Before & After: A Discerning Midcentury Renovation in Lake Highlands

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovationI’ve known Rebecca Nolen since our high school days at Ursuline Academy of Dallas. Even back then, her design aesthetic was refined—she had the best-looking bedroom of anyone I knew. She also offered me Welsh rarebit as a snack when I came over to study one afternoon, far more sophisticated than the Little Debbie Star Crunch Cosmic Snacks I was used to eating after school.

The subsequent years only improved her taste, as evidenced by the discerning midcentury renovation of the Lake Highlands home she and her husband Richard bought in 2005.

“We had visited a number of houses we loved over the years—the Eames house in Los Angeles and a Neutra house in Palm Springs, especially—and those gave us a good idea of how we want to live,” said Richard. “The Eames house looks almost like a child’s toy from the outside with its red and blue panels, but it’s filled with treasures from Charles and Ray’s travels around the world. They really lived there; it wasn’t a sterile monument to design. That’s what we’re going for.”

When Rebecca and Richard purchased “the ranchette” in 2005, it was dated and drab, but with potential: corner lot on a quarter acre, 1,341 square feet, three bedrooms, and a big kitchen and backyard.

“Honestly, we only looked at about three houses, and this was the first one,” said Rebecca. “It had a lot of problems—it was pretty much a dump, with torn up carpeting, ratty wallpaper, broken fiberglass shower enclosures, and an HVAC system that was falling apart. But it was filled with light and the kitchen was enormous. Something about it felt right. And it didn’t have a popcorn ceiling, which still ranks among my worst nightmares.”

The work they’ve done over the years is nothing short of spectacular. They took a boring, blah house and added major midcentury personality, elegant style, and thoughtful design.

“We have neighbors who get what we’re doing and raise the bar themselves—there are some serious midcentury modern remodels that are giving us great ideas,” Rebecca said. “Our next-door neighbors even went midcentury modern last summer with an outdoor update. They bought oversized aluminum house numbers, replaced their brass lantern with a giant globe pendant, and used a quirky chartreuse paint color for their trim.”

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovation midcentury renovation midcentury renovationRichard and Rebecca knew they wanted to live in Lake Highlands, and the Highland Meadows neighborhood, near Northwest Highway and Plano Road, was a particular favorite.

“Lake Highlands has some great mid-century modern houses—near us, there’s a significant house designed by John Bartel,” Rebecca said. “Ten years ago, I said Lake Highlands would be the next Lakewood, and I still think I’ll be right… eventually. We love being close to White Rock Lake, the farmers’ markets that have popped up, the Green Spot, Haute Sweets Patisserie. Things just keep getting better and better here. And we love that a lot of our neighbors are long-time residents from the 60s and 70s. They help keep an eye on your property. It’s a great community.”

Their style icons are Charles and Ray Eames: modern, but not sterile. Their house is not kitschy, but it’s not serious either. You’ll see a pillow with Alexander Girard’s tribute to the moon landing and a papier-mâché umbrella stand from San Juan Capistrano in the shape of a mustachioed man.

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovationmidcentury renovationMidcentury renovationMidcentury renovationBefore they even closed on the house, Richard and Rebecca were planning changes.

“I started picking at the wallpaper before we even closed—I don’t advocate that, but it was already peeling up and I couldn’t resist,” Rebecca said. “The previous owners had tried to go for a Ralph Lauren look, but it was executed really cheaply. We immediately covered the jewel-toned walls with white and pulled the fake chair rail off the walls. Fortunately or unfortunately, they had a big dog that had ripped up the carpeting in the hallway with long nails, and it was no tragedy to put that carpeting for bulk trash pickup. We put in maple flooring from Seconds and Surplus right away.”

The first order of business upon moving in was putting in maple hardwood floors, removing what she calls “gag-worthy” blue gingham wallpaper, and painting everything white.

“We got rid of a stove that looked like it belonged in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but not in a good way,” she said. “To replace the linoleum, we had simple white square ceramic tile put in for the floors of the hall and master bath. It was what I grew up with, and it was very inexpensive, maybe $75 per floor. The kitchen floor was parquet, but it was in bad shape, buckling up everywhere. We pulled it up and had the concrete slab stained and sealed.”

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovationSince then, the Nolens have replaced almost all the light fixtures in the house, adding modern sconces in the hall bath, Nelson bubble lamps in the kitchen and dining room, and a Le Klimt in the guest bedroom. They’ve also added large perennial beds to the back yard, added a sprinkler system for the whole house, replaced the air conditioner, and painted the pink exterior brick a soft white.

“I planned to do this before we even bought the house,” Rebecca said. “My childhood house was this same color pink brick, and it was painted as soon as we moved in. In 20 years of living there, we never had to repaint the brick, so I knew it would work out well. I also knew that I wanted a soft, warm white. The neighbors adjacent to my grandmother’s house painted their stone house a bright white, and the effect was terrifying and blinding.”

A big visual change for the curb appeal was replacing rotting wooden columns with metal panels designed by Rebecca with interlocking circles based on some themes she and Richard had seen in California. Their next-door neighbor welded them together and installed the panels.

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovationNot all the changes happened at once. Two years ago, they undertook a dream remodel of their master bathroom, using oversized gray subway tile in the shower and a pennyround floor, with a glass shower to replace the “Vegas” fiberglass shower enclosure (it had flecks of gold glitter in it).

“The master bath remodel was something that makes me happy every day,” Rebecca said. “Every fixture was chosen because Richard and I absolutely love it, from the chrome cross-shaped taps, to the handshower that runs on a slide bar, to the shower door with no crevices to clean. The pennyround tile feels great on your feet. There’s even an outlet hidden inside the medicine cabinet to charge our Sonicare toothbrushes.”

midcentury renovationmidcentury renovationThe Nolens also replaced their rotten deck with a simple flat deck, and got rid of an old electrical panel that was a known fire hazard.

Next project? A kitchen remodel.

“The 60s cabinets have fixed shelves that don’t accommodate a modern-day cereal box, and they’re not in great shape,” Rebecca said. “We’re probably going to go with the new SEKTION system from IKEA, with lots of drawers. It just came out within the last year or so, so I want to see how the reviews shake out. I want to use something other than granite for the countertops, but my one nod to trendiness will be wanting a waterfall peninsula.”

They’re also considering a panoramic, floor-to-ceiling sliding door in the kitchen. Other future renovations will include remodeling the hall bathroom with a custom-built, floating walnut vanity and replacing the fiberglass shower enclosure with an interesting tile. A few windows are going to be replaced with much larger ones, and at some point, Richard wants to add a serious pizza oven to the back yard—probably a woodburning one.

“Way down the line, we may even replace our shed with a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU),” Rebecca said. “We were in Scotland a few years ago looking at model summerhouses, and got hooked on the idea then.”

midcentury renovation

There’s no “before” shot of the guest bathroom, but it had dated fixtures and a boring look.

The Nolens have some advice for other homeowners looking to make changes.

“Don’t wait till you’re about to sell the house to renovate it—if you’re going to spend the money, why not do it when you can enjoy the changes yourself?,” Rebecca said.

Another sage bit of wisdom? Think about the long-term costs of repair, replacement, and cleaning when making a renovation.

“It may look great for a little while, but can you refinish or repair the flooring or tile when it inevitably gets scratched?,” Rebecca said. “I’m not even particularly hard on my possessions and this is an issue I deal with all the time.”