Couple Turns Love of Old Homes into a Historic Mission
By Susan Fox • Photography by Ben Hill
It was a blessing in disguise when Dominic Yap lost his six-figure oil and gas job in 2015, due to widespread layoffs — or so he realizes now.
He and wife Lin Chong jointly turned their full-time attention to their company, FW Heritage, which they formed two years prior to help save what remained of the historic First Ward neighborhood.
Until last year . . . “I’ve always worked in oil and gas. For 25 years, it was very good to me,” says Yap, who will turn 50 this year. It was to be a turning point birthday for him; it was the year he planned to retire — to put 100 percent into a cause very dear and close to his heart: home preservation. But, as it turned out, he got a jump on his plans.
One fine December day, he reflects on his very serendipitous journey.
He says he moved from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Houston, his adopted city, in 2001. He lived in the Rice Military area, where he watched it quickly transform.
“Ninety-five percent of Rice Military is gentrified; all the older homes are gone,” he says, softly lamenting what so-called progress does to the families who have lived there for most of their lives.
“My concern was the builders weren’t looking for vacant land, they were making quick, fast deals with older people who suddenly weren’t sure where they were going to live,” he says. “I hated the idea of older people being pushed out.” And typically for sums lower than the market was dictating.
He eventually moved to the First Ward, which is located inside the 610 Loop, east of Taylor St. and mostly west of I-45, and north of Washington Ave. It was one of four wards created in 1840, strategically located in the center of the business district.
Yap liked the First Ward; the homes evoked architectural interest and they were well built. Plus, neighbors mingled with one another in small community fashion. People stopped to say hello while walking their dogs, for instance.
Now, First Ward is a shadow of its former self — thanks to the “large white boxes” being built,” say Chong and Yap. “Owners just drive in and stay inside.” There is no real sense of community as in past days.
In FW Heritage’s first year (FW stands for First Ward) as an official business, Yap and Chong sent out 300 letters to neighbors still owning quaint Victorians. He made an offer competitive to what the builder’s were paying, along with a solid promise of never razing the house — that it would be preserved and respectfully restored.
Eight owners — out of the 300 contacted — sold to FW Heritage. Yap says his intent for as long as possible is to keep one restored house for every three or four sold to other individuals.
The company has one home on the market now. Built in 1903, it had not been well preserved, so Yap and Chong used old surplus materials from surrounding homes (they always are on the hunt to harvest or salvage old wood, doors, windows and etc.) to make it both solid, atheistically interesting, and livable for today’s owners. This charming home, with a broad front porch and alluring gingerbread trim, is located at 1215 Shearn.
Their good friend and business colleague Rob Griffith has it listed through his company, Circa Real Estate. It was Yap’s and Chong’s good fortune, they say, to have met Griffith — a resident of First Ward — in the neighborhood. He, too, is restoring a Victorian home in the neighborhood; his own. The three of them enjoy synchronization in both philosophy and drive.
The feather in their cap comes from Preservation Houston, a group dedicated to celebrating and supporting the revitalization of places, buildings and neighborhoods. Each year they accept nominations for their coveted Good Brick Awards. Two of the homes, rejuvenated by FW Heritage, have been nominated — and likely will be on tour in the spring of 2016.
The first one is located on Sabine Street and involved David Jefferis with Grayform Architecture. FW Heritage and Jefferis worked together to make the home more livable by today’s standards. Chong says they essentially flipped the house: the living and dining rooms became bedrooms, and the bedrooms became living areas.
Additionally, they replaced old flooring. She says they never install new wood into the homes they renovate. They want them to be as authentic in style as possible. That goes for lighting fixtures, doors, transoms, and hinges and hardware.
Chong says they, in fact, visited Gonzales, TX, which is home to the king of all salvage warehouses, Discovery Antiques. “My husband thought he had died and gone to heaven there.”
The Sabine house did receive a new kitchen with granite countertops and a porcelain backsplash that gives a nod to a more vintage style. The base of the island is constructed from reclaimed 19th century wood — much of what came from that house.
The wrap-around porch is original to the house, but FW Heritage did decide to extend it to the back of the house.
Built in 1883 by a bookkeeper and his wife — Carl and Anna Hirzel —who owned it for 22 years. the Sabine house was then purchased in 1904 by August and Minna von Haxthausen.
He ran the state’s first German language newspaper.
Sometime after August von Haxthausen died, records show that his wife converted the house into a duplex in order to afford to live there. The couple’s eldest daughter purchased the home from 1953 to 1964. It was owned by several various families until Yap and Chong bought it.
The other house, nominated for a Good Brick Award, is located on Edwards Street. A builder, sympathetic to their cause, donated the house to FW Heritage. The one caveat Builder Bob Stachowiak presented to the couple was that they needed to find a lot and pay to move it there. And they did.
“It is a beautiful example of a well taken care of Victorian house, built around 1899,” Yap says, adding with satisfaction that it was the least renovated house of all his eight completed ones. Regardless, he did enlist the services of Laura Michaelides at Four Square Design to tweak the footprint of the home for improved livability.
The original owner lived in the house for 80 years before it was bequeathed to her single daughter who then sold it to her caregiver for $10. She lived in it with her family for 30 years.
Yap says his next step is to send out more letters. This time, he says with satisfaction, he has a track record to back up his intentions.