When the fierce February winter storm of 2021 named Uri spread a pristine coat of snow across San Antonio, Texas, a grand Victorian home on Guenther Street never looked more striking.
Three years before, however, the house didn’t glow in the sunshine. Back then, the once gracious home had a ‘for sale by owner’ sign stuck in the overgrown front yard.
Our friend, Jim McKissick, was driving through the historic King William neighborhood, which is within walking distance from downtown when he saw the old place. Intrigued by the house that had seen much better days, Jim circled the block and stopped to get a better look.
As a mortgage loan originator, Jim’s experience has led him to endorse the adage: location, location, location. He also admired the home’s place in local history. If it could talk, the tales that the two-story edifice in what is Texas’ first Historic Neighborhood District could tell.
Jim was smitten.
He and his wife, Debbie, though, had no plans to take on a massive fixer-upper project. The empty-nesters had done more than their fair share of updating and renovating five of the 11 homes they had lived in during their 38 years of marriage.
“Do we really want to do this?”
“We’d always been weekend warriors, doing a lot of the renovation work ourselves on different homes. I was hesitant, though. I thought we were downsizing,” Debbie says. Nevertheless, she agreed to visit Jim’s find.
The McKissick’s due diligence found the structure had been operated as a boardinghouse for the better part of a century and had been altered multiple times. Many of the renovations had been fast, expedient repairs to keep the rents rolling in from different tenants who came and went.
Although it was no longer a showplace, Jim and Debbie thought the structure had “good bones.” It had been well built by craftsmen as a single-family dwelling when the neighborhood was new and flourishing.
Way Back When
In 1891, German immigrant Benno Theodor Goldbeck bought a lot in the King William neighborhood several blocks away from huge mansions under construction. An employee of a wholesaler of dry goods and groceries in downtown San Antonio called A.F. Frank Company, Mr. Goldbeck and his wife, Ida, built the Queen Anne- style house. The price of construction was $2,400. The Goldbecks moved in the following year when their son, Ernest Omar Goldbeck, was born.
Ernest Omar Goldbeck, who grew up in the Guenther Street house, became a prominent 20th-century commercial photographer, specializing in panoramas. According to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin which houses a repository of his work, Ernest’s photographic journey began on May 4, 1901. That’s when he used a borrowed box camera to take a picture of U.S. President William McKinley, who was visiting San Antonio.
That was the same year that Ernest’s parents defaulted on the loan for their Guenther Street house and lost the property.
For other homeowners, however, life was good in the King William neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century. Then the San Antonio River flooded the neighborhood in the 1920s. Uneasy that other devastating floods might follow, numerous owners sold their homes and moved to safer, higher ground.
In the 1930s, the McKissick’s house entered its nearly century-long commercial life as a boardinghouse. The entire neighborhood was undergoing change.
Assessing the Challenge
By 2017, the Guenther Street structure was 125 years old. Even a cursory look from the sidewalk in front confirmed that it needed a lot of work.
Jim and Debbie weighed the pros and cons.
“When we got married, Deb always said that someday she would love to remodel an old house. For 17 years, we lived in a new Victorian-style house that we built in Boerne, Texas, in which we used lots of antique doors and windows, plus installed a clawfoot tub. But here on Guenther Street was Debbie’s old house.
“By then, however, I think she had kind of forgotten about that dream,” Jim surmises.
“Let’s make an offer”
Finally, Jim and Debbie attempted to put together a deal.
However, they couldn’t work out the terms with the out-of-state owner.
Then the McKissicks moved on.
“We had closed on another house when the owner called back and wanted to renegotiate. I told him he was too late because we’d bought another property, but I’d see what my bank could do. I ended up offering him less than I had earlier, but he took it,” Jim says.
He and Debbie acquired the Guenther Street property in September 2017.
The McKissick’s new old house leaned about four or five inches from bottom to top. To accommodate multiple occupants when it operated as a boardinghouse, the structure had five different electrical panels to give each tenant a separate electric bill. Indoors, some of the beautiful old wood, such as the pocket doors in the downstairs hallway, were long gone.
Much of the remaining wood was covered in layers upon layers of different colored cracking paint. Some walls had been moved so many times that it was difficult to visualize the house’s original layout.
Jim and Debbie were soon looking at one another wondering what they had gotten into.
At first, the McKissick’s plan was to do a light renovation and rent the entire house as an Airbnb property. However, neighborhood restrictions tightened. Now if they wanted to offer the home as a short-term rental, they had to live on the premises.
Before she would agree to do so, Debbie told Jim that they would need to do a deeper, more costly remodel.
“The more we peeled away the layers, the more we found that needed to be done. And then we’d come up with ideas and tear down walls. Then we’d decide that we shouldn’t have done that and we’d put them back up again. The walls of the house were built of shiplap, so it wasn’t easy to knock one down and put it back up.
“It has been a very costly adventure,” Jim adds.
The McKissicks moved into the ground floor in September 2018 when the restoration still was a work in progress. They began listing the upstairs, which has its own turret, with Airbnb soon afterward.
In the oldest photo they’ve found of their house, the McKissicks spied a two-story porch that no longer existed. Fortunately, their son, Jeremy, a custom cabinetmaker in Austin, Texas, could tackle the job of meticulously recreating it.
It’s a pleasing feature, as is the two-story outdoor staircase.
“It’s awesome to be able to take a house from the past that was really worn down and bring it back to its glory!” Jim explains.
