Historic Remodel

Allegro Builders restores a once-grand 1910 home that had been seemingly ruined by years of neglect and abuse as it went from owner to owner before ending up as a halfway house for the homeless.

August 31, 2008
Company Snapshot
The Financials

Allegro Builders restored the former halfway house to its original 1910 look. The 12-foot-deep porches and custom windows were painstakingly recreated based on vintage photographs and newspaper articles.

When Lambert Arceneaux saw the building at 205 Bayland Avenue, his first inclination was to tear it down. The once-grand 1910 home had been seemingly ruined by years of neglect and abuse as it went from owner to owner before ending up as a halfway house for the homeless.

“It didn't look like it could be saved,” Arceneaux says. “The blight on the neighborhood was just tremendous.”

So when Arceneaux's custom home building firm, Allegro Builders, bought the property, a tear-down was exactly what he had in mind. The house sat on four lots in Woodland Heights, a historic Houston neighborhood, and Arceneaux planned to demolish the home and build four new ones in its place. Allegro Builders specializes in building new homes that mimic period styles in the Houston Heights neighborhood and planned to do the same here.

But this house turned out to be something special — the personal home of William A. Wilson, the founder and developer of the Woodland Heights neighborhood. At 7,000 square feet, it was also the largest home in Woodland Heights and a potential centerpiece of the neighborhood.

“We failed to really understand the significance of the property to the community,” Arceneaux says. “The neighborhood would have just been up in arms if we'd torn it down.”

Enter Bill Baldwin. The local Realtor and his partner, Joe Gonzalez, decided to buy the home from Allegro and hire the firm to bring it back to its original grandeur.


Southern Inspiration

Baldwin was inspired to buy the house after returning from a trip to Savannah, Ga., where he had taken a tour of homes that had been restored by antiques dealer Jim Williams (the subject of the book and film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) from the 1950s to 1990s.

“He had taken just the same type of houses — ones that had been neglected for decades — and he took them and transformed them into these amazing Southern homes with these overhangs,” Baldwin says. “It was the large overhangs that made me come back to Houston and relook at that house and what it could be.”

The style of the Bayland home was reminiscent of the buildings in the traditional Georgia city — a look that was not common in Houston.

“As I looked at it again, I decided this home should be saved if it was at all possible,” Baldwin says.

Although no records exist of what the interior of the home originally looked like, Allegro and Baldwin incorporated features such as the large foyer and staircase and custom woodwork to reflect the spirit of the era.

Baldwin wanted to work with Allegro on this difficult project because of the company's experience with period-style homes. He had partnered with the company for a decade on other homes. Allegro had also built the home he was living in at the time, as well as his office. Baldwin was also impressed by the work Arceneaux had done remodeling a neglected house that became Arceneaux's personal home.

“We were committed to using them because they understand the nature of these homes; they understand how they need to fit into the neighborhood,” Baldwin says. “They bring a quality and an expertise that not everybody could.”

And although Allegro doesn't typically remodel homes, Arceneaux was interested in the project as well. He thought that remodeling the vintage home would be a good experience for his staff that would help them when building their period-style new homes.

“That's how I learned to do period-type houses — by taking them apart and putting them back together,” Arceneaux says. “True artisans know how a home is built.”

No easy task

Once the partners decided to save the home, they knew it would be a massive undertaking. The interior was a wreck, the exterior was horrendous and previous owners had grafted three homes onto the building in ill-advised additions.

“It was unlivable,” Arceneaux says. “There were holes in the floor, the windows were missing, the stench in the house was just miserable. It was just terrible, but it did have good bones.”

 And to save the building, Allegro was going to need to go all the way down to its bones. The company demolished the additions and stripped the inside to the original studs. Besides the framing and brick, which was reused on the porches and in the new wine cellar, nothing else was salvageable.

The fireplace, which had been between the kitchen and the dining room, now separates the redesigned family room and living room. One side features a custom mosaic of family memories.

“Everything else had been ruined,” Arceneaux says. “There was nothing left for us to use.”

Baldwin drove the design for the remodel as he dove into researching the home by poring over old photos, talking to long time residents of the neighborhood and consulting with the local historical society to return the home to its original design.

Because William Wilson was so well known, there were many articles written about him, the neighborhood and the house, so Baldwin was able to use them as resources. There were many exterior photos of the home, but no interior shots that Baldwin could find. However, he did find someone who had played in the house as a child and was able to tap the memories of the next door neighbors who had lived there for 75 years.

“While it wasn't a restoration, on the outside we were painstaking in trying to replicate it,” Baldwin says. “For the interior, we embellished a lot, but it was in keeping with the spirit.”

The biggest challenge was replicating the windows, none of which were standard sizes or even the same size from window to window. Allegro worked with Jeld-Wen for months to create the custom windows.

“Some of the windows had 32 lites in just the upper sash, so it was very, very expensive and time consuming to get it done,” Arceneaux says. “It took us forever, but I think the windows make the house.”

