A Flea-Infested Former Convent: How Could They Resist?

Allison and Fernan Rodriguez thought they were ready to build a house from the ground up.

The couple were longtime residents of the Kessler Park neighborhood of Dallas, and wanted to stay in the area. They had moved once already, when they began having children — Luca, now 7, and Coco, 4 — but were soon in need of still more space. They also longed for a home that better reflected their taste.

“We wanted to build new construction, and we wanted a transitional Spanish-style house,” said Ms. Rodriguez, 38, who helps manage an orthodontic practice established by her husband.

The couple put their home on the market in 2018, immediately found a buyer and began making plans to build a new house. But then they noticed a listing for an old house: a former convent owned by the Catholic Church.

It wasn’t the Spanish-style home they were dreaming of, and it was far from perfect. The red-brick 1926 building was listed “as is,” for $599,000. With the exception of an altar area, it looked as if it hadn’t been changed since the 1960s, and it needed new systems, including plumbing, wiring and windows. It was also infested with fleas.

Still, they liked the overall feel of the place. “We saw the potential of this neglected home,” said Dr. Rodriguez, 45.

“Her bones are so beautiful,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “We just really wanted to bring her back to her glory days.”

They weren’t the only ones who felt that way. The property inspired a bidding war, and the couple eventually paid $650,000 when they closed that October. Then they found a rental to live in a couple of blocks away and turned to Maestri Studio, an architecture and interior design firm, to oversee the building’s transformation.

“We wanted to respect the bones as much as we could, but give it our personality,” Ms. Rodriguez said. The plan, Dr. Rodriguez added, was to faithfully restore the exterior but add some daring elements to the interior to give the home a modern sense of style.

When their architect, Eddie Maestri, toured the house, “one of the things that jumped out at me was that it had really beautiful plaster picture molding and interesting period details,” he said. “We really wanted to build upon those things.”

At first, he hoped to preserve them. But many walls needed to be opened up, and the plaster had to be torn out. “We had these beautiful details throughout the house that were gone,” he said. “So we recreated them.”

At the same time, Mr. Maestri wanted to inject some new energy into the project, so he worked with Katie Paulsen, an interior designer at his studio, to remix the moldings, which now zig and zag in unexpected ways, and he added arched doorways and oversized dentil molding above built-in cabinetry for more architectural detail.

He also made strategic floor-plan changes to better serve a busy 21st-century family, expanding the kitchen into a former porch to support its role as the heart of the home, and creating better access to a breakfast room. The space above the porte cochère was enlarged to accommodate a full bathroom and generous closet for the primary suite. He turned the attic into a playroom and designed a detached garage.

Finally, Mr. Maestri and Ms. Paulsen riffed on Art Deco details, in a nod to the building’s age, introducing repeated geometric shapes and plenty of brass.

The kitchen is the family’s favorite room. “We wanted to go bold,” Dr. Rodriguez said. The designers delivered with black-and-white concrete floor tiles in an asymmetric pattern, black-and-brass cabinets, and doors that swing open to reveal a coral-hued walk-in pantry. The connected breakfast room has walls lined with green grasscloth, evoking the free-form shapes of malachite.

But the new powder room, which Mr. Maestri tucked underneath the staircase, might be boldest of all the spaces, with Christian Lacroix wallpaper resembling collages of playing cards, emerald-hued star-and-cross floor tiles and a big brass sink atop a black marble vanity.

By the time they were finished reworking the 3,950-square-foot house, “we pretty much got a new build,” Dr. Rodriguez said, in the shell of a century-old home. “Everything except the exterior walls is new.”

Including the landscaping and pool, the project cost about $1.2 million, and the family moved into their new home in July 2020.

“We love it,” Dr. Rodriguez said, though now that the project is complete, they miss the thrill of renovating.

“We enjoyed the process,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those things, like, ‘Oh, what a nightmare.’”

That’s why the couple is now working with Maestri Studio on a new office for their orthodontic practice, and why they won’t rule out renovating again, if they stumble upon another dusty treasure.

“We’re ready for another project,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

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