Character Counts

By Kevin Tankersley

Waco couple restores century-old Sanger Heights home

Pictured: Photographs by Carol Embry,

IOn pages 132 and 133 of the book “Historic Homes of Waco, Texas,” Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe writes about the home known as the Ward- Bidelspach-Mayfield House. It was built around 1920 and occupied by the original family — John and Bernice Ward and their two children — for a few years. Then Dr. Walter C. Bidelspach and his wife, Louise, lived there until Walter’s death in 1942. The Mayfield family moved in after that.

There were a few other families who owned the house over the years, and then in 2019, Emily and David Kaye bought the place. They’re both 37 years old. (David is six days older.) They both graduated from Baylor, and they now work at Baylor. Emily is associate director of advancement communications, and David is the assistant athletics director for communications, where he works with Baylor’s men’s basketball and men’s and women’s golf teams. They live in the house with two felines who are members of the Cat Pack: Sammy and Frankie Blue Eyes. (The Kayes are big fans of music from the Rat Pack era.) Another member of the family, the cocker spaniel Ringo, passed away last month.

David is an Army veteran who was in the news last year after he donated a kidney to his friend Kevin Barrera, who ended up working as their Realtor when David and Emily bought the house.)

On a recent frigid winter evening in February, David and Emily welcomed Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley and his wife, Abby, who are co-food editors of the magazine. In 2008, the Tankersleys visited what is now the Kayes’ house in anticipation of a potential purchase, which didn’t work out.

WACOAN: How did y’all meet?

Emily: [Baylor journalism professor] Dr. Cassy Burleson set us up on a blind date when David was home on leave. I had already graduated by that point and was working at the [Waco Tribune-Herald].

David: Cassy had me speak to her class. As soon as we got done, she said, ‘Come to my office,’ and then she just throws the phone in my face and said, ‘Here. You know Emily Ingram.’ I’m like, ‘No I don’t.’ And I said hello, and she said, ‘Dr. B wants us to go on a date. Let’s go get some coffee or something to make her happy.’ She could not have been less interested. And I was not really interested either. But, OK.

Emily: He was this poor visiting soldier who got guilted into going on a blind date with me. That was almost 15 years ago.

WACOAN: When did you get married?

David: July 5, 2008.

Emily: But I closed the door that night, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my husband.’ I knew.

WACOAN: How long have you been in this house?

David: We moved here in the summer of ’19.

WACOAN: And previously you were on Austin Avenue?

David: For about nine years.

We love this house. The only thing we miss is that neighborhood and walking the dog on those wide streets with the beautiful trees.

Emily: And no traffic. It started getting more traffic.

David: That was part of [deciding to move]. Austin Avenue was getting pretty busy.

Emily: It’s actually funny how we found this house. We kept watching the [home] values, and they kept going up and up and up. I would walk the dog all the time, and there was a house for sale back in [Castle Heights]. I went to look at it on Zillow just to see what it was selling for, and it was like $750,000 or something like that. And I was like, That’s insane. As those prices went up, so floated up [values] on our street.

And then [the site] had others you might like, and this one was listed. When I saw the price, I thought that’s wrong. Where is this house? The inside has to be horrible. I looked at the pictures, and I was just like, what is going on? Because that’s always been our dream is to have an older home that we could fix up and something that we could preserve.

I came over here and loved that it backed up to a park and when I came down the street, there were a bunch of young people out, people that looked like they had just gotten off work and were sitting on their porches. And I just thought, how cool would that be to live in an area that you can tell is recovering and is turning over. I went home and told David — I think he was at a game — I really liked the house. I want to go see it. And we weren’t even looking at moving.

David: We were perfectly content in our house. We had more than we ever needed. Our Realtor was Kevin Barrera. He’s a close friend of mine. He was the guy I called and was like, ‘Hey, we just want to look at this house.’

WACOAN: When you saw the house online, what did you like about it?

Emily: Everything. I’ve always wanted a house with a porch like that.

I love clay tile roofs. When I was younger, I spent a few years overseas. My dad’s a pastor, and we lived in France. So clay tile roofs, those are just everywhere in France. This just felt like home when I saw it. I just loved it.

The floors throughout the house. The chandeliers that looked original. I just love old homes’ crowns and all the original fixtures. It’s so cool to be able to try to keep that and preserve it.

David: We’re very intentional about we don’t want to change the house. We’ve seen a lot of — not that there’s anything wrong with it — just a lot of older homes where walls get removed and there’s an open concept and all that. That’s just not for us, and when we saw this house, we’re like, ‘We don’t want that to happen to this house.’

Emily: We wanted to take care of it. I would have hated to come in and just see like the dining room gone. And I know that the living room is kind of funky, but I love the house.

