Houston Chronicle – Houston couple gives 140-year-old landmark Galveston home new life

by Alyson Ward Staff Writer, Houston Chronicle

For 25 years Chuck Morris built new custom homes, in Sugar Land’s First Colony and other communities where nothing was historic or even very old.

He and his wife, Debbie Morris, were weekend Galvestonians for 15 years. “We thought we would buy a house and retire here someday,” he says.

That’s when they found the Julius and Elizabeth Ruhl House, one of the most notable properties in Galveston’s East End Historic District.

The Ruhls – Julius worked for a mercantile firm – moved into their brand-new, two-story home just after they married on July 5, 1875, exactly 140 years ago. A block north of the island’s famous Bishop’s Palace, the home designed by Chicago architect Thomas J. Overmire stayed in the Ruhl family for nearly eight decades. After that it changed hands, was converted to three apartments, then sat empty for a couple of years.

When the Morrises bought the house in 2007, they decided to restore it to a single residence, and spent about five years on a renovation. Because the home’s in a historic district, they were bound by regulations to keep its exterior looking just as it did. Inside they had more freedom – but, Chuck says, “we didn’t try to change the feel of the house to a modern house.” Instead, they designed a 19th-century home with 21st-century amenities.

The house looks grand from the street, with double porches on two sides and a two-story widow’s walk on the roof. Inside, the first floor has 12-foot ceilings and original hardware on doors.

The four-bedroom house now has about 6,000 square feet, Chuck says, but it originally was about 4,000. The Ruhls added onto the house in 1879, just four years after it was built. More changes came in the early 20th century, after daughter Sophia married and converted the second floor into what amounted to a separate home, with its own kitchen and two parlors.

The Morrises put in new wiring and plumbing, restored the original cast-iron fence and fixed up the plaster walls, crown molding and intricate ceiling medallions.

They put their dining table in one of the his-and-hers parlors, two sitting rooms connected by a set of pocket doors. That leaves the 28-foot-long original dining room open for hosting the sort of parties, tours and fundraising events that come part and parcel with owning a restored 1875 home in Galveston. The original warming kitchen – a narrow space tucked behind the dining room – is now designed for catering, with mahogany cabinets, a wine chiller and underlit onyx countertops.

The home is filled with antique fixtures, most of them from the 19th century. The couple collected lighting for five years before they moved in. An 1880s gasolier hangs in the breakfast nook; two Baccarat chandeliers shine in the expanded kitchen.

“As we travel, we just see things that we’re attracted to and figure out where they can go,” Debbie says. They make regular trips to salvage stores and auction houses in New Orleans, and they purchase antiques and materials online from all over the world.

The kitchen is filled with 21st-century tools and technology, but the overall look is far from sleek and contemporary. The island is topped with antique pine, and the countertops are marble; appliances are mostly covered by cabinet fronts that have been painted, glazed and antiqued.

Upstairs, the Morrises converted two bedrooms and a smaller room into a master suite. A freestanding tub sits in the middle of the master bath, surrounded by heavy antique furniture the couple topped with marble and made into two vanities and a dressing table. (A modern shower is tucked out of sight in the adjoining room.)

When an old photo album surfaced at Bishop’s Palace, a photo from the 1890s featured the Ruhl House widow’s walk in the background. That photo gave the Morrises the knowledge – and a green light from the historical foundation – to build it back the way it was originally designed.

At first the house was just a weekend project. But after Hurricane Ike, homeowners in Galveston started asking Chuck to repair their homes. Soon Galveston homes became a full-time job.

“For about three years, we lived out of duffel bags going back and forth,” Debbie says. “He had houses he was working on in Houston and houses here. We finally decided one was going to have to go.”

The Morrises moved into the Ruhl House three years ago, but they’re still tweaking a few rooms and acquiring antiques. Chuck still builds new homes, too, but he loves the character of the old ones. “They’re a little different from new homes,” he says. “They already have personality.”

He also likes the sturdiness of the materials found in older homes like his, which has survived 140 years of hurricanes and still has most of its original glass and shutters. “Some of our neighbors told us their grandparents survived the 1900 storm in this house,” Debbie says.

Of course, the Morrises know firsthand that this house isn’t immune to storm damage. Off the kitchen, Chuck points beyond the side porch to the edge of the lot, where a line of oak trees was taken out by the four feet of standing water that hung around for days after Hurricane Ike. The couple has planted new trees in their place, but “they’ve got a ways to go,” Chuck says.

Debbie looks out the window at the young, skinny trees where the old oaks once stood. “Well,” she says, “the next generation will enjoy them.”

Original article can be found at http://www.chron.com/life/home/design/article/Houston-couple-gives-140-year-old-landmark-6363342.php