By Marilyn Bailey
Photos by Ralph Lauer
A historic house built in 1937 offered challenges for the new homeowners, but with the help of Southlake designer Ragan Aguilera, they’ve created a home that is comfortable with the old and new.
Jim and Lynn Niewald had done the big-house thing. They’d made good use of spacious homes in Southlake, where their children attended Carroll schools, and in the master-planned Hidden Lakes neighborhood in Keller, where they had lived more recently.
But now that the kids were grown and out of the house, the Niewalds were ready for a bold move. They left ready-made suburbia behind and bought a house in downtown Grapevine that was built in 1937 and has a Historic Landmark designation.
“We wanted to downsize and be at a place more central and walkable,” says Lynn. And downsize they did, from 4,400 square feet to 2,675.
Renovating a home with landmark designation can be a tricky process, and because of the age of the house and the damage uncovered during the construction process, homebuilder Neal Cooper had to reconstruct more than they expected. But there was another issue: All their stuff was too big. “Scale was a big deal. Nothing worked — it didn’t fit. It’s hard to go from two-story ceilings to this,” Lynn says, gesturing toward her compact but inviting new living room.
So the couple called in designer Ragan Aguilera of Southlake’s Sally Lynn Home, who helped them replace almost every piece of furniture they owned.
After working with the builder on all the construction details, including interior finishes — things like choosing bricks for their bar area, which meant a trip to Dallas to learn all about brick types — the Niewalds say they were in decision overload.
Thankfully, they feel like Aguilera “got” them, and she could take the lead on decor. Aguilera had them fill out separate questionnaires — couples don’t always agree on style — to learn about their tastes. Then she presented them with a pared-down set of choices for important items: “Do you like A, B or C best?”
“We didn’t have to look at 65 couches,” Lynn says. “And every one of our relatives has said, ‘This looks like y’all.’ ”
The public areas of the house are dressed in a contemporary, relaxed style, with a muted color palette that still has a strong point of view. The couple wanted navy, black and gray, “but blue and black together can be tricky to find,” Aguilera says, “so we had to kind of make it.” She found paintings with those colors, and also a pair of pillows with a watercolorlike pattern of all three shades. Black is seen mainly in metal finishes, as on the barstools and the custom coffee table, and on the leather chair backs. Background whites, as well as brown leather and wood accents, provide balance and warmth.
So do textures and a few natural elements. Lynn and Jim love raw edges, so Aguilera had a coffee table with a live-edge wood top made for them. (Sally Lynn Home keeps the slabs in stock and can make these in different finishes and sizes.)
Aguilera didn’t have to find too many decorative accessories because Jim and Lynn, devoted world travelers, already had a collection of fascinating objects. The walls are hung with striking photographs of places they’ve been. A large bookcase in the living room holds mementos from Portugal, Ghana and Singapore, to name a few.
Resting on the screened back porch is a larger prized possession: a pair of seats from the old Busch Stadium that was demolished in 2005. Jim regularly attended St. Louis Cardinals games as a boy. That you can still read that they’re row 4A, seats 1 and 2, adds to the poignancy.
A few more beloved baseball items have found a home in a glass-front case in Jim’s book-lined study, but here’s where downsizing gets hard. “I used to have a Cardinals room. Now I just have a Cardinals cabinet.” You’ll find some of his boyhood train collection on the top shelves, with baseball memorabilia below, including a photo signed by Stan Musial, the legendary Cardinals hitter nicknamed “Stan the Man.”
Jim recalls that he “came down with the mumps or measles or something” on game day one time and had to stay home. His father went without him, but “because I was supposed to be at the game, he wanted to get me something special.” The photo’s inscription reads “To Jimmy.”
“Nobody ever calls me Jimmy — except for Stan,” Jim deadpans.
But other treasures had to go. Jim’s mother had been a music major, and he still owned her beautiful 1938 Steinway grand piano. He hadn’t been playing it much, so they decided to find it another good home rather than squeeze it into this house. Jim put the word out to local music schools and churches, and it ended up with a Fort Worth host family for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; at the most recent competition, a Croatian hopeful spent his long practice hours at their instrument.
Decisions like that were painful, but what’s important is that this house is working well for the couple’s new life.
They can still entertain: Past the living room and the kitchen, with its four bar seats, the dining table seats eight, and they can fit more people on the screened-in porch and the patio beyond. Lynn says they have been able to host her “huge” family without things feeling crowded.
On ordinary days and nights, they like to walk to Grapevine’s Main Street and enjoy the wine offerings. The owner of one of the wine rooms has become a friend and has even conducted a tasting at their house. They enjoy taking the TEXRail train to Fort Worth, and that will become even more fun when the fancy Grapevine/Main Street Station opens within easy walking distance next year.
Thanks to their new take on a vintage house, with its front porch and modest footprint, and their growing participation in downtown life, they’re adding to what they say drew them here in the first place: the character of the neighborhood.