow there is a sharing of colour, line, shape or form.’
Everything in the house has been chosen with an eye to craft – from the 1870s wheeled Texas daybed (right) in the book room to the wonderfully weathered door by artist Dean Ruck. Mostly of American origin, nothing has been over-restored and the mix of time-worn old pieces with mid-century and a dash of chintz is charming, unpretentious and homely. Hiram’s collection of art is eclectic and sits comfortably in the simple rooms.
This house, set in gardens containing crepe myrtle, magnolias, old nut trees, palms, azalea, jasmine and ginger, against a constant backdrop of birdsong, feels like a miraculous survivor of an earlier age and treacherous weather conditions.
Showing item 1 of 14