You Need to See How a Sad 1920s House Was Restored to a Colorful, Pattern-Filled Home

You won't even recognize this home after its amazing renovation.

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Courtesy Julie Soefer

Julie Soefer, a sought-after culinary, interiors, and portrait photographer in Houston, first met Courtnay Tartt Elias, creative director and principal of the local design firm Creative Tonic, nearly a decade ago at the opening of one of her shows. Fueled by mutual admiration for each other's work, a friendship was sparked. So, when Soefer and her then-boyfriend Chris Vandewater decided to buy a 1923 Spanish Craftsman-style house in the First Montrose Commons Historic District (Vandewater, a geologist, proposed to Soefer in the backyard the day they closed on their new abode), they turned to Elias to overhaul the 3,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home.

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The Soefer’s living room before renovation.
Julie Soefer

Suffice it to say, the designer's work was cut out for her. Crowned with original Ludowici clay roof tiles, the former duplex is framed with structural clay tile and stucco-veneer, requiring a sensitive restoration that adheres to guidelines developed by the Houston Archaeological and Historic Commission.

They collaborated with local builder, architect, and artist Onézieme Mouton, who “poured his heart into each and every decision, from rebuilding the original 1920’s double-hung windows—using materials that would have been used then—to how to craft the perfect ceiling-mounted steel bathroom custom mirrors,” says Elias. All in, Creative Tonic spent nearly three years designing Soefer and Vandewater’s home.

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For the living room, Creative Tonic and Onézieme Mouton custom designed a plaster fireplace flaunting a vintage brass peacock fire screen from Houston’s Blue Bird Circle shop. Bespoke gray-and-black Casamance velvet upholstered chairs and a leather Chesterfield sofa dressed with Carleton Varney dragon pillows meld with a copper tubing coffee table from the Houston furniture store Area and a locally made Madison Lily rug. Vintage pieces include circa-1950s oversized lamps as well as original Norman Cherner elbow chairs from the same era that once belonged to Soefer’s grandfather. Hudson Valley brass picture lights illuminate Soefer’s personal art collection, including Arnold Newman’s original black-and-white silver gelatin prints of Igor Stravinsky, Max Ernst, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Julie Soefer
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The vintage brass-lucite-and blue velvet benches from Ceylon et Cie in the entry are the first pieces Elias sourced for the home. Soefer’s own photography is the true highlight of the space. “I knew from day one I wanted her entry to be a personal art gallery to showcase her work and be a flexible place to rotate her pieces as she created more,” says Elias.
Julie Soefer

“I work with so many designers shooting their projects and have become obsessed with all it takes to make a room come together,” says Soefer. “I wanted a comfortable, creative, eclectic home that felt like us, and Chris was open to whatever I wanted to do."

Though she admits, "there were certain bolder things I had to talk him into, like the Regina Andrew spider chandelier in the entry, or the metallic grasscloth on the ceiling in the formal living room, but once they were installed he understood and was on board.”

At the entry, guests are greeted by a selection of Soefer’s own photographs, displayed in white frames. “I feel like it sets the tone for the rest of the home," the photographer explains. Elias agrees: "It is playful, colorful, deeply personal, rooted in black and white with touches of vintage,” she says of the work.

Artwork Soefer has collected since college hangs in the living room, including a lacquer-on-wood painting of a Vietnamese woman by the artist Bui Huu Hung placed prominently above the fireplace. Soefer bought it in Saigon in 2006 and had it tucked away in her old loft, but once Elias glimpsed it she realized it was the piece to design this moody space around.

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Leather-and-chrome bar stools that Soefer’s grandfather once used lend a vintage touch to the kitchen, where a custom steel-and-acrylic table and purple chairs from Houston furniture shops Vieux Interiors and Found pair with custom brass-and-wood bar shelving from local design and fabrication workshop Rootlab and stone counters by local firm Segreto Finishes. The range hood, covered in iridescent lavender fish-scale tile from ADR Houston, is one of Soefer’s favorite elements of the renovation.
Julie Soefer
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This painting from the 1980s hung in Soefer’s home growing up. Now it graces the upstairs landing of her own own house.
Julie Soefer

“Since the living room is flanked by two rooms that had windows on two walls each I knew this one should be painted Farrow & Ball Black Blue to counter all of the saturated light on each end,” explains Elias. “One of the things I love most about Julie and Chris’s home is the updated floor plan, void of hallways. All the rooms flow together, and the space is so open and filled with light and the outside green trees.”

Soefer and Vandewater wanted to celebrate their house’s past, preserving as many features as possible, like the millwork, shiplap walls, and longleaf pine floors. In some instances, they blended the old and new. The 6-foot cast-iron farmhouse sink in the kitchen was moved, the living room fireplace was updated to gas, and rooms were gutted to create a sprawling, fluid living area. “The steel beam we added basically holds up the second floor, acting as a cool design element and enabled us to open up the kitchen and family room. Onézime did an amazing job of finishing the steel beam to have this metallic, exposed look,’ says Soefer.

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The master sitting room contains a lavender velvet Kelly Wearstler sofa from LADCO and chairs from the Guild Shop covered in Osamu fabric by Harlequin. The colorful painting is made by Edgar Podzemny, founder of Madison Lily Rugs.
Julie Soefer
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Black-and-gold metallic wallpaper from Osborne & Little and a custom Italian black marble sink are the stars of the powder bathroom.
Julie Soefer

Keen to make the house a single-family dwelling once more, the owners turned the upstairs into the master suite, two rooms outfitted with details like a custom platform-bed and vintage waterfall lamps.

Rounding out the house is Soefer’s adjacent studio. Designed by Natalye Appel Architects in Houston, it has an industrial feel, combining steel, glulam beam, and gold-leafed fish scale. MAK Studio, another local company, fabricated the two-story stair wall.

Weaving in pom-pom and bullion fringe, wallpapering the the home office with a snake pattern, adding striped tile to the new pool, and snagging brass hardware for the kitchen on a trip to San Miguel, Mexico, are some of the ways that Elias managed to amplify details with vibrancy and whimsy. “Julie and Chris’s home is full of highs and lows, vintage and new, luxury French fabrics and handmade Mexican tiles,” says Elias. “It is truly special, deliberate, and collected.”

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In the guest room, vintage lamps from Reeves Antiques sit on new, perforated brass side tables from High Fashion Home that accentuate the custom Duralee upholstered bed. With its swirls of rich color, Robert Crowder wallpaper from the Ken Kehoe showroom in Houston is the visual anchor. “It resembles hand-made marbleized bookbinding paper. It also reminds me of a cross-section of a geode and is a fun nod to Chris,” points out Elias.
Julie Soefer

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