They lived in a makeshift space on the sun porch for months before their one-bedroom backhouse was livable. Then that backhouse was home for almost three years before their Winnetka Heights dream home was ready.
Now that it’s just the way they wanted, Christopher and Allyson Harrison plan to stay the rest of their lives. “I spent two freezing winters in this house,” Allyson says. “It’s got my blood, sweat and tears.”
It also has her fingerprints all over it.
She was an interior designer before the Great Recession hit, when she took up a second career as a public-school teacher. But she used all of her design super powers on this two-story antique house. She knew that underneath decades of slapdash renovations, this house had good bones.
“She drew up the whole design exactly how she wanted it, and we took it to an architect,” Christopher Harrison says. “He was like, ‘Why are you hiring me? This design is better than anything you could pay for.’”
When the Harrisons bought it, the house had pre-war knob- and-tube wiring and no ductwork. There were wires coming out of walls, and the front porch was hanging on by a thread. They won a Preservation Achievement Award from Preservation Dallas last year for the painstaking restoration of the century-old home on North Windomere.
When we say “painstaking restoration,” that’s removing and refinishing all of the baseboards in 2,600 square feet of house. They had a dining room window seat rebuilt, as well as the phone nook in the upstairs landing. They used the original “Texas”-stamped bricks to rebuild their fireplace and chimney. They put energy-saving glass in all of the original windows, which were re-hung with their circa-1900 weights. They restored two claw-foot tubs, rebuilt pony columns in the dining room and restored a small staircase.
The Harrisons had been married two years when they bought the house, and by the time they moved in, they had a 21/2-year-old and a baby on the way. Daughter, Addy, is now 41/2, and son, Christian, is 20 months.
They took their time, and they thought of everything — an electrical outlet in the center of the entry hall floor for their Christmas tree and a kitchen pantry built to utilize a dead space between walls. This house now has storage everywhere. A set of built-in storage drawers on the landing are the exact width of a roll of wrapping paper.
Allyson originally wanted to create four upstairs bedrooms but went for more closet space and three bedrooms instead. That midcourse change caused stress at the time, but she doesn’t regret it.
Besides that, it’s a fully automated smart house thanks to Christopher, who works in the technology sector and says they could live off the power grid for about two months because of the home’s natural gas whole-house generator.
“Our goal was to find the ugliest house on the block and make it better,” Christopher says. It was the first house the Harrisons ever bought, and they intend for it to be the only one. “We’re not the owners
ALLYSON HARRISON’S TIPS FOR A HISTORIC HOUSE:
- Furnish your home with a mix of high/low and old/new. Don’t be afraid to go to Salvation Army and Target. Get a few good pieces of furniture. Antiques are important because then you can buy the basics from Target. “I bought our dining room table on Facebook for $40 and refinished the top myself.”
- Take your time. Collect things you love when you travel, and don’t try to decorate everything all at once. Be patient and wait for the thing you really want.
- Make a plan and stick to it. The Harrisons secured their funding and did all the work at once (although it took years of continuous work). But even if you’re renovating paycheck- by-paycheck, don’t lose sight of your vision. “We were forced to take our time because of all the red tape that we had to go through, but we also had the time to really hone in on what we wanted.”
- You don’t have to childproof your whole house. The Harrisons have a six-drawer dresser in the living room as well as an antique wardrobe in the foyer that are packed with toys, easy for the kids to access and simple to throw all their junk back inside. “Put out your nice things, and teach your kids not to break them. Don’t deprive yourself of beauty and design because you have children.”
- Compromise with your partner. Having a high-tech house was important to Christopher, and Allyson couldn’t care less about technology. But she insisted, from the beginning, that one of the rooms would be painted a historically correct pink. That room turned out to be the dining room. They both got what they wanted.
- But stand your ground. “I almost had to threaten my builder when he wanted to put furr downs for duct work.” An electrician also wanted to tear out the original shiplap, and they insisted he find anther way. “We wanted to modernize the house — new electrical, bigger closets — but in a way that’s respectful to the age of the house.”