The restoration of three historic railworkers' cottages in Texas
A long-neglected enclave of historic railworkers’ cottages has been given new life as homes, artists’ studios and galleries. Feature Johanna Thornycroft. Photographs Andreas von Einsiedel
Nearly 40 years ago, when artist Salle Werner Vaughn first discovered the railworkers’ houses of Magnolia Grove in Houston, Texas, they were in danger of being swallowed up by the relentless sprawl of the city. The long-abandoned wooden houses, much like Russian dachas in appearance, sat all but forgotten in overgrown gardens, shaded by live oaks and pecan trees.
The neighbourhood was established in the 1880s by German immigrants working on the construction of the new railway that linked the interior to the burgeoning port of Galveston. The area, known as a frontier district, was situated way out of town, and the land had been divided into small plots on which the workers could build houses for themselves and their families.
With hurricanes a regular occurrence from June to November, they adopted the use of timber-stud frames, known as balloon frames, which could be swiftly re-erected using a block-and-tackle pulley system should a house collapse in a storm. Salle and the group of like-minded artists and friends who discovered the run-down district, quickly realised that the few historic buildings that remained would soon be lost unless they and fellow conservationists bought them.
Salle, who lives mostly in Houston, decided that by restoring one of these houses she could create the perfect retreat for herself: a place to unwind, paint and escape the city. With that in mind, she named it ‘Now & Then’. ‘I planned to just make the house liveable and come out on weekends and enjoy the garden,’ she says. But after talking to a friend, who had bought several houses and plots with a view to expanding his garden as well as building a gallery, she thought she too should buy a second house.
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In the end, Salle bought a six-plot site, which came with three surviving cottages. One became her home, the second remains a work in progress. The third, however, was beyond saving. Luckily, a neighbour had a spare house which, because of the ingenious balloon-frame construction, was easily moved onto her plot. She has since turned it into an intriguing gallery space named ‘Here & There’.
Typically, these old Southern cottages are rectangular in shape – the narrow end facing the lanes that run between the plots. There are still no pavements, just storm drains, many of which bloom with clumps of yellow iris. The front almost always has a good-sized porch, sometimes with impressive columns, and the exteriors are all clad with pastel-painted clapboard. Each building has a large living room, usually two bedrooms, plus a rudimentary kitchen at the back.
‘Now & Then’ was in a dreadful state when Salle bought it. ‘But it wasn’t derelict like some I saw,’ she says, ‘and I was careful to save whatever I could.’ A few changes were necessary, however, and while respecting the original structure of the house, she removed a wall between the kitchen and bedroom in order to create an open-plan space. A tiny corridor leads to a 1930s-style bathroom on the left and just one bedroom beyond. There has been no attempt to make a conventional house for entertaining or for visitors – it is very much a personal space with the most basic kitchen and no dining area.
This house was to be a place where Salle could see her own work again, she explains. Her paintings are set against walls coloured according to the mood she intends to create. She mixed three shades of lilac paint in order to achieve exactly the right shade for the living room – a bold choice that charms and draws the viewer to look more closely at what is hanging on the walls in the low ethereal light.
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Furniture and decorative pieces were chosen to enhance the experience of each room, rather than being purely functional. ‘Beauty is my lodestar,’ she says. ‘When I decorate a room, I intend the colour to resonate with the objects. Each part has a message. I’m trying to evoke another time and place – something out of the ordinary.’
To say that the interiors are eclectic seems an understatement. The atmosphere in Salle’s house is positively other-worldly, and wherever one looks there is an amazing array of exquisite objects to study: a Roman sculpture, a pair of 500-year-old Italian chairs and various small, exquisite antiquities.
‘I like to think about the artists and their lives,’ Salle says, expounding on the influence of Egyptian art and sculpture, while also recounting the immense joy she feels when visiting the great collections in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, as if they are dear old friends.
Salle is lyrical when talking about her cottages. ‘I call the compound ‘Harmonium’, and my goal is to bring order and harmony to the place,’ Salle explains. To this end she buys mature trees, such as crepe myrtles, to preserve and enhance the area as a sanctuary for all kinds of wildlife. And it is thanks to Salle and her far-sighted friends that the historically significant and charming wooden cottages of Magnolia Grove have been able to survive and thrive.
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