Tiny Guesthouse Offers Big Galveston History Lessons

Carlos Rios describes in detail the weeks he and two laborers spent long days burning cheesecloth threads and pulling thousands of tiny nails from the burlap of their Galveston cottage, when he stops and points to a section of wall which he suddenly realizes he has missed.

“Look at this,” he said with a look of pure shock on his face. “Do you see that, Barbara?”

During all the long days that Rios, his wife Barbara Canetti and various assistants worked on the historic little house, they always find a little thing here and there they missed, like a piece of wall still laden with nails. .

This 1,200 square foot cottage — they actually live around the corner, and this house operates as a guesthouse/Airbnb rental — is in the historic Lost Bayou neighborhood. Their work transforming it from an uninhabitable structure to what it is today earned them a spot on the Galveston Historic District’s 2021 Sally B. Wallace Preservation Award Honor Roll.

Longtime Houston-area residents may remember Rios’ name from his years as a Houston Chronicle photojournalist; he worked on staff from 1978 until his retirement in 2007. Originally from San Antonio, he came to Houston to work at the Houston Post until he left to work at the Chronicle.

Canetti, a New Yorker who also came to Houston to work at the Houston Post, later worked for United Press International and for more than 20 years was a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Coincidentally, Canetti started at the Post a month after Rios left, but they still met and fell in love, and in February will celebrate 43 years of marriage. The couple have a daughter in Houston and a son, daughter-in-law and grandchild in Chicago.

They lived in a variety of homes — repairmen they tackled themselves — in the highlands, and they eventually bought a vacation home in Galveston for weekend getaways. When Hurricane Harvey flooded their Heights home, the couple pivoted, making Galveston their primary residence while they cleaned up their soggy place in Houston.

While on the island, however, they fell in love with its historic charm and friendly neighbors. They now consider it their permanent primary residence; a condo in Midtown is where they stay when they visit their daughter. During their years on the island, Canetti became a master gardener and guide at the Bryan Museum, and she also writes for the Galveston Daily News’ Coast magazine. Rios is now a Gulf Coast Master Naturalist and is involved in turtle rescue.

Friends visited them frequently on the island, and when they saw a for sale sign in front of a seemingly abandoned house used by casual squatters, they saw an opportunity. It is now their guest house and is listed on Airbnb.com as the “Galveston Speakeasy” because of the peephole in the front door.

“I love that relatives or friends can come here and stay for a few days or a few weeks. They don’t even have to talk to us if they don’t want to,” Rios said. “We’re six blocks from the beach, and within a 12-block area there are all kinds of restaurants. It’s a walkable town that’s easy to get around.”

The house’s story begins as a humble tenant’s house – a rental for dockworkers – built in 1890 by Julius Lobenstein, who was an infant when his parents brought him from Germany to New Braunfels in 1828. His family lived in the New Braunfels area, and when he turned 18, he ventured to Galveston with his father. The two bought 14 acres of land to cultivate. Eventually he also became a stableman, and during the Civil War he hauled mail from Galveston to St. Louis, Texas.

When he finally retired, he and his wife, Pauline, moved to a house on L Street in Galveston. As Canetti researched Lobenstein’s story, she discovered that not only did they both own the small cabin, but also that she and Rios lived in the house Lobenstein lived in on L Street.

The Lobensteins had seven children and their youngest daughter, also named Pauline, lived in the cottage until 1943. From then on it had a variety of owners, Rios and Canetti buying it in 2018 and then managed the renovations from April to October. 2019.

The previous owner had begun to rehabilitate the interior of the house, stripping it and removing the moldings and paneling from the walls, although he left it in the rooms where it could be reinstalled.

Rios and Canetti went into this project thinking it would be a quick job, but they soon realized that 130-year-old homes had their own quirks and needed special care.

Advice came from helpful neighbors and island advocates, including Scott Hanson, who deals in antiquities and architectural salvage. A neighbor taught them how to clean door transoms without breaking the glass. Hanson gave them the recipe for sealing the rabbet: two coats of glossy polycrylic with a final coat of matte.

The board is now fully visible, although it has long been covered in cheesecloth and layers of wallpaper. Rios said that after the Great Fire of 1885, which destroyed dozens of homes in 40 blocks of Galveston, materials salvaged from homes that burned were donated to those trying to rebuild. Rios thinks this cottage has boards from at least 15 different houses.

The house was raised several feet off the ground in 1901, likely in response to surviving the Great Storm of 1900, a hurricane that destroyed 7,000 homes and buildings and killed about 8,000 people, Canetti said.

While they cleaned and resealed the rabbet, they opted to leave it in its natural colors, so each piece has planks of brown, tan, white, and a few shades of green.

Rios tried using a larger sander on the original oak floors, but was concerned it would damage the old wood, so he finished the floors by hand, a more laborious method that resulted in beautiful floors. In the back bedroom of the house, luxury vinyl tiles were added where the flooring had been removed.

During all that work – and without air conditioning – Rios lost 40 pounds and gained a guesthouse full of things he custom-made, like the cabinet for one of the bathroom sinks and a window seat between two small closets.

The cottage had one bedroom, kitchen, living room, dining area and bathroom in 1890. Today it has more space, with two bedrooms and bathrooms. Rios and Canetti created the second bathroom by closing off a hallway in the center of the house.

What used to be the dining room works better as a kitchen, and Canetti turned an old bedroom dresser into an island, then added a flap for its top.

Full of charm and comfortable furnishings, the house has been a soft landing for many visitors to Rios and Canetti.

“This house has its own soul,” Rios said. “No matter what room you’re in, it feels good.”

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