When TOTAL electrical engineer Beth Wheeler volunteered to serve as a docent for the Catholic Daughters Tour in a home belonging to Maggie Reynolds in the old historic district of Orange, she had no idea what adventure she and fellow engineer and husband, Kenneth, were about to begin. The Reynolds’ home intrigued Beth, and she simply fell in love with the old neighborhood where folks were friendly, homes were open, and the general atmosphere so reminded her of days gone by in her memory.
Beth and Kenneth had just sold a home in a newer development and were deciding where they’d like to settle for this phase of their journey. Their kids were grown and out on their own, and the couple really wanted to locate somewhere that felt permanent and inviting, but they wanted friends and a sense of community.
“We found that when we came to this neighborhood,” said Beth. “The people were just open and warm, but we couldn’t find a single house for sale.”
After looking for several months, one old home in terrible repair caught their eye. They were told that it belonged to a local church just behind the property where the house sat. After making inquiries, the couple met with the business leaders of the church and made an offer to buy the property. “I didn’t think it was worth what they wanted for it at first,” Beth said. “But we liked where it was and we thought we could perhaps fix it up and make it what we wanted.”
The couple made the transaction in 2002, and their adventure was off and running. For months they looked at house plans, had various builders tour the property to give bids and make suggestions, and then they began looking at actual houses that were somewhat similar to the one they had purchased at 1008 Pine St. in Orange.
“We went everywhere anyone told us about a house we should see,” said Beth. “We would find we liked one thing, but perhaps there were two more that wouldn’t work and didn’t fit with what we had.”
Kenneth said, “One builder said he could redo our home and make it what we had in mind for around $500,000. We thanked him and let him go about his business.”
Kenneth said in his research, he discovered that the house at 1008 Pine was built by Benjamin Stephens, a local businessman, in 1880. Wood used, style of building and even the nails proved that to be true as workmen began to uncover the undersides of the frame home. “The house next door was built about 100 years ago by the same man,” said Kenneth. “He owned this entire block at one time.”
The Wheelers took the older building at the back of the property that had been used as an old fashioned beauty parlor and first converted it into attractive guest quarters where they lived for some months. They had sold their home in the subdivision and needed to be near the property they were working on at the time. “It was small, but it worked,” said Beth, “and it’s been a lifesaver several times since then.”
The Wheelers laughingly told of their adventures to find “the perfect model” of what they hoped to reproduce in their home. “I know it sounds silly to some, but we wanted it to be just right,” said Beth. “On one of our excursions, we were in New Orleans and this house just leaped out at us. We both knew it was the one. We took scads of photographs. I’m sure the owners must have thought we were stalking them or their property.”
Bringing those photographs back to Orange, they once again started the rounds of meeting with builders, woodworkers and craftsmen, getting bids and attempting to sign a contract for the work to begin in earnest. When Hurricane Rita hit the area, they had extensive damage. Water came into the house and into the guesthouse out back where they lived. The plans for restoration were put on hold while the art of simply living again was established. Finally, they found a contractor they really liked, and they asked him for a bid for the work they wanted done. He came to deliver the bid, but along with it, some bad news. He was going to return to Missouri to take care of storm damage there and family business, and he would not be able to do the work.
“We were stunned and disappointed. We liked this man and we believed he could do our work well,” said Beth. “He seemed to take pride in his work, and was very talented, but he was leaving the area,” said Kenneth. “We were just sick but started again on this massive project, and with our working on tearing out old wood, cleaning up and getting bids again, we made some progress.”
While Beth works for a local refinery, Kenneth works for Dashiell Corporation in Houston, so while working on restoring the property, he drove back and forth to work each day. The couple has four children and six grandchildren and busy lives outside of remodeling the 1880s home.
Beth said that they drove back and forth to New Orleans several times to see their dream house and took more photographs every time they went. Work progressed, but the real renovation just wasn’t happening as quickly as they’d like.
“Time went by and we did build and complete the garage beside the guest quarters and did more work on the house. And, then, like everyone else in the area, Hurricane Ike made his fateful visit and we were almost back to square one,” said Beth, who had been in India on a work project when the storm hit. “We came home and cleaned and restored the guest house first so that we could stay there and we filed our claims again.”
With the money they had received from insurance claims for Hurricanes Rita and Ike, the couple had what they needed to complete the restoration, but still no reliable contractor. One day, Kenneth was on a job site and he heard a voice, literally, and realized that it sounded very much like the builder they first wanted to engage. He walked into the room and found Dean Schirner of K-N-L Construction in Orange, the original contractor that had been forced to return to Missouri. He had come back to Southeast Texas and assumed the couple had finished the house.
Kenneth asked him to come and meet with he and Beth and go over current plans. Schirner agreed and the work began in earnest. “He worked very quickly,” said Kenneth. “He is just good at what he does. We would show him a photograph, and bam, it was done.”
The Wheelers pointed out some of the more intriguing woodwork that Schirner personally did in their beautiful home. Because of the hurricanes, the Wheelers decided to raise the house one foot all the way around for protection. The work was completed and they finally moved into their dream home in January 2011. Beth’s talented sister, Judy Paul, did artwork for the couple, and other pieces were collected to complete the décor.
Beth read of a contest This Old House magazine was sponsoring, so she took the time to enter photographs of her before-and-after home, thinking it might draw interest. It did. The producers soon contacted her and a meeting was arranged. They did not tell her what, if anything, they had won, but she agreed for them to visit her home. When the producer arrived, she stated that they would like to photograph the home for the cover of one of the editions of the magazines.
The Wheelers agreed and an entire crew of some 20 or more workers arrived early one morning to begin the shoot. “They worked all day, and it was hot in Orange. I had made lemonade to offer them, but they wanted tea, so I made tea. They liked that. The color was better for the photography. In all, I think I made 11 pitchers of tea. I finally stopped putting sugar in it because I was running out around noon,” said Beth. “I never saw anyone work so hard for just one shot. With all of the work that had been done on the house, they were fascinated by our round side porch.”
The one shot of the round side porch is on the cover of This Old House magazine on the newsstand racks for the month of July 2012.
“We are honored,” said Kenneth, “But we are more pleased to be living in our comfortable home that we’ve waited for a long time.” Beth said the neighbors are just as she thought they would be when she first visited, and she has made lifelong friends among them. “When they heard the magazine people were coming here,” said Beth, “they jumped in with both feet and helped get the final things done. My neighbor across the street brought plants, furniture, and accent pieces and Maggie helped with wonderful ideas and decorating.”
“Rita and Ike were formidable obstacles to their renovation plans, but Beth and Kenneth’s vision and hard work have resulted in a magnificent example of perseverance,” said Maggie Reynolds, the neighbor whose home first inspired the couple. “Our neighborhood is a much better place because of the Wheelers.”
“Our neighbors, including my friend Maggie, are as proud of this house as we are. We sit on the one or the other’s porch and have a glass of wine in the evenings and marvel at what a blessed community we have,” said Beth. “We are home.”
Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.