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Real Estate / Houses

Historic Houston Home Renovated by a Young Architect With a Preservation Conscience

Inside the Minella House

BY Stephen Fox
photography Chris Plavidal

In 2004, Ben Koush, like many young architects ready to buy their first house, hoped to find an architectural gem that was both unspoiled by bad remodeling and a bargain. The architect, critic and architectural historian discovered a landmark modern house in classic real estate fashion: completely by accident after he became turned around driving through an obscure postwar subdivision in the East End of Houston.

A decade later, Koush’s Century Built Home (its proper name, as he found out) designed by Houston architect Allen R. Williams Jr., sparkles inside and out, thanks to architectural renewal and a few deft changes. Intent on ensuring long-term preservation of his house, Koush has had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places, marked as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark and designated a protected historic landmark by the City of Houston.

On seeing the For Sale sign in 2004, (actually, Koush remembers, it read: “Se vende”) and calling the number listed, Koush found that the house had a story. It had been built in 1949–1950 by an Italian immigrant and plumbing supply company owner, Angelo Minella, and his wife, Lillian, and was being sold by their daughters, who had rented it out for 13 years after their mother’s death. Although somewhat the worse for wear, the house was essentially intact.

From the street, it appears to be a wood clapboard-faced house with a front-facing chimney of thin Roman brick, brick planter boxes and brick wing walls. But, as Koush quickly discovered, it’s not wood. The house is actually built of lightweight concrete block, painted on the outside and skimmed with cement plaster on the inside, with concrete floor and roof slabs. Yes, the house is concrete.

Koush learned that Minella, a construction supplier, had hired Williams to build the Minella family a version of what Williams called the Century Built Home, a system of all-concrete construction that he developed in response to material and labor shortages that plagued the postwar suburban housing industry in the late 1940s.

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In 2006, Koush applied for the historic Minella House of 1950 to be Houston’s first modern protected landmark.

Further research by Koush revealed that Williams’ Century Built Home design was part of a broader effort by Houston architects right after the war to develop alternatives to conventional wood-frame construction for new housing. Koush found that Williams built four Century Built Homes in the late ’40s and early ’50s before readjustment of the construction-materials market enshrined wood stud construction as the economically unbeatable — and therefore dominant — method of housing construction in Houston. Through Allen Williams’ widow, Thesalone, Koush learned the locations of the three other houses and discovered that the Minella House was in the closest-to-original condition.

Because of the solidity of the original construction, the 1,690-square-foot home had no major structural problems. But it was tired. Flooring material was worn, steel casement windows had been partially cut away for the installation of window units (the house had no central air conditioning), and a fire had sometime in the past damaged a pair of closets backing up to each other in two of the house’s three bedrooms (one of the few places where fire could exact damage in the otherwise all-concrete house).

Koush decided to preserve as much original material as he could. To replace floor surfaces, he used a single material — charcoal-colored slate — rather than the multiple materials with which the Minellas had lived, spatially unifying the small house. Koush cleaned up and kept the mid-century pastel tile finishes and fixtures in the two sizable bathrooms, but the kitchen was more problematic. Replacing the stove led to the partial dismantling of a kitchen counter, part of a Youngstown all-steel cabinet system that was very high-tech in 1950. This necessitated a decision about whether to preserve the original countertops or install a replacement. Koush hit the library, thumbing through shelter magazines from the early 1950s to come up with just the right shade of mid-century red for new Formica countertops.

Installing central air-conditioning was also a challenge. Solid concrete walls don’t lend themselves to being penetrated for openings the way wood-stud-and-drywall partitions do. Koush had to carefully plot his ducting strategy to minimize through-the-wall incursions. He ultimately decided to expose the suspended supply duct in the kitchen and in the corridor serving the bedrooms and bathrooms, rather than conceal it with dropped drywall insertions.

A major question involved the steel casement windows. The window frames were in good condition, but the crank mechanisms had not held up, so the windows could neither be opened enough to let the breeze in nor closed tightly enough to keep drafts out. Koush reconditioned cranks where he could and “appropriated” cranks from houses undergoing remodeling and window replacement to round out his stash.

His biggest change involved the house’s main space: the combined living-dining room served by the street-facing brick chimney. Because Williams had planned the house without air conditioning, he efficiently lined up the bedrooms for access to the prevailing southeast breeze. By process of elimination, though, this pushed the living/dining room into the house’s northeast corner. To provide a breezy place for family gatherings during the steamy months, Williams projected a sun porch, which opened from the living/dining room off the east side of the house.

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Koush inserted a steel beam to support a new opening in the concrete block wall between the living room and the dining alcove. The oak table is by Florence Knoll and the Brno chairs with vintage mohair upholstery are by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all from the late, lamented Metro Modern. To the left, Koush re-purposed an extra steel kitchen cabinet as a floating credenza and topped it with a scrap of pink onyx. The watercolor above it is by Houston artist Margaret Dreyer.

The sunroom (which the Minellas had called the Florida room) had casement windows on three sides, so it absorbed most of the morning light that would otherwise have illuminated the living/dining room. Koush expanded the conventional doorway between the two spaces into a wider opening and integrated the Florida room with the living/dining space. He framed the opening he cut into the block wall with exposed steel channels and extended slate paving out to the sun porch. As a result, the living/dining room is no longer a shadowy cave, and Koush has set up his dining table in the Florida room.

Koush is proud of the details he preserved. The Minella daughters told him how they had helped plan the staggered shelves on the exposed-brick fireplace wall in the living room. It’s where he now displays his ceramics collection. The intricately configured storage wall between the bedrooms (the one where the fire occurred) has been restored, including its clever combination of closets and built-in cabinets and drawers that serve three different spaces — compensating, as Koush observes, for the fact that his flat-roofed house has no attic.

Koush called on friends such as metal craftsperson Daphne Scarbrough to help retrieve and restore such items as the steel vent hood above the kitchen stove. Koush has converted one bedroom to a library and guest room and another to his architectural studio (although at press time, a backyard studio and guest house, built to his design, is nearing completion).

Thanks to Koush’s discreet interventions, his Century Built Home has embarked on its second century of usefulness as a modern house. It was one of the earliest houses built in the Simms Wood subdivision, which had been partitioned from the estate of oilman E. F. Simms on South Wayside Drive, near the intersection of S. Wayside and Lawndale Avenue. It was also one of the neighborhood’s “Italian houses,” so called because Simms Wood and the adjoining Houston Country Club Place subdivisions were an enclave of Houston Italian-American and Italian–immigrant families.

In retrieving his Century Built Home, Koush has not only rescued and rejuvenated a mid-century modern survivor, but he has helped his neighborhood understand its place in history: the history of design as well as the social history of postwar Houston.

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