Once abandoned and in disrepair, these island houses have happy futures
The two little houses on Avenue M in Galveston aren’t exactly twins, but more like siblings. They’re from the same period and their styles and layouts are similar. They share the same sad history and experienced similar rescues, and today are viable homes with happy stories.
Both houses were built in 1886 as little cottages on full-size lots in a neighborhood of much larger structures. As the island underwent rebuilding after the 1900 Storm, one of the houses was moved onto the lot adjacent to its sister and the two were raised up 12 feet.
The coral house, where J.R. and Lisa Shaw live, is a bit larger. An extension built onto the anterior of the house allows for an upstairs front porch and additional floor space in the living room. The couple moved into the house in early 2020 and it needed very little work.
“We knew we wanted a historical house with character, and we wanted something with good light,” said J.R., a born-on-the-island Galvestonian who has spent most of his life in the seaport city.
The house had just gone on the market when the couple saw it online and knew it was the one they wanted, the Shaws said.
“A lot of the houses we saw looked like they came out of a Sears catalog,” said Lisa, who is the executive director of the Galveston Arts Center on The Strand, which offers exhibitions, art education and events. “But this one — you can tell it had a story to it.”
Former Galveston County Sheriff Henry Thomas lived in the house more than 100 years ago. Shortly thereafter, according to J.R.’s search of city directories, the house was converted to a duplex — one tiny apartment downstairs and another upstairs. It stayed that way for decades and in time fell into serious disrepair. Eventually, it was abandoned by renters and became a known meeting place for squatters, who settled into both houses, though neither had water or electricity. The two houses — sisters next door — became eyesores in the community; no one was taking responsibility for their upkeep or maintenance.
Neighbors called the police, health department and an array of city officials for several years. Finally, in 2016, a call to then newly elected Councilman Craig Brown inspired action. The houses were condemned and placed on the county auction list, where they were purchased by a contractor, who made serious changes. Both houses became “respected” members of the community and were back on the tax rolls.
The Shaws were attracted to the 11-foot-high ceilings, original transoms over the doors and the made-for-entertaining kitchen with its 12-foot-long bar, they said. The main bedroom is downstairs, and a small nursery is a few feet away in time for their newborn. The upstairs of the house includes the comfortable living/dining rooms and a small extra bedroom, now converted into a home gym.
The original floors in all the rooms are longleaf pine, a wide plank wood that’s no longer available.
“It feels like home,” Lisa said. “We also wanted a small garden, and we have one here.”
In the front yard, the couple posted and stocked a tiny library, which resembles the exterior of their house.
“This is a busy little library,” said J.R., who works for a Houston port towing company but also has a Galveston-based business of historical running tours, in which he gives history and information about the city while on a 5K or 10K run.
Next door, Cindy and Jerry Greengold say they love their little place, which has been a great getaway for them. They live in The Woodlands, but spend frequent weekends and weekdays on Avenue M.
When the Greengolds saw the house for sale, they immediately were attracted to the house colors — the yellow door, the white picket fence and the huge tree in the front yard.
“This house is the perfect size for us and our dogs,” Cindy said. “We wanted something old and historic, but not a lot of work.”
Their house has a split personality. Downstairs is a large living room/dining/kitchen decorated in a beachy motif that includes light colors, white porcelain wood-look tiled floor and an upright boat that serves as a bookshelf. The kitchen is modern, but designed with a retro look featuring shiplap walls, vintage-looking refrigerator and microwave and a 7-foot-long rustic Galveston sign.
The Greengolds installed white plantation shutters on the windows for privacy, but lots of natural light pours in through the windows, giving the downstairs a comfortable feel.
Up the stairs, which are part of the original construction with longleaf pine, are two bedrooms and a large bathroom. This part of the house is decorated with antiques and furnishings dating back to the 19th century. Heavy wood beds and cabinets were purchased from antique stores to give the rooms the historical air Cindy wanted, including a shimmering chandelier in the bathroom.
A tiny balcony opens off the back bedroom, which is too small to make use of, but the front porch is where the couple spends the most outdoor time.
The huge tree in front provides shade all year.
“Even in the dead of summer, we have a nice breeze here,” Jerry said. “This is where we hang out — hot or cold.”
When they aren’t on the front porch, they’re in the yard making use of a custom-built brick pizza oven, created by Jason Coats of Elemental Contractors. He also did the kitchen remodel.
“We wanted to build the pizza oven with old bricks,” Cindy said. “And when we are not cooking a pizza, it is a grill and a fireplace down below.”
The Greengolds and the Shaws agree their matching houses are as different as siblings, but note they are now both real assets to this diverse neighborhood. And their histories as abandoned houses is just that — history.