When the fierce February winter storm of 2021 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 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 Goldbeck’s 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 that 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 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. 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 a 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.
Debbie is stripping paint off windowsills these days. 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 ones 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 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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Readers, there’s something alluring about an old house that needs a facelift. Have you ever wanted to tackle a big restoration project?