In 1969, as Houston astronauts were stepping onto the Moon, one of the city’s master mid-century architects broke ground on his dearest project — his own home. Fifty years later, its current owners honor him, by making it their own. By Jeff Gremillion, Photos by Claudia Casbarian and TK Images
A lot worth commemorating happened 50 years ago this summer. In 1969, Houston-based NASA astronauts walked on the Moon, and the Woodstock festival rocked popular music and the counterculture. It was also the year one of Houston’s most revered architects and civic leaders, Preston Bolton, started building his own mid-century modern masterpiece for his family, near Tanglewood, on a grassy acre that slopes steeply down to Buffalo Bayou. Bolton, the cofounder of the Houston Ballet and one of the first presidents of the Alley Theatre’s board of trustees, broke ground on the project in 1969; he moved in with his wife Pauline and their four children in 1970 and lived there happily for decades.
Its current owners, top city realtor Mike Mahlstedt of Compass and his renovator-designer husband Kyle Dutton of Reaves Hall, began adding their important chapter to the story of the Bolton Residence in 2008. As fate would have it, the house went on the market, and Mahlstedt, just getting his feet wet in Houston real estate at the time, was called upon to show it to potential buyers. “I’ve been obsessed with this house since the first time I saw it,” he says. He notes the austere, orderly arrangement of the space in the house — a perfect rectangle, set with crisp tan-brick masonry inside and out, and with a central open-plan core divided into three adjoining equal “bays” to be used for living and dining. The center bay, now used as the dining room, is crowned with skylights for an atrium effect. “The whole house is basically a grid.”
A wild course of events would come to pass over the following years, with the house coming up for sale again, and a friend of the couple’s buying it — and with Dutton and Mahlstedt trading the friend their former 1940s remodel in Avalon Place near River Oaks for it. After admiring the house for nearly a decade, it was finally theirs in late 2017, with their then newborn son Payne.
Although the bones of the house were famously chic, the place needed work. Mahlstedt and Dutton spent $800,000 fixing up a property that appraised for $2 million before they started the redo. Improvements included installing a glass wine closet near the kitchen, equipping the house with smartphone-controlled lighting, sound and climate tech throughout, and adding heavy 12-foot double doors of glass and black steel to the front of the house. The latter was to match the 12-foot glass-and-steel doors and windows added around much of the rest of the place. If Bolton’s original design was a temple to sunlight and nature, the new version is a cathedral.
And Dutton says that’s his favorite thing about the house: “The natural beauty coexists with the architecture.” Simple, artful landscaping of grasses and pines by Sarah Lake — now with a Buddha in one corner of the backyard not far from the contemporary pool, and, in another, a designer pitched-roof chicken coup modeled after one Dutton saw in Architectural Digest and had to have — inform the softly rolling spa-like views.
The duo, both tall and lean and quick with a smile, painted the original terra cotta floor tiles a more contemporary glossy black throughout, but not before taking care to stick as close as possible to Bolton’s mid-century choices. For sections of the floor that needed to be replaced or added, the couple sought out the Houston-based company that made the original tiles. “Keeping the integrity of the house was the most important thing for us,” says Mahlstedt.
Finding the Terra Firma Tile Company was surprisingly easy, it turns out. “When we were cleaning, an original rolled-up building plan and budget literally fell out of a kitchen cabinet,” Dutton laughs, adding how important it is, in renovating, to “make it your own home while also respecting the history of the home.”
Dutton and Mahlstedt also applied a similar ethos to the décor, which Dutton describes as “mixing modern art with period pieces and things you love.” Just beyond the entryway, in the first of those three bays — the living room — this translates to two voluptuous vintage Vladimir Kagan sofas covered in green velvet and a contemporary chaise fashioned of distressed metal surrounding an octagonal brass and glass coffee table Mahlstedt’s mom found at the Blue Bird Circle thrift shop in Montrose for $100. A small Cy Twombly of repeating white circles scribbled on a blackboard hangs above the fireplace. Other bits and pieces set about in vignettes at the perimeter include an antique French chest, an abstract painting by Houston’s John Palmer, a mounted shark’s tooth dated 1962 and a large book of Helmut Newton prints purposely opened to a racy conversation-starter.
In the master bedroom, just beyond an original built-in floor-to-ceiling shelf full of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1941 — Mahlstedt’s grandmother willed him the oldest ones, and Dutton keeps the archive up to date thanks to a lifetime subscription his aunt gave him years ago — the couple did some of their more dramatic renovation. Especially in the master bath, which now features an entryway-facing stainless-steel bathtub with a backdrop of green marble selected because of its 1970s aura. There’s an open shower behind the green wall and, to the side, glass doors leading to an outdoor shower.
As it happens, for Mahlstedt and Dutton, there’ll be a “bittersweet” ending to their rendezvous with Preston Bolton and his mid-century magic. They’ve decided to move yet again, to another period home — this time a Birdsall Briscroe from 1936, in River Oaks — to accommodate schooling needs for little Payne, and Payne’s new brother, due any day now. “I’m really going to miss this house,” Dutton says, wistful.
“We’re leaving a lot of ourselves behind, here in our dream house,” says Mahlstedt, before adding with a grin aimed at his husband, “We’ll be giving the chickens to the new owner.”
AT TOP: Payne Dutton Mahlstedt, Mike Mahlstedt and Kyle Dutton at home.