Some of Debbie’s tasks was stripping paint off windowsills after much of the remodeling was done. She didn’t mind. The McKissick’s estimate their restoration effort is 90% complete, although they agree they likely will never finish.
Worth the Effort
Beth, a February 2021 guest, had this to say about the McKissick house, “By far my favorite Airbnb that I have ever stayed in. Jim and Debbie’s place is perfect if you work remotely. It’s in a great location – a very short walk to the Riverwalk and the Blue Star Complex with restaurants and shops.
“The condo is spotless and has been done with style and taste. Pictures don’t do it justice. Debbie and Jim are ‘superhosts’ in every respect!”
In 2019, another visitor named Maureen wrote, “My parents and I had an absolutely wonderful stay. I have used a lot of great Airbnbs in the past, yet this one stands out for several reasons. The hosts are kind and helpful. The house is stunning and a true inspiration to anyone who has an interest in older architecture.
“Lastly, the location was fantastic offering a beautiful neighborhood to walk around in and the River Walk only a couple of blocks away.”
Take a look for yourself by clicking the link below.
All’s Well That Ends Well
“My advice for anyone taking on the restoration of an old house is to have a lot of money in the bank and be prepared to spend it even if you’re doing much of the work yourself. Fix the foundation, roof and windows before you do anything else,” Debbie says.
“Also be prepared to compromise and listen to one another.”
So how does a marriage survive a renovation project of this magnitude when finances are strained and opinions differ?
“This may sound kind of cheesy, but we put God first in our lives. That has equipped us to just work through the problems,” Debbie explains.
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Great story Elaine! I hope that Dennis and I can stay at the McKissick House sometime soon.
It certainly sounds like Jim and Debbie’s restoration would be a wonderful place to visit!
Oh, Elaine, how VERY PROUD Debbie and Jim should be! I LOVE the old district in San Antonio and have driven by these beautiful homes so often. I love to read of “miracle restoration” like this story. Brenda
Yes, like you I find the story of an old house that is rescued and restored to its original glory inspiring! I guess we’ve all recall homes that weren’t rescued. By the way, whatever happened to boardinghouses? When and why did they become a thing of the past?
Another GREAT story told by a wonderful story teller. You’ve done a marvelous job of describing the magic of this home and the owners.
I love your choice of a word to describe the lasting effort of the McKissicks journey in restoring this old treasure for a whole new life. “Magic” it is! Thanks, Margo!
Elaine, I loved reading the story about the house. My love of antiques and old houses made me especially interested. Keep writing the great and interesting articles. Janice Teinert
Janice, I’m glad you could identify with Jim and Debbie’s journey to restore their old home. Oh, the stories it could tell! Thanks for writing.
Thanks for helping us appreciate the joys of the past and the joy of restoration. Janetta
You’re welcome Janetta. Yes, even houses have a story to tell. Isn’t it neat when it can be tracked down and we learn a little about the people who lived there? Thanks for writing!
Your delightful story brought back memories of our restoration of our over 100 year Texas farm house.
There was laughter and tears during the six months we worked on the old house but we brought it back to life to enjoy our little piece of heaven.
Thank you, Elaine
I’m sure that you and the McKissicks would have a wonderful time talking about the joys and challenges of restoration! Like Debbie and Jim, it’s nice that all that hard work was worth it. You both have reclaimed a little peace of history all your own, Donna!
The McKissick’s home is gracious and a beautiful blend of the old and new, thanks to their meticulous taste! You have honored their efforts and talents so well. Having seen the challenge of before and then the transformation of after, I appreciate their huge task. Thank you for telling the tale!
You’re right about the gracious blend of old and new in the restoration. I think if old homes could talk, it would appreciate the TLC too. Thanks for writing.
Very cool story, Elaine. Enjoyed the read and the pics. I admire folks who have that passion and “you better have a lot of money in the bank”. Lol
Rhonda, I agree with you. Folks like Jim and Debbie are to be admired. I can only imagine what a big job the restoration was, especially since they did so much of the work themselves. They can really be proud of what they have accomplished!
A touching story & the McKissick’s have my admiration.
Yes, I agree, Fred. I think we can all see the work and care that was poured into Jim and Debbie’s old home for its grand re-entrance to life.
Elaine, thanks so much for taking your time & effort to weave together the history of our old home. Deb & I so enjoyed helping you piece the story together which you told so well … you did a wonderful job, It’s really been fun reading the comments on your blog & facebook.
That said, I think its time you & Emil make a visit to Downtown San Antonio and stay here for a weekend in our Airbnb 🙂
Jim, you and Debbie are welcome! Retelling the story of your huge restoration project inspired me, as it did many of my readers. There’s so much bad news in the world that I’m thrilled to be able to point out a successful effort that demonstrated what can be accomplished if you set your mind to it and trust in God. We’ll certainly keep your kind invitation in mind and if you’re ever around our area, please let us know. Thanks again for writing.
What a project, but the outcome appears to be quite stunning and certainly required significant commitment.
You’re so right about Jim and Debbie’s commitment! Once a restoration job of this magnitude gets underway, there was no turning back. No wonder they love sharing it with guests! Thanks for writing, Linda.
Thanks for championing those brave enough to continue the bravery required to save those who need to appreciate the past for those who come after us.
Thanks, Elva. Like you and Royce, I am fascinated by the stories these old homes could tell. Talk about entertaining! We’d be open-mouthed with wonder.