Coast Monthly – Homeowner embraces original design in historic kitchen renovation

By Leslie Watts on April 25, 2015

The chimney was opened and reinforced with steel to make room for the range. Courtesy photo

The chimney was opened and reinforced with steel to make room for the range.

A back-to-the-future quest was unexpectedly launched when Houston interior designer Dennis McNabb first set sight on the historic home constructed in 1928 for Galveston cotton exporter William Helmbrecht and his wife, Marie.

In contrast to those who dream of modernized kitchens and updated outdoor areas, McNabb was intrigued with the idea of turning back the clock and recapturing this particular home’s original design, especially in the kitchen area, as envisioned by its renowned Houston architect, John Staub.

“Staub was renowned for his work that began during the 1920s in Houston’s emerging upscale neighborhoods such as River Oaks and North and South Boulevards,” McNabb said. “In a way, he was sort of the Frank Lloyd Wright of Houston, and although I had long dreamed of owning a John Staub home, it was not until I discovered the Helmbrecht house on Galveston Island that this became a possibility.”

A fellow with the American Society of Interior Designers, McNabb is recognized for his knowledge of architecture and his dedication to respecting the original design and integrity of any space with which he’s involved.

“In his work, he is always committed to creating a result that is compatible with the original architecture,” said Debbie Morris, vice president of Chuck Morris Coastal Homes, the company that handled the home’s recent remodeling. “His philosophy and approach to any remodeling/renovation project includes a commitment to ‘do no harm,’ and the Helmbrecht kitchen is an outstanding example of how that can be accomplished without sacrificing modern convenience.”

McNabb, who shares ownership of the home with Bill Patterson, also sees the architecture of a particular period as providing a window on the culture of that time, and it is a window that he seeks to keep open.

“Staub’s clients were well off, and their homes were designed for a household in which there would have been paid employees to help out with day-to-day demands such as cooking, cleaning and lawn care,” he said. “This home was no exception, and the kitchen in particular was one that was deliberately utilitarian. It was designed as a service kitchen, a work space, and it is quite conceivable that the ‘lady of the house’ in a home such as this would not have spent much time in the kitchen on a regular basis — a professional cook would have run the show.”

Over time, customs changed. As the American kitchen took on a more important role in family life and kitchen appliances increased in both number and size, the Helmbrecht kitchen found itself challenged to accommodate modern culinary trends. By the time McNabb bought the home, the kitchen area had become quite crowded, and the arrangement of appliances left much to be desired.

“When opened, the doors to the large, modern refrigerator almost blocked access to one part of the work area, and the microwave oven was so tucked away that you almost had to use a flashlight to see the controls,” McNabb said. More importantly, the clean, spare style of Staub’s original design had been lost.

Working with Chuck Morris, McNabb carefully studied the architect’s original plans, and a joint goal was reached: To reconstruct a 1928-style kitchen, making it seamless and compatible with the rest of the house while incorporating modern appliances and other contemporary features.

“To add more workable space, the chimney was opened and reinforced with steel to make room for the range,” Debbie Morris said. “Under counter refrigerator/freezer drawers were utilized to keep counter space at a maximum, and cabinets were constructed so that newly built and original cabinets blended perfectly.”

The “dining porch” shown in Staub’s original plans also was reconstructed, incorporating millwork done in New Orleans with reclaimed cypress and period hardware.

And the result? Not only did the Helmbrecht project garner two of the state’s highly regarded “Star Awards” presented by the Texas Association of Builders for 2014, but more importantly, McNabb’s long-term dream and mission was realized.

To walk into the Helmbrecht kitchen today, one would think that they had stepped back into the original 1928 house’s kitchen — just as John Staub would have wanted it, Debbie Morris said.


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