Legacy, Nostalgia and a Model Train Inspire Mid-Century Remodel
Adherence To Family Values And Boyhood Dreams Earns Homeowner A Good Brick Award
Glen Rosenbaum has made a name for himself in Houston in a variety of ways. He is a well-known and highly regarded partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP, who not only represents high profile clients, but spends spare time doing pro bono work for too many charities to name. He also has served in several capacities, including board chair of the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) where his generosity and expertise are legendary. He is a model train connoisseur whose passion for the craft has been recognized both in industry and national publications. And he is a 2015 recipient of Preservation Houston’s Good Brick Award for the restoration of his mid-century modern home in Meyerland.
The award-winning home is almost as distinctive as its owner, not only in its architecture and restoration, but its inhabitants, history and contents as well.
In 1964, Rosenbaum’s parents, Max and Helen, hired Arthur D. Steinberg, a mid-century architect, to design their home. “We were all really proud of our new home,” said Rosenbaum, who was then a teenager. Max passed away in the 70s and Helen in 2011, so with a lifetime of memories there, Rosenbaum decided to move back into his family home. But first he wanted to renovate it to suit a modern lifestyle while remaining true to the mid-century design.
When the project began, the property remained substantially unchanged from the time it was built with virtually all of the original furnishings in place, including numerous pieces by mid-century designer Adrian Pearsall.
Bill Stern, of Stern and Bucek Architects, was hired to accomplish the remodel with “openness” as the guiding theme. “We removed just under 50 percent of the interior walls,” said Rosenbaum, “and also opened up more of the home to the backyard.”
Stern found Rosenbaum’s design requests easy enough… until Rosenbaum added his second request. It turned out that Rosenbaum had a lingering boyhood dream of having a space big enough to set up the biggest model-train layout he had space for.
“When I described my plan to Bill Stern, he almost fell out of his chair, ” Rosenbaum said. “He thought it was hilarious.”
Construction on the redesign commenced in 2012, but Stern died the following year. “Without skipping a beat,” Rosenbaum recounted, “Stern and Bucek principals David Bucek and Daniel Hall stepped up and finished.” The overall project had a final cost of just under $1 million and took two years.
Fifty years later, after moving into the home for the first time, Rosenbaum was finally back home.
The renovated house is much bigger – formerly 3,200 square feet; now 4,500 square feet – and boasts a wide-open floor plan. Architect David Bucek explained, “Glen wanted a house where he could easily entertain, so we accommodated that intention without compromising the period design.”
To achieve the open interior, walls and masonry screens that formerly separated the various living spaces were removed creating a larger, fully open common area. However, by utilizing the original furniture and retaining most of the original mid-century design details (such as the sunken sitting room area), distinct areas within the larger space give definition. Too, the curving walls that originally separated the entry hall from the kitchen and living room are still there, lending softness to the geometric angles familiar to the period architecture. As well, the hallway which formerly led to the bedroom wing was demolished in order to make room for a new master suite.
Glass walls replace solid exterior walls, allowing a glorious view to the backyard where serenity is the theme. Along with the verdant and vibrant softscape, the backyard now has a white shell path that illuminates the garden and fuses seamlessly with the terrazzo floors of the interior as well as the roof finish.
Much of the furniture from the original home remains exactly where it was when Rosenbaum was growing up. Max and Helen’s custom-built 1950s dining table and the original built-in buffet fill the dining room, which sits just off and now open to the entry, where a wall was partially removed. And in the breakfast room, the built-in breakfast table has been reconstructed to resemble the original, albeit with different finishes.
Throughout the home, the original, and now even more highly-regarded, Adrian Pearsall furnishings (some reupholstered) occupy the rooms with enduring quality and homage to both the mid-century era and Rosenbaum’s parents.
Cindi Strauss, Curator for Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, assisted with one of the furniture restorations, which was actually done at the Museum.
