Exterior rear view of the 1931 French-manor-style house, designed by the partner of legendary architect John Staub, J.T. Rather Jr.
In the cottage living room is the couple’s book collection. Painting by Hamptons-based artist Terry Elkins. Custom sectional and sofa in Belgian linen, early Christopher Spitzmiller lamp, rug, and coffee table, all from Mecox.
On the second-floor landing of the cottage, Dorothy Hood’s Mytho Glyphs, circa 1980. Vintage rug and bench from Mecox.
In the main-house dining room, a French mid-century-inspired chair is part of the Mecox 20th anniversary collection. Antique French table. Woven-rope chairs from Mecox. In background, 1940s English leather club chair.
An original chimney from 1931 was reclaimed and recessed for the stove and oven.
A cozy corner in the main house.
In the cottage dining nook, zinc-and-wood table, teak chairs, and early Christopher Spitzmiller lamp, all from Mecox.
In the cottage dining nook, paintings by Palm Beach artist Michelle Feder. Chinese vase from Mecox.
MECOX FOUNDER MAC HOAK AND HUSBAND, FRED PERKINS, OPENED SEVEN STORES THEN PULLED UP STAKES IN THE HAMPTONS, MOVED TO HOUSTON AND PUT DOWN ROOTS IN AN OLD FRENCH MANOR HOUSE IN THE MUSEUM AREA — ALL JUST SHY OF THE STORE’S 20TH ANNIVERSARY.
Like almost everything in the retail genius’ creative orb, Mecox founder Mac Hoak’s 85-year-old museum-area house comes with a good story. First, let’s go back 25 years, when Hoak was working in finance in New York City. He’d fallen in love with Fred Perkins, a Houston native (now his husband and Mecox vice president), whom he’d enticed to Manhattan with the promise of returning to Texas after a few years (the limit Perkins could imagine going without good enchiladas and frozen margaritas).
But a career change intervened: On a blustery February day in 1996, Hoak drove along Montauk Highway in Southampton and spotted a vacant storefront once occupied by a family-run landscaping business. “I was a novice gardener and had a grandfather who loved gardens,” he says, “so I wanted to do something in that part of the world.”
When he got home, Hoak called the broker and leased the building. A month later, Mecox Gardens opened, and Hoak left Wall Street. Situated on three acres of lush gardens, the store sold unusual pots, plants, and outdoor furniture and was an instant hit with locals and prominent New York designers. But that was only the beginning.
“Customers started asking for indoor furniture and antiques,” Hoak says, “so we added those. Plants became the decoration.” A half-dozen more Mecox stores opened across the country in the ensuing decades, and the couple set down roots in the Hamptons. To this day, Mecox (the name was shortened years ago) is one of the chicest things happening in Southampton.
Its mix of furniture in natural materials (stone, zinc, teak, concrete), French country antiques, and vintage pieces with timeworn finishes draws admirers and top designers in spades. Decorator Mark Hampton was an early client, and his designer daughter, Alexa Hampton, remains a devotee.
The store’s first month in business, a young Christopher Spitzmiller set up his potter’s wheel in a barn behind the store. Mecox was the first to sell the then-unknown artist’s exquisite hand-thrown lamps, which now command thousands of dollars.
Manhattan came next. In 1998, Hoak opened a temporary Mecox on the Upper East Side, with a 60-day lease in case things didn’t work out. It was a pop-up shop before anyone knew the term, and it proved a smart move. Eventually Mecox settled in permanently, and the store still thrives. Hoak has since rolled out stores in Palm Beach, Los Angeles, East Hampton, Dallas, and a large Mecox emporium opened in 2008 in Houston’s Highland Village. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the couple decamped to Houston full-time.
“It took almost 20 years, but I finally honored my obligation to move to Texas,” says Hoak.
The best-laid plans are always subject to detour. When Perkins and Hoak arrived in Houston, they rented a home and began hunting for a modern house in the nearby Museum area. “We’d already bought and fixed up four old houses in the Hamptons,” Hoak says. “We wanted to do something contemporary and modern in Houston, since that’s what it’s known for. Instead, we ended up with an old French house.”
The enclosed front yard was perfect for their dogs, and because the house was hidden from the street behind sculpted bushes and trees, it felt secluded. “We are in an urban setting, yet it feels like we’re in the country,” he says. The creative, unconventional vibe of the area was another draw — nearby residents include urban park designer Guy Hagstette and gallery owner Roni McMurtrey.
