After Ike destroyed beloved bay house, couple finds perfect place on Tiki Island
For decades, Margaret O’Brien Nelson and her family had a little one-room house on Virginia Point, across the Galveston causeway opposite Tiki Island. They loved being on the water and escaping the stress of jobs and Houston. But the family was crestfallen when Hurricane Ike in 2008 took away that bay house. Margaret longed to return to the coast.
When she married Don Nelson, the well-known KTRK-TV news personality, the couple knew they wanted to spend their retirement south of Houston. They drove to Galveston looking for property until they realized they were driving right past the perfect spot. Everything they wanted was on Tiki Island — nice homes, fishing, waterfront property and an environment that beckoned to them.
They bought a small house in 2016 and decided to put their own stamp on it. The results: A getaway that’s becoming far more than a weekend home.
The two-bedroom house, which possibly was one of Tiki Island’s earliest fish camp cabins, has a bit of history to it. The house faces out to Jones Bay and the little Deer Islands and was the home of former Galveston County District Attorney and later County Court Judge Ronald L. Wilson.
Although Tiki Island was once known as Wilson’s Point, that name probably pre-dated Judge Wilson’s arrival. An aerial photo of the area from the early 1970s shows only three houses on the section of Tiki Island where the Nelsons now live. A concrete cornerstone from a 1977 addition is still accessible, next to the 2017 marker with the Nelsons’ name.
One of the first things they did was paint the house. Margaret searched for what she considered the “just right” color — chartreuse. And then she chose all the interior colors — more chartreuse in different shades. Although it sounds unconventional, the palette of colors works in this house.
The heart of the house is the open kitchen-dining-living room. Decorated in comfortable chairs and sofas, the room opens up to a massive deck, which now is partially covered. Large mirrors in the living room give the illusion of additional space and a wall of shelves add color to the room with art pieces and assorted mementos on the shelves.
Much of the art in the house was created by Margaret’s brother, Mike O’Brien, an Austin-based artist. The Nelsons have framed a variety of 1960s record album covers as art pieces to remind them of their favorite music. The wall between the house and the deck is all glass-fronted doors, allowing for unobstructed but distant views of the bay and the constant barge traffic and changing wildlife visitors.
“We can often leave the doors open at night and watch the barges coming and going,” Margaret said. “It is always in motion out there. And it is also fun to listen to the birds. The Gulf Coast has its own kind of beauty and we really appreciate it.”
But coastal living also brings with it threats of natural disasters, so the Nelsons agreed to go easy on the decorating budget and recycle by buying items at estate sales, consignment shops and local garage sales. They did replace all the windows and doors, making them hurricane-proof, while still allowing for lots of light.
“We had no preconceived ideas of what look we wanted, we just repurposed lots of stuff that we found because who knows what could happen,” she said, adding that her mother, Elena O’Brien, who was an interior designer, taught her a few tricks, including customizing items with hand-painted designs on frames and fabrics.
The kitchen, although small, is filled with special memories, specifically a large beam of wood above the eat-in bar that came from the family’s destroyed Virginia Point house. A Texas City milling company prepared the rough-hewed beam, restoring it so the Nelsons could hang it as a constant reminder of the old place. Some more reclaimed wood pieces were used downstairs to construct an outside bar, while other salvaged remembrances have found their way into the Tiki Island home, including a long heavy rope rescued from Galveston Bay that probably fell off a passing ship.
The story of the Nelsons is an interesting one. Thirty years ago, Margaret was the producer of KTRK-TV’s popular morning show, “Good Morning Houston,” and Don was the station’s anchor for that show. It was an exciting period, and tumultuous at times, with two strong personalities working together. After she left the station, they remained friendly, but five years ago, when they — then both widowed — were reacquainted. Whatever controversies they had in the past were well behind them. They married in 2016.
But when it came to decorating the Tiki Island house, Don remembered who was the boss, he said.
“She’s amazing,” he said of Margaret’s eye for furnishings and furniture. “I love what she’s done here, but we bought a view and they threw in the house.”
One of the major changes was the outdoor space. With help from Galveston County Pool & Spa, the Nelsons added a pool and hot tub near enough to the water that Don said he could fish while in the spa.
“That’s when you know you are retired,” he said. “You can fish from the pool.”
A ground-level room is sparsely decorated, with a simple couch and TV, and Saltillo tile, which isn’t affected by wet feet or towels. The two-level deck, which extends about 30 feet out, probably has almost as much living space as the house, and that’s because the Nelsons prefer being outside — to eat, listen to music, drink, relax and entertain. Chairs, couches, a fire pit, bar and tables are outside and facing west for the spectacular sunset views.
“The previous owners made use of every inch of this house, so it was easy to do the updates,” Margaret said. “That’s the thing about this place — it is just the right size.”