Galveston Monthly – Remarkable Rescue

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATHLEEN MACA

The history of the McKinney-McDonald House at 926 Winnie, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, echoes the story of Galveston itself. A survivor of the 1900 storm, a devastating fire and abandonment, the house is now experiencing a rebirth.

Liberty S. McKinney, a former sea merchant and successful wholesale grocer, and his wife, Annie, built the large “carpenter” Victorian Gothic in 1890, although some sources list the date as early as 1888.

The cost of construction was a remarkable $3,000.

Its imposing size and open porch adorned with arched gingerbread and mariner’s wheel motif has resulted in the home being one of the most photographed on the island.

The McKinneys transferred the property to a business partner when they left the island one year after riding out the 1900 storm in the house.

Prominent island attorney Dominic McDonald bought the home in 1905, and it remained in his family until his wife’s death in 1972. Since then, the home has passed through several ownerships, a fire in 1993 that damaged much of the interior and almost twenty years of abandonment.

Galveston Historical Foundation intervened to save the home from demolition by purchasing and stabilizing the structure as part of the foundation’s revolving fund.

With protective covenants in place to ensure the property would be historically maintained, the house was then sold to Angela Mainwaring of Midland. Mainwaring has been visiting Galveston for more than twenty years.

“I developed a fascination with Galveston,” Mainwaring said. “After my husband died, I started looking on the internet for houses for sale in Galveston. I see so many interesting things on the Galveston calendars that I would love to do, and know that you need to live here to take advantage of all of them.”

Native Galvestonian Dorothy McDonald Karilanovic, the eldest grandchild of former owner Judge McDonald, is undoubtedly among the Islanders most excited about the home’s rescue. Many of her fondest childhood memories took place inside the house.

“I was the youngest of four generations living in the house. It was filled with my grandmother’s Victorian sentiment,” Karilanovic said.

“My grandfather built a little house in the back, and I lived there with my parents and two sisters until I was fifteen.”

Karilanovic said her grandmother was very formal and would have the entire family to her home for holidays four times each year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter.

“She would have her cook and housekeeper help serve the meal, and there would be a turkey at each end of the dining room table,” she said.

Karilanovic remembers the house being painted yellow in the 1950s and ’60s, with white door facings and dark green shutters. The windows were shaded by white, green and yellow striped window awnings. Neighbors and passersby in recent years, however, will remember it as the “big pink house.” It is returning to a color scheme more appropriate to its Victorian roots.

One of the most distinctive features of the home is its diamond-patterned roof. Although it was originally made of slate tiles, modern materials now replicate the design. Slate material ceased to be used after the 1900 storm when the tiles became flying missiles during the high winds.

When the McDonalds lived in the house, the children would occasionally dig up old pieces of slate in the yard and break them into pieces to use as “drawing chalk.”

Mainwaring has hired Chuck Morris Coastal Homes to bring the home back to its original glory.

“She realizes it’s a big job,” Chuck Morris said. “GHF sold it to her as a shell with hardly any interior walls, and she hired us to complete it. It obviously needed wiring, plumbing and air conditioning, which we’ve finished. We don’t have the original plans, but we have a lot of photographs through the years.”

Engaging Morris and his crew can, at time, be a bit like hiring personal shoppers for the architecture of a home, as well as its construction.

“We get everything we can here on the island from the GHF Warehouse, and Scotty (Hanson) at Antique Warehouse,” Debbie Morris said.

“Then what we can’t get here, we go to New Orleans to find. It’s just a bigger city and has so many old homes, some which are coming down, so they have a huge inventory that we don’t have here.

We rarely use anything new. We try to keep everything as historically correct as possible.”

By way of example, Chuck Morris pointed to the doors.

“From what we could tell from the floor and the ceiling, there were pocket doors on either side of the entryway,” Morris said. “I bought three sets of antique cypress doors salvaged in New Orleans,
and I built the walls and the framing to fit the doors.”

Karilanovic confirms the existence of the original doors and the important role they played in a holiday tradition.

“One of the highlights of the year was when my grandmother decorated the front room for Christmas,” Karilanovic said. “A German-made tree was placed atop a teak table in the bay window, on top of a rotating German music box. After eating a light supper and enjoying eggnog, my grandmother would open the doors to reveal the Christmas decorations and beautifully wrapped presents to the family.”

Chuck Morris said the home’s beautiful walk-out windows are a unique feature.

“They used walk out windows because they had indoor/outdoor living, so that when the weather was nice they would just lift the window up – unlike New Orleans where they had French doors, Galveston had pull up windows,” he said.

Pointing out a gap between the 12-foot ceiling and the outer wall, he said, “These windows actually lift all the way into the ceiling so you can walk out like a door.”

Although some areas were in disrepair, the original antique pine floors throughout the home were largely intact.

“Where they were damaged by the fire, we replaced them with antique wood to match,” he said. “Old pine was grown naturally over time and the first time they harvested was as a hundred year old tree. If you look at an old plank, which is red, and count the growth rings in an inch, you can see maybe 30 rings. If you look at a new board, it has about a third of the rings and is white pine. The older wood will also weigh about twice as much as the new. If you pieced an old floor with new boards, even sanded, it will look awful.”

Being meticulous in the restoration is of paramount importance.

“This was one of the prettiest stairways in Galveston,” Chuck Morris said, walking to the spiral, freestanding creation. “It had very decorative plasterwork including an arch, molding and decorative block – a little bit of which is still visible. We have quite a few pieces saved that came off of the stairway, so we can make castings, reproduce it and put it back.”

An artist in Houston was used to recreate the plasters for the restoration project.

In addition to photos of important family events being taken on the staircase, Karilanovic shared one occasion when a surprise visitor used them.

“One Christmas Eve, Santa Claus even made a nocturnal descent down the winding staircase,” Karilanovic said. “Lee McDonald, the eldest son of the family then a child, remembers when his maternal grandfather, who wore a natural long gray bear, suddenly appeared on the stairs in a red and white Christmas costume, much to the thrill of the children present.”

The newest addition to the home will be an elevator, located off of the kitchen. The kitchen will utilize antique furniture for storage, much like the original owners would have had.

“We are going to add a small balcony off one of the upstairs rooms facing the street, because it’s a walkout window. We estimate that it was originally a walkout balcony so we’re going to put that back,” Chuck Morris said.

The left side of the upstairs will be a master bedroom and bath with a separate sitting room, and two guest rooms with a Hollywood bath will be across the hall.

The third floor attic is impressive in size.

“As kids we used to go up there and play in the old trunks and costumes,” McDonald said. “My aunt had dresses up there from when she was a Mardi Gras princess in 1926, and we would find spangles from her costume all over the attic.”

Chuck Morris said instead of being an attic, as was its original purpose, the space will be finished as a playroom with a full bathroom and attic access.

“It is large enough for a billiard table, ceiling fans, large format TV and a card table area with a hanging light,” he said.

The room also features a second tier interior balcony with a ship’s ladder leading to the restored widow’s walk. The enviable view extends to the Bishop’s Palace, Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Galvez, Pleasure Pier and a direct line to the waterfront.

With months of restoration work ahead, Mainwaring is enthusiastically enjoying the process. When asked what made her decide to purchase on this house, she laughed.

“The other one I wanted was bought by someone else first, but I’m very happy I ended up with this one. I wanted to play doctor and fix up one that needed it,” Mainwaring said.

Debbie Morris agreed that fate can play a part in the homes people purchase.

“Sometimes I think we don’t choose these houses, they choose us,” Morris said.

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