“This house is about metamorphosis,” reveals its owner, artist Salle Werner-Vaughn, about a modest 100-year-old dwelling that’s more simple cottage than high-brow bungalow. Under Werner-Vaughn’s watch, this charmingly crumbling structure somehow precariously clings to existence, blocks from the roar of South Shepherd and the unruly din of 21st-century gas stations, convenience stores and the occasional taqueria. Her words are prophecy, as this little casita, vine entwined and with its patina of years and gently faded paint, has undergone its own transformation in recent days. The perfume of the past hangs in the air, while the rescuer of this diminutive dwelling recites strains of Ovid’s poetry from the first stanzas of the Metamorphoses: “Of things changed I sing.” Luscious swathes of silk envelop a Scandinavian side chair, circa 1820, while a pair of Imperial Russian armchairs from the same era gaze across a space towards a French Empire-style recamier. Everywhere the furniture stands like perfect props in a tableau vivant, their placement in contrapunto to haunting paintings from Werner-Vaughn’s own hand. These canvases are tinged with Surrealism, alternating with the romantic attitude of a Claude Lorrain landscape. Enhancing this delicious spell are the artist’s classically inspired bronze sculptures; arranged on painted pedestals, they channel the ancients.
The aforementioned Ovid would be right at home in this sensitive setting, with its depths of feeling and its bow to other epochs and long-ago ages. Gazing at the painted walls and floors (the latter devised to resemble the wildly colored marble from the Pantheon’s interior), we agree with the artist’s statement: “I’ve created a beautiful world.” It’s no accident that, despite its unprepossessing size, this lovely tiny residence in the heart of a rapidly changing neighborhood is called by its creator “the Palace, By the Way.” We can almost hear the lyre playing as we glimpse the artist’s sculptures of Apollo, Zeus and Daphne. Now step through this promising portal and enter an era of gentility and grace, elegance and history, art and poetry. And stay tuned: A foundation is planned to preserve this vaporous setting, just one bungalow of five that are part of a cluster of homes and gardens titled Harmonium, that Werner-Vaughn has lovingly tended for more than 20 years, aided by gallerist neighbor Hiram Butler, who one Christmas decades ago gave her a little house to move to her property. Musical recitals, poetry readings and salon afternoons and evenings are all in the future for the Palace, By the Way.
Salle Werner-Vaughn is represented by Meredith Long & Company, Houston.
Red Room: In the former dining room, this 19th-century recamier was salvaged from a Houston Heights antique shop and restored by Hector Valdez; the French antique wears a richly ornamented sari. The painted floors are inspired by the exuberantly colored marbles of the Pantheon. Werner-Vaughn’s haunting canvas, Paradise, 1986. In the foreground, an early 19th-century gilded Russian armchair.
Portrait of a Lady in Black-and-White: Artist Salle Werner-Vaughn inhabits her newest work, Palace, By the Way, which she characterizes as “sculpted spaces ... more than about mere interiors, but instead ... walking into a sculpture.” Chanel caftan from Neiman Marcus. The antique necklace is from the Near East, a region of fascination and inspiration for Werner-Vaughn (she created an illustrated film for the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the myth of Marduk).
Palace as Palazzo: The name for her diminutive dwelling, Palace By the Way, references “the concept of the palace of the mind,” Werner-Vaughn says. Rolls of lush silk swirl around a tablescape and one of a pair of Scandinavian chairs, while an 18th-century Italian candelabrum stands guard, part of a trove of antiques
that Werner-Vaughn has owned for many years, and gleaned over the course of innumerable travels. The luminous Surrealist-style canvas, The Dream, circa 1990s, would be at home in the Menil. Werner-Vaughn, who has exhibited at an Old Master gallery in New York, is represented by the venerable Meredith Long & Company of Houston. She also has a suite of paintings permanently on view at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University.
Pucker: Red-patinated bronze lips rest on a miniature stand in the wall. What do they mean? The surreal moment is left for the visitor to decipher. The luscious, distinctive crimson hues of the walls (a discontinued paint from Martin-Senour) is a shade Werner-Vaughn refers to as “old schoolhouse red … It also reminds me of the Red Room of Pompeii or a Russian lacquer box,” she says.
Pompeii in Magnolia Grove: In a space around the corner, walls painted by Ruperto Corral echo the sublime interiors of Pompeii. On the floor, Werner-Vaughn created a shrine-like sculpture, while a 19th-century painted Scandinavian chair becomes a place of repose. Werner-Vaughn worked on the home with two assistants, a painter, the aforementioned Corral and a carpenter, Julio César Orozco, both
of whom she directed; she profusely praises the skill and pride they took in their endeavors. The progress was slow, more than a year in the making, after moving walls and reconfiguring the interior. At the artist’s insistence, the team kept scratches, scars and marks throughout to preserve the spirit and history of Palace, By the Way. She has owned the house for 20 years and had previously used it for storage, after acquiring it from the family of a Mrs. Horton, whom the artist believes may have descended from the original owner.
Still Life with Mirror and Leaf: Werner-Vaughn’s vignettes resemble a Dutch or Renaissance painting. This one was formed from a lavish bolt of silk (acquired from close friend Carol Isaak Barden) and a square of sample damask left to Werner-Vaughn from the estate of a favorite upholsterer. To this setting, she has added her own artwork, beginning with a mirror sculpture that channels antiquity. Above the table hangs her canvas, Within, 1967.
Roman Reveal: A Roman-style head, cast at United Metalsmiths and gifted to Werner-Vaughn by the foundry’s owner Tom Cole, rests on a marbleized wooden pedestal painted by the artist.
Time Travel: This little residence could pass for a forgotten palazzo in the Italian hills, if it weren’t for the fairly contemporary wooden blinds; custom-ordered from blinds.com, they were designed to recall the energy of a less complicated age. The cornices, which Werner-Vaughn has owned for years, were brought from her house across the street, which bears its own moniker, Now and Then. The artist marbleized the columns, another salvaged relic from her collection, which give the tiny space an air of Venetian decay.