Another eye-catching feature of the home is it's 2,000 square feet of porches. The old photos of the home showed a wraparound porch running from the front of the home around the right side. By the time Allegro purchased the home, only the front porch was standing, and the area on the side was covered by one of the later additions. Porches are a feature that Arceneaux likes to incorporate into many of the homes he builds. In Houston, most homes are built on slabs, he says, so elevating a house slightly and adding a porch can really set a home apart from its neighbors.

The team moved the kitchen from one side of the house to the other to create more open space. The 1,000 square foot basement was dedicated to a wine cellar with storage for 1,000 bottles of wine.

The new porches run 12 feet deep around the front and side, along with a smaller porch off the rear of the home. Baldwin says the family uses them frequently for entertaining and as an extension of their living space.

The final part of recapturing the original exterior look came from recreating the original Cypress siding. Although the home was originally done in old-growth Cypress, Allegro was able to have new-growth Cypress custom cut and milled to closely match.

With no records of the interior of the home, Baldwin and Allegro simply tried to keep the style consistent with the era, while updating for modern needs. The trim, staircase and newels were all custom. The entire house was redone with oak floors throughout. In the kitchen, the cabinets were custom, as was the oven hood. Walls were moved, hallways created and spaces rearranged to undo the choppy remodeling done over the years.

One feature that wasn't moved was one of the original fireplaces, which Allegro was able to restore. Originally between the kitchen and dining room, it now sits between the family room and hallway after the kitchen was shifted to the other side of the home. The restored fireplace features a custom mosaic of mementos from Baldwin's family on one side and marble on the other.

One decision that was made later in the remodel was to add a wine cellar. Allegro is known locally for the wine cellars the team builds. The entire 1,000 square foot basement is dedicated to a cellar and includes storage space for 1,000 bottles of wine, a large tasting area and a bathroom.

There was a basement in place, but it leaked. Allegro solved the problem by digging a trench around the basement, then sealing and waterproofing the wall. Then they poured another concrete wall, treated and sealed that, and installed a drain and sump pump. So far it has worked perfectly, Arceneaux says.

The walls are made of brick salvaged from the home and new brick chosen to carefully match. The ceiling is made of cedar, which is a touch that Arceneaux likes to put in all his wine cellars. It gives the cellar the smell of cedar instead of a musty smell, he says.

Making an impact

While the home is a feat of construction, it has also made a big difference for the neighborhood. The project won the Houston Business Journal's Landmark Award, which recognizes a project each year for its positive impact on a neighborhood and the community.

“The neighborhood is just a different place,” Arceneaux says. “It really, truly changed that neighborhood. Everything around it is now worth twice what it was before.”

It's enhanced the image of the company as well. Allegro has gotten a lot of positive attention for the decision to remodel instead of tearing down the home, enough so that Arceneaux is now contemplating starting a second company that would focus on renovations.

“In Houston, we just tear down houses really fast, and I'd like to do it differently,” he says.

This project was an important step in that direction, Baldwin says.

“Our city does not really cherish remodeling or restoration of older homes,” he says. “This shows people you can save the old and embrace the new.”

2005 Stage of Project
Dec. 15 Demolition begins
2006 Stage of Project
Jan. 30 Foundation poured
Feb. 28 Framing
Mar. 31 Windows/siding installed
April Insulation
June 15 Trim work begins
July 31 Painting
Aug. 31 Plumbing installed
September Floors placed
October Appliances installed
October Project inspection
November Final punchlist items completed
Payments were made by monthly draws



Appliances: Viking Doors: Bison Custom Fixtures: Kohler Hardware: Baldwin Stone & Tile: Master Tile Roofing: Elk Windows: Jeld-Wen 

Company Snapshot

Allegro Builders 
President: Lambert Arceneaux
Location: Houston
2007 volume: $15 million
Projected 2008 volume: $15 million
Web site: www.allegrobuilders.com
Biggest challenge of this project: Matching the historic look of the home with modern materials

The Financials

As a predominantly new-home builder, Allegro Builders works at a smaller gross profit than most remodelers.

On the average home the company builds (with a price tag north of $1 million), Allegro looks for a 15 percent gross profit. That's what President Lambert Arceneaux was aiming for on this project as well, although he knew it might change a little as Allegro remodeled the unique home for Realtor Bill Baldwin. The company had worked with Baldwin several times in the past, and Arceneaux liked the experience that remodeling the historic home would give his employees.

“He was a friend of ours, so we were willing to take it closer to 12 percent than we would have for most clients,” Arceneaux says.

During the year-long project, the company went over budget on several items as new problems were discovered and Baldwin decided on changes along the way, most notably adding the 1,000 square foot wine cellar. Baldwin even ended up going for a second loan to pay for the rising costs.

“We just ended up doing a lot of stuff we didn't plan on that we had to cover in change orders,” Arceneaux says.

“I could tell that given the right time, effort and money, it was going to be amazing,” Baldwin says. “Once I got passionate about it, I was relentless until it was perfect.” 

To see the Budget History, read the September issue of Professional Remodeler.

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