David: We love those. You’ve got the double fireplace here [in the living room], and it’s up in the bedroom too. Little things, like the basement has a coal chute out in the porte cochere where they used to throw coal down in the basement from right here on the driveway.

WACOAN: When we looked at this house a few years ago, you had to walk through a bathroom to get to one of the bedrooms.

Emily: Yeah. And there’s all the original tile in the house. The bathroom upstairs, we fell in love with it. It’s got some terrible patches upstairs. When we brought somebody in to give us a quote, they told us that they were gonna have to remove it all because they can’t save it. We still haven’t done that.

David: That bathroom hasn’t been touched. We’ve done a little painting, but we haven’t done the tile in there because we’re gonna find a way to preserve that tile.

Emily: So there are lots of funky things about it. But that’s what I love. I love houses where things aren’t perfect and you can see the fingerprints of the people that were there before you.

David: Anything we did, we wanted to make it look like it was possibly originally here, like the dining room. We really tried to make it look like something that could have been here. The kitchen is the only thing that we really just completely changed, and that’s because it had been redone in the ’80s or ’90s.

WACOAN: What all did you do?

Emily: We think that somebody had painted latex paint over oil-based paint, so the paint on the doorways and windows was just sloughing off. We had to go through and have that all sanded and repainted.

David: The varnish on the [hardwood] floors was bubbling, so we had to have them redone.

Emily: We had to do some foundation repair here [between the living and dining rooms].

David: We took out a floor grate [in the dining room] and had that filled in, and we added wainscoting. We were trying to go for something that might have looked original. With the wallpaper —

Emily: I had done some research, and it was pretty common back then for them to do hand-painted landscape wallpaper. So this is not at all what would have been back then, but we tried to bring something in that would have that same kind of feel.

WACOAN: Who did the work for you?

David: Various people. We had a contractor who’s a great friend of ours from church, Cody Johnston. He was our contractor for the kitchen and butler’s pantry and laundry room. The laundry room was in the basement, and we brought that up.

We hired our own painters. We hired our own floor guy. The office, we repainted but left the rest of it as it was. And then there were really ratty-looking bookshelves here.

Emily: From what we understand about the house, there was a doctor who lived here. We think that he had his practice in the downstairs, and this was the medicine cabinet for it. And we were able to save that.

David: The kitchen had been redone since the original. We took out the pantry to create a little more space and moved the pantry. And we moved one wall for more space.

Emily: It was very tight in here, and the only upper cabinets were about a foot-and-a-half [from the counter], so you couldn’t actually use the counter underneath because they came down so far. So have new custom cabinets. These are custom because there isn’t a straight wall, more than about 3 feet, anywhere in this kitchen. And these cabinets are actually super deep.

Cody said that you need somebody who really knows what they’re doing with the cabinetry because they’re gonna have to basically come in and wing it, because it’s such an old house and nothing is square, to make sure it’s done right. Larry Dunlap did our cabinets. He was great.

David: This [brick wall] was kind of a happy accident. There was drywall here, and when they took the drywall down, they were gonna cut this wall back. Then they realized that it was the original back wall of the house. It was brick, and it was load-bearing. They said, ‘We can’t move it.’ It had plaster over it. I guess in a certain time, you would put the plaster on to be an interior wall.

Our contractor said, ‘We’re just gonna have to drywall over it again.’ I said, ‘Well, can we try to take the plaster off?’ He said, ‘We can try. What’s the worst that happens? If it damages the brick, then we just drywall over it again and that’s what we’re gonna do anyway.’

There’s a few little spots where the brick got chipped out a little more than others. If you look outside, that’s the continuous [exterior] wall. We think it was very early on when they added this, because there was a ton of knob and tube wiring.

Emily: Cody said, seeing the floor joists, you could tell that they looked as old as the rest of the house. He said it was pretty common that even after you built the house, that very quickly, they would have pushed out to do an addition.

He said these are the original windows that match the house. They would have just pulled the windows out and put them on the addition. It could have been the cooking porch.

David: Behind this wall is the original chimney of the house. It goes all the way up through the ceiling. Our contractor said the house was built around that chimney. Larry said we could add another set of cabinets, so this I have a little snack pantry so you don’t have to go into the whole pantry. Larry was great.

Emily: The hex tile we have in [the kitchen], we did because what was originally here was hex, and we couldn’t save it. There was just this tiny little section left.

Cody’s a good enough friend that he looked at us and said, ‘The historical value is not worth trying to match and patch. He helped me remember what is actually important. I found a tile pattern book from the ’20s that would have been a current pattern of what was in homes at that time. We found this pattern, and Kyle Elwood, the tile guy, actually laid this custom to go with the house so that it would be similar to what you had back then.

David: All of these corners that he had to do took him forever.

Emily: He very kindly told me that we have 27 corners in the kitchen.

