When preserving old houses, islander likes to get into the minds of original builders
“First do no harm.” That’s the motto of Alex Gonzalez, who isn’t a doctor, but a construction professional who specializes in restoring old houses in Galveston. His mantra is renovate, rehabilitate, rejuvenate and to some extent remodel. But he tries to preserve the integrity of the original structure as much as possible and remove, replace or harm only when necessary, he said.
Gonzalez, a born-on-the-island Galvestonian, has worked on old houses for more than two decades, bringing back to life some rather sad looking buildings, restoring them to perhaps better than they were originally.
For Gonzalez, who owns Creative Combinations Inc., the rehabilitation is like working a puzzle, he said.
“I like to do the forensics,” he said, explaining he can crawl under a house and determine where walls or windows were supposed to be. “From the underside, they look alike, and we can put back in place where things had been changed.”
Gonzalez likes to “get into the minds” of original builders and emulate their process, he said.
Initially, Victorian, Craftsman, Italianate or other historical structures he works on can be in pretty serious disarray, he said. But Gonzalez can see past the mess and debris “and envision what it can be,” he said.
As often as possible, he’ll save old fixtures and repair them before putting them back in the house. As his crews begin demolition work, he carefully stores all moldings, flooring, doors and windows to reuse wherever possible.
“You can’t fake historical significance,” he said. “You can buy replacements, and they may look good to some people, but the wood may be different or the cut is not the same as the original. Materials are very important when putting a house back together.”
Gonzalez comes from a large family, and his father, Carlos Bangs Gonzalez, was a welder and craftsman who built many of the iron fences on the island. Saturday morning cartoons weren’t in this family’s routine. Instead, Carlos Gonzalez would have his six sons and one daughter out working with him on the weekends. Alex enjoyed working with his hands, even creating model cars and airplanes of vehicles he would see, he said.
“It was the artistry that I liked,” he said.
He started repairing doors and later window shutters — “Never again,” he said — and even made a cameo appearance on the original TV home repair show, “This Old House” when they featured Ashton Villa, a prominent Galveston mansion built in 1859 and one of the more compelling examples of Victorian architecture on the upper Texas Coast.
“Those were my hands,” he said. “I was on for a second.”
But as he became increasingly interested in historical preservation, he learned more about the lifestyles of people of an earlier time in Galveston. He relied on other local professionals, especially Scott Hanson from Antique Warehouse, to find the right replacements for missing hardware, floorboards and other details.
Gonzalez also learned that too many people who had acquired the old houses didn’t appreciate the artistry and threw away materials that couldn’t be replaced, he said.
In his work on the island, including the restoration of the 1895 Galveston’s Orphans Home, 1315 21st St., which is now The Bryan Museum, he has strived to recreate houses and buildings to original grandeur but is incorporating 21st-century amenities, he said. For instance, kitchens and bathrooms are equipped with all modern conveniences, but he works with designers to keep traditional-style cabinets, vanities, doors and furnishings. All the mechanicals — air conditioning and heating systems — are required in every project, but he tries to make them as unobtrusive as possible, he said. Gonzalez is making upgrades, such as rewiring to make “smart homes,” so owners can control temperature, lighting and security from their phones and installing USB outlets to accommodate phone chargers, he said.
As much as he works, the list of projects is almost unending in Galveston, he said.
“There is still lots of work in the city,” he said. “We are going to be busy for a while — and that’s good.”