Once they settled in, a neighbor dropped off a detailed typed history of the house, and an interesting story unfurled. It was built in 1931 by J.T. Rather Jr., who worked with the legendary architect John Staub. Rather and Staub built many of the grand estates in River Oaks and, after the war, a number of buildings at Rice University. Staub’s firm was known for its country-house designs, and this French manor house, with its mansard roof and stalwart brick facade, bore all the hallmarks.
Originally set on an oversized corner lot, the house was commissioned by a lawyer and his art-professor wife who, it was said, had honeymooned in Cannes while it was being built. While in Cannes, they stayed in a 17th-century cottage, which the wife sketched for her scrapbook. In 1950, Rather built a two-story sculpture studio for her in the back garden, based on the drawing she had done 20 years earlier.
The charming shingled cottage still stands, and Hoak and Perkins use the 2,000-square-foot space as a home base for office work. The commute is delightful.
“The main house and cottage are separated by a garden and lawn, so we go back and forth constantly,” Hoak says. “We are dog people, and the dogs have free access to come and go between the houses. All the doors have dog doors built in.”
The house had undergone various well-done renovations over the decades, so Perkins and Hoak didn’t have to do much to make it their own. “We opened up some walls, and instead of a formal dining room, it now opens to the kitchen,” Hoak says. “We’re pretty casual.” A previous owner had laid beautiful French limestone floors downstairs, and when Hoak and Perkins removed the carpeting upstairs, the original hardwoods were revealed, with gorgeous old patina intact.
Don’t let the formality of the house’s French manorial-style facade fool you. Inside, it’s all about living comfortably with their dogs and cherished furniture and objects collected over the years, much of it from buying trips for the store. Says Hoak of their global treasures: “It’s an odd mix, but we love it.
“As I’m looking around the room, there’s a French dining table, an antique Chinese vase, an English Knole-style leather sofa, a stone bowl from India, an old Korean side table, a Lucite table from near Miami, and, of course, our Chris Spitzmiller lamps.”
Mecox is known for promoting the works of local artists in every city, and this is something that comes from the heart. Case in point: Perkins befriended under-the-radar Houston artist Dorothy Hood back in the late ’70s and purchased a number of her works.
“She never got her due until recently, but Fred loved her work,” Hoak says. “Now she’s considered the preeminent Texas painter.” (An international exhibition of her works is currently being mounted by the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi.)
Perkins and Hoak have several of her paintings in the main house and cottage. A Terry Elkins boat painting, which hangs over the brick mantel in the cottage, is a Hamptons-based artist they’ve been promoting for years by selling his works in their stores in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles. “We love helping artists,” Hoak says.
Part of the fun of peeling back the layers in their house is that you never know when another intriguing story will emerge. Hoak, who describes himself as a “book-aphile,” explains how their book collection includes 2,000 tomes inherited from a 1920s house they purchased in 1995 in Water Mill, a hamlet of Southampton. The house had belonged to pianists and performers Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold, fixtures in New York’s artistic community, who were friends with literary and cultural figures such as Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Jackson Pollock. Their estate had no heirs, so the contents were sold for charity — but no one wanted the books, a varied collection that included titles on dance, art, design, and cooking.
“So many of the authors were friends of theirs,” says Hoak. “I opened up one book, and it was signed by Jerome Robbins. What they had was so personal to that way of life and the way they lived.”
Hoak discovered other books inscribed by luminaries in their respective fields, such as textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, who retired to the Hamptons to garden; painter and poet Robert Dash; legendary abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning; and screenwriter and influential dance critic Edwin Denby, whose 16-page typed letter to Fitzdale and Gold was tucked inside a manila envelope in the back of a book.
For Hoak, the books represent a lost bohemia, a generation now obscured by the East End’s gentrification and celebrity. “When I got to the Hamptons, many people from that creative burst were still there, but it started to change even as I was there,” he says.
Vestiges of the era are buried throughout the book collection. One day while sorting through them, Hoak found a childlike pen-and-ink sketch of a face on the back of an envelope, dated 1967 and inscribed to the pianists with a note about its origins. The sketch had been done during a Japanese game introduced by Jerome Robbins to his friends and played on his porch, where the players make a drawing of someone without looking down at the paper. The sender of the note remarks that it’s Bill de Kooning’s sketch of a friend.
“At the time, the de Koonings ran around with these guys. You can sense it comes from his hand, it has such a distinct style,” says Hoak, who has carried his massive literary trove from house to house for more than 20 years. “I’ve tried to be a good steward of the books.”
As Hoak and Perkins have sold their other homes in the Hamptons and in Florida, this old French house in Houston just might be the last stop. “We love it here,” Hoak says.