In 1947, architect John Staub designed a home in Houston’s River Oaks community for James Elkins Jr., then president of First City National Bank, and Margaret Wiess Elkins, whose father was a founder of Humble Oil. Featuring an L-shaped plan that embraced the increasingly casual lifestyle of the postwar generation, it was a major departure from the 18th-century Georgian plantation-style mansion the renowned architect had famously crafted for philanthropist Ima Hogg two decades earlier, also in the River Oaks neighborhood. The Hogg house, now a cherished decorative-arts museum, embodied the grandeur and elegance that defined both Staub’s style and the locale. As for the Elkins residence, without the vision of current homeowners Jim Reeder and Eric Nevil, it might have perished.
“This house could easily have been torn down,” says architect Dillon Kyle, who grew up in the neighborhood and possesses a lifelong admiration for the residence. “Considering the size of the property and the location, most people would have wanted something bigger and more traditional. And not everyone would appreciate things like the styling of the staircase and millwork.” But it was exactly those details and the structure’s inherent simplicity that intrigued Jim and Eric, both self-proclaimed Staub fans. “It was a very unassuming brick building, and we had no idea it was a Staub house,” says Eric, who along with his husband was captivated by everything from the Art Deco screen door to the crystal doorknobs.
According to Jim, it was evident on their first walk-through with Kyle that he was the right architect. “Dillon had an appreciation and vision for the house that was intoxicating,” he says, noting they had already tapped friend and longtime designer Ken Kehoe to weigh in on the project, with Eric, who is vice president of operations at Kehoe’s firm, serving as project manager. Having a shared goal of staying true to the integrity of the 1940s design, everyone involved found themselves asking at various times, “What would John Staub do?”
With that question in mind and Staub’s drawings in hand, Kyle—with project manager Samuel Windham—matched brick on the outside and emulated trim details on the interiors. When questions arose about redoing the roof with the same cedar shake shingles as the original and whether to extend the existing flagstone on the patio into the new family room and kitchen, all agreed Staub would have approved. But capturing the essence of the architecture also mandated some serious deleting that included eliminating both a service wing addition on the first floor and an upper-level expansion.
With the help of builder Brent Goodland, a breakfast room, family room, guest suite and terrace topped with a at roof replaced the former, and the second floor was returned to its original footprint. The ranch-style look of the at-roofed addition catered to the owners’ desire to “bring a little bit of California to Houston,” as did the new swimming pool ringed in brick designed by landscape architect Randy Fajkus. “This part of the house looks like one of David Hockney’s pool paintings,” Jim says.
Despite their affection for the era, the owners had no desire to turn the interiors into a midcentury museum—quite the contrary. “Jim had several family antiques, such as a pair of mahogany chests and a wood dining table, that were coming no matter what,” says Kehoe, who placed them in the dining room with vintage Dakota Jackson side chairs as contemporary counterpoints. A resin light fixture—which “everyone agreed looks like an upside-down version of an Esther Williams bathing cap,” Kehoe says—hangs from the original cove ceiling. More in keeping with the period, a 1940s sectional from Jan Showers fills one corner of the living room alongside a wheat-sheaf coffee table that purportedly was in Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment and a wingback chair wearing a luxurious wool-blend satin. The wood ceiling, a Staub signature and previously painted over many times, was stripped and fully restored.
The home’s palette balances Eric’s love of color with Jim’s desire for more-muted surroundings. In the family room, woven chairs touting cushions in colorful zigzag fabric signal a fun gathering place, while in the sitting area adjacent to the kitchen, upholstered chairs bloom with a bright hydrangea pattern, and the large flower print repeating on the walls, draperies and chairs in the guest bedroom pays homage to ’50s designer Sister Parish. “It’s a reminder that midcentury design was about more than just modern,” Kehoe says.
Things shift in Jim’s favor in the upper-level master suite, where everything from the padded headboard to the armchairs to the draperies wears the barest whisper of blue. A paneled hallway with a molding pattern inspired by the entry screen door conceals storage and serves as a transition to the master bathroom. There, a floating vanity enveloped in vertical-stripe marble is a contemporary take on classic Hollywood glam. About his deft mixing of colors and styles, Kehoe says, “The point was not to decorate the house. Instead, everything melds and complements the architecture.”