“One of the most remarkable aspects of Glen’s story,” she said, “is the fact that so many pieces of the original furniture from the house survive and are in phenomenal condition. This rarely ever happens even with continuous ownership by one family. It demonstrates how much Glen’s parents valued the modern aesthetic as well as their commitment to having their home be a total work of art. And Glen has continued that reverence today, sensitively adding appropriate pieces of furniture to the mix.”
Adds Daniel Hall, Stern and Bucek’s lead designer: “Glen actually still has his parents’ original furniture receipts. Everything is documented. Being able to work with the actual pieces chosen by the original architect and homeowners allowed us to rethink and modernize the design while showcasing the original pieces and building upon them.”
In the master bedroom, a bright orange, curvy Pearsall chaise lounge (circa 1964) was reupholstered by the professionals at the Museum. Set in a corner with the monochromatic color scheme of the room on one side and the immaculately Zen and green landscape of the backyard on the other side, the chair makes a statement as bold as its color.
In the common areas, a Pearsall boomerang sofa, reupholstered in a neutral shade so as not to overpower the space, sits confidently in front of the fireplace and behind a George Nakashima coffee table, while the sunken sitting room is delineated by two mustard-hued Pearsall chairs and two orange upholstered chairs by mid-century Danish-American designer Jens Risom. Pearsall cubed walnut side tables are scattered throughout, completing the symmetry of design.
Much of the home’s original art is still intact. In fact, two original works Rosenbaum’s father created for his mother hang prominently in the entry. Also original is the built-in decorative panel above the fireplace commissioned by Rosenbaum’s parents. The original front double-door decorative finish, also commissioned by Rosenbaum’s parents, has been replicated on the new doors; this as well as other work relating to the remodel was done by Galveston-based artist and historical restoration consultant Jhonny Langer. A mid-century design built-in wall clock still keeps steady time in the breakfast room. In the media room, a large, framed denim banner commemorating the 100th anniversary of Levi’s prominently pays homage to Rosenbaum’s father, who owned a clothing store in which the banner was displayed since 1951.
Important modern art is also prominent. In the dining room hang two framed pencil drawings by Rackstraw Downes — one a panorama of the Gulf Freeway at the Sam Houston Tollway and the other a panorama of the horse race track in Presidio. A musically-themed Christian Markley piece is in the breakfast room. Abstracts by Jeff Elrod grace the walls of the sunken living room.
The day I was there for the interview, Rosenbaum was preparing to host a gathering for some of his distinguished and talented friends from the HGO. This particular evening the function was a birthday party for HGO’s recently retired special administrator for the general director’s office, Mary Fanidi, whose son is the world-famous composer Christopher Theofanidis. In fact, a handwritten score from Theofanidis’ The Refuge hangs signed and framed on one of Rosenbaum’s walls.
Rosenbaum’s guests are sometimes the prestigious casts of HGO premieres. Recently, he hosted cast parties for the openings of A Coffin in Egypt, a new version of A Christmas Carol and Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players. Throughout the home are framed program covers and snapshots signed by opera luminaries and friends within HGO displayed as works of art and as testament to Rosenbaum’s generosity and long-term involvement with HGO.
Upstairs, though, the tone of the home begins to shift. As one ascends the new open flight staircase, a feeling of nostalgia becomes pervasive. In the nearly 40-foot-long train room is 630 linear feet of track on a 30-foot by 14-foot landscaped platform that hosts 13 locomotives and more than 100 freight and passenger cars — four trains can run simultaneously. The visual impact is riveting. (To see a Classic Toy Trains magazine video of the set up, search for “Glen Rosenbaum’s O gauge layout” on YouTube.)
Rosenbaum’s vision was to build an O-gauge railroad that would convey what growing up in post-war Houston was like. His plan included the landscape of the Texas coastal plains surrounding Houston and the majestic, rugged landscape of West Texas, as well as a theme highlighting the railroad history of that time. He also wanted replicas of four distinct places: the Pecos River High Bridge in West Texas; models of the Rosenbaum homes, both this house and the earlier one the family called home from 1949-1964; a replica of the Southern Pacific Passenger Depot in Wharton, a 1913 building that was restored by Stern and Bucek (the same firm that renovated his home); and the control towers from the Southern Pacific Englewood Yard near downtown Houston.
