East End island couple remodels a Victorian icon while staying faithful to its design
There were special “rules” in the restoration of the 1875 Julius and Elizabeth Ruhl House in Galveston’s East End. Repair, remodel, replace but keep the 19th-century look and feel of this Victorian icon.
And now, 11 years after buying the house on Sealy Street, Galvestonians Chuck and Debbie Morris say they’re satisfied with the renovation that features the amenities and conveniences of a 21st-century house but has been faithful to the original design and plans of Chicago architect Thomas Overmire.
“I tried to keep everything in the 19th-century period,” said Debbie Morris, who hand painted the new kitchen cabinetry to create a vintage look. “I like the modern conveniences, but I wanted everything to look like it belonged here.”
The house, which sat on four lots, remained in the Ruhl family until the 1960s. Originally, the family occupied the entire house, and adjoining stable and carriage house. After Julius Ruhl died in 1882, the family stayed on. When daughter Sophia married, she and her husband, Renee Muller, took over the second floor as their private residence.
Later, the building was a boarding house and then in 1962, after Hurricane Carla, it was divided into three large apartments. It had been vacant a few years when the Morrises purchased it in 2007 and the work began — interrupted by Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008. Chuck Morris, a homebuilder and contractor, was needed at his business repairing other houses in Houston and Galveston after the devastating storm, so his home project had to wait.
Once the Morrises were able to start, they began by painting the outside so the house would no longer appear abandoned. And then they tackled the inside: electrical, plumbing, moving walls, stripping woodwork and following the plans they agreed on, they said.
“With a project like this, you have to have a vision of what each room and space will be,” Debbie Morris said. “But there were many surprises here.”
A wide center hallway separates a large 32-foot-long ballroom — actually the original dining room — from a pair of parlors on the other side of the house. They were the men’s parlor and the women’s parlor and now serve as the formal living room and dining room. The remodeled and updated kitchen, with a delightful and bright breakfast nook, was customized with a long pine countertop on the center island and underlit white onyx countertops, giving the room a vintage feel while still in character with the home’s theme. A large office behind the kitchen, with a bathroom attached, could be considered an additional bedroom, if needed.
The house is decorated with art — modern, contemporary, impressionist and portraitures — and the pieces all have one thing in common: they’re handpicked by the couple.
“We collect art that we like,” Debbie Morris said.
What stands out the most is the attention to detail. All of the lighting fixtures — original or newly installed — hang elegantly from ceiling medallions that had been somehow saved or reproduced from casts of the originals. The living room and dining room chandeliers, both purchased in New Orleans, haven’t been electrified, but instead have “candles” lit with LED battery lights.
The refinished floors in the house — now extinct longleaf pine — are original. The winding banister was cleaned and oiled and is a solid piece of the structure up to the third floor. All of the walls were repaired with plaster instead of Sheetrock, for a fine, smooth finish and sculpted crown molding — recast from the original design.
The second floor of the house has a family room, three guest bedrooms, all furnished with antiques and comfortable chairs, as well as a massive boudoir suite — a bedroom, attached to a large bathroom with a white claw-foot tub in the middle of the room. Two generously sized closets follow, and a small corner desk nook is where Debbie Morris takes care of her paperwork.
There is a third floor, but it’s mostly a storage attic. But there’s a narrow staircase that leads up to the impressive widow’s walk, a two-story porch on the top of the house. A photo recovered in an album found in Galveston’s historic Bishop’s Palace showed the original design of the house with the widow’s walk, which allowed the Morrises to reconstruct the cupola. The widow’s walk provides 360-degree views of the city.
The couple was able to recycle many items back into the house. Hardware on all the doors were repaired and refinished, arched windows enclosing an early 20th-century sleeping porch were moved to rooms that needed more light, and cabinets found in a second-floor kitchen were moved to the back stairway and laundry area. The steps on that back staircase are well worn.
“I think about the women who lived here and worked in this house every time I go up these steps with my laundry,” Debbie Morris said. “I can sense them here.”
The two large porches in the front of the house, which were part of the original design, give the home a stately appearance. But the addition in the late 1800s of the side porches made the most sense, Debbie Morris noted.
“The heat in the front of the house is really intense but the Gulf breezes here on the side are constant,” she said. “We didn’t have to come up with good ideas — they were already here.”
As the Morrises, who have eight grandchildren, prepare for the holidays, decorating each of the public rooms and the exterior, they remember the Ruhl family and welcome their spirits and presence in the house, they said.
“This is our family home now and it gets pretty crazy here,” she said. “But we can sense the Ruhls and they are saying ‘we are watching out for you.’”