David: When he was done, Emily gave him a hug she was so happy. He said, ‘That was all the thanks I needed, but I just ask that you not tell anyone what you paid for the install, because if I realized what it was gonna be, it would have been a lot more.’

Emily: That was my cry moment, like you see in those TV shows. There’s always the reveal moment. And I mean, I was working from home. I tried to stay upstairs and stay away from everybody, but he was down here working and I came downstairs and just burst into tears because this was what I was most excited for.

WACOAN: How long were you without a kitchen?

David: Three months.

Emily: It wasn’t supposed to be that long, but we had three different crews get COVID over the course of it. And then the main electrician who was doing our electrical [work] cut three of his fingers off in a lawnmower accident. The countertops got stuck at the dock.

David: Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I went down to Austin to go pick up our oven, and the trailer gets a flat tire on the way down.

WACOAN: Where did you find the oven?

David: It was at Harway Appliances in Austin.

Emily: We wanted to do a wall oven because I do cook a lot, but there was nowhere to put it. So we wanted something with double ovens where it was two ovens that are actually big enough to cook anything in. This one is a La Cornue. It’s five burners on top. It’s been a dream.

WACOAN: What got you into cooking?

Emily: Family meals. I come from a very Southern family. My mom is from Arkansas. Middle school and high school I spent in Arkansas, and family meals punctuated every family gathering and all my memories are of that.

For me, cooking is love. That’s how I show love to people, through food. So being able to have my kitchen back is awesome.

David: We’ve got some basketball players who are dealing with COVID issues right now. She cooked meals for six of them last night and took them over to their place. It’s good just having the ability to do that, like in our old kitchen. That’s how she shows love.

We got these [butler’s pantry] doors from Old Home Supply, this salvage place in Fort Worth. It’s a really cool store. We found a window and took the starburst glass out of it and had the transom made because we wanted some light if we had the door shut.

Emily: The pantry was really small and tight.

David: The microwave is hidden in here, not on a countertop. And we’ve got a ton of storage. Having the washer and dryer up here is a huge thing.

Emily: We don’t have to go down to the basement.

David: Now it’s storage and a wine cellar for us.

Emily: There was a lot of stuff that we had to buy, and we tried to pick materials that at least would have been appropriate around that time. We got a light fixture off of eBay. It’s from the ’20s. We tried where we could.

WACOAN: Why is all that important to you? You could knock a dining room wall and have a huge great room.

David: This house has so much history. It’s over 100 years old. We believe we’re the fifth or sixth owners, and we love the old feel. We listen to records when we eat dinner in here, and you just think back, they might have done this kind of thing 50 years ago, or longer ago. Sometimes we just sit on the porch and think about who sat here and all of the memories they had from it.

Emily: This house was built well. When the inspectors came and looked at it, they told us it’s got so much shiplap behind all the walls, and there’s so much timber in this house. That’s the reason it stood the test of time. That’s the reason that it’s in such good shape. And it felt wrong to take somebody that had done such masterful work on it and change it just because our tastes have changed.

David: We didn’t want it to be our taste. Obviously, we did the kitchen to our tastes in a way, but we tried to always make it fit the house, because we could have built a new house if we wanted it to be exactly our tastes.

Emily: And if we wanted something new, why not just buy new? In buying an older home, we just wanted to at least restore it to what we hope the owners would see as something that they would have had.

WACOAN: When was it built?

David: 1920. We wish that we could find pictures of what it looked like 90 or 100 years ago, what the original floor plan exactly was. I’m sure there have been things that have changed over time. The staircase has a little plaque on it that says handcrafted by [Larry Holecek]. There are just some unique things about this house. There’s not another house like it.

WACOAN: Is this your last house?

David: As long as we live in Waco it is. If our jobs ever take us somewhere else, then obviously that will change, but we are not moving in Waco. This is our last house as long as we’re here, and we plan to be here.

Emily: We’ve loved living here. It’s been so nice. Before, on Austin, it was a busy street. And toward the end of our time there, we just didn’t sit outside or do anything like that. But here, during the pandemic, it was kind of a mental health saver, because we ate dinner on the porch every night starting in the spring and through the summer and fall.

David: And we’ve gotten to know some neighbors. It’s so cool that we’ve only been here a year-and-a-half. And in that time, the house on one corner has been fixed up. A young family lives there with two kids. The house on the end of this block, two houses down, a family with kids [moved in], and they’ve done some things to it. Then across the street, that’s been fixed up, and a young couple lives there.

Emily: It had been vacant for a really long time. One day there was a man working on the house, and I walked over and asked, ‘Are you living here?’ and he said no, but he was fixing it up and his nephew just bought it. It’s been cool to see how many of these houses are getting fixed up. It’s been neat to see how the neighborhood’s changing.

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