To bring this Texas-sized feat, Rosenbaum enlisted the help of Roger and Dorcie Farkash and the crew at Dallas-based TW TrainWorx (see sidebar).
Replicating the scenery was vitally important to Rosenbaum. For the west Texas scenery, he wanted to convey the stark and barren landscape, complete with ominous canyons and craggy hills, baked brown surfaces and red and gray rocks juxtaposed against the gleaming Pecos River snaking through the steep walls. The massive bridge erected by Southern Pacific would be the centerpiece, and the vignette should translate the simplistic yet striking design of the bridge and the manner in which it complements the stark limestone cliffs of the Pecos River gorge.
Driven by these resolute memories and images, the Houston, Wharton & Pecos Railroad was born in the upstairs room of Rosenbaum’s new/old house.
After a long work day, Rosenbaum sometimes heads upstairs to wind down for a half-hour or so with his trains. On weekends, even longer.
“Every place in my home offers me nostalgia and serenity,” explained Rosenbaum. “It is a refuge where many memories remain intact.”
Text by Cheryl Alexander | Photography by Paul Hester, Hester + Hardaway | Original architecture by Arthur D. Steinberg | Remodel architecture by Stern and Bucek Architects, David Bucek and Daniel Hall | Remodel construction by Mainland Construction, Inc., Gary Inman | Historic Restoration Consultant/Artist: Jhonny Langer of SOURCE | Furniture restoration by Mattiza’s Custom Upholsteries, Tarascos Refinishing, and Steve Pine, Decorative Arts Conservator, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Landscape architecture by White Oak Studio, Cheryl Quinn, Travis Peiffer and Jim Patterson | Train layout design/construction by TW TrainWorx, Roger and Dorcie Farkash
TOP IMAGE: The now-open floor plan encompasses what previously was the utility room, and a new floor-to-ceiling window was added (on the right) to open the home into the backyard.
TRAIN OF THOUGHT
By Roger Farkash, Creative director/chief traingineer, TW TrainWorx Traingineering, Dallas, Texas
As the Creative Director / Chief Traingineer for TW TrainWorx, I had the responsibility of coordinating Glen’s initial ideas and desires for the Houston, Wharton and Pecos Railroad themed Train Layout into a showcase experience that reflected his lifelong interest in trains and his very personal model train memories. No matter the vantage point, his passion and appreciation for the beauty in the Iron Beast is evident in the many tasteful choices he made throughout the space.
From the detailing of the layout’s base cabinetry – made from the same batch of teak used throughout the rest of the house – to the high windows of the west wall of the gallery that mimic the spacing and feel of Pullman Passenger cars and the carefully selected Railroad Artworks that are spaciously placed on the perimeter walls, his “less is more” approach allows us to immerse ourselves in the working railroad that is the centerpiece of the room’s presentation, while our senses are sublimely nudged by the reminders of all things train related.
While the essential inspiration was the Lionel New York City Showroom Layout of the late 1940s, which Glen had admired from the first time he saw photos of it in the 1950s, the locale of his layout is pure Texas. Pre-eminent in the layout is Glen’s fascination with the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Transcontinental line across Texas, the highlight of which is the Pecos River High Bridge (represented on Glen’s layout with a 13-foot-long, semi-scale replica). The river feature diagonally crosses his layout and dynamically splits it across the middle. Wharton Station, the Englewood Yard switch towers, the outdoor engine servicing tracks from Victoria, and his childhood and current family homes round out the vignettes represented on his uniquely personal ode to Texas railroading.
Approaching his train layout design and construction with the same perspective and sensibility that he infused the production of the rest of his home gives Glen’s guests a unique view of the vision and commitment he applies to his life and all of his association choices. It was truly an honor to be involved with the development of his project from the early stages and to be a part of the team that, much like the ensemble creative team of a theatrical production – another of Glen’s passions – each one of us was empowered with the responsibility to bring our best to the collaborative table in harmony with the collective whole, and deliver a showpiece residence experience that truly reflects the character of the man.