Bill Stemme and Jim Jensen
Bill Stemme was AFH President 1962-1963. He won the Buddy Benz Distinguished Service Award in 1983 and is an honorary member. Jim Jensen won the Buddy Benz Distinguished Service Award in 1985 and was an honorary member.
A distinguished gentleman transforms a Montrose townhouse into a home for a lifetime of treasures
In a city where old makes way for new and interior design is often an imitation of five minutes ago, finding a space that tells the story of a man's life is truly refreshing. Beyond the gated door of this Montrose townhouse, fashion-forward succumbs to curiosity as a lifetime of memories and collecting are revealed in Bill Stemme's home. With Sinatra crooning in the background, Stemme is eager to serve a cocktail and tell a story.
Stemme and the late Jim Jansen, partners for 42 years, shared a love of flowers and collecting. When Jansen's health began to fail, Stemme found a readily available house of manageable size with immediate potential for customization. The circa-1970 townhouse was the first on its street in the heart of Montrose. That was in November, nine years ago.
Most two-level townhouses of the era
categorize the foot of a staircase and a small vestibule that
accommodates the front-door sweep as an entry hall. But the Stemme
entry has character. He selected a daring blue damask wallpaper from
Wallpapers To Go in Rice Village, then covered the walls with paintings
from wainscot to ceiling. Perplexing and euphoric simultaneously, the
abundance of pattern and placement of a lifetime's worth of
acquisitions creates the illusion of an English country manor. Standing
in the entry, a visitor can forget that Houston lies just beyond the
A central atrium was the selling feature of the townhouse. But while most prospective buyers might have seen light and sky, Stemme thought "elevator and bar," two necessary amenities for dealing with his partner's health. The atrium was the ideal spot to accommodate an elevator shaft. With help from designer Joe Palmer, sliding-glass doors disappeared, and the remaining L-shaped space was enclosed to become a handsome bar on the first floor and a TV room on the second. In that room, an American Empire suite passed down from Stemme's grandfather creates a gentlemanly seating area. Above the settee, a 1955 silver leaf collage by Houston artist Wilfong reflects light from the glass-block window on the north wall.
Adjacent to the bar is the dining room. Seemingly packed with china services and bibelots, it is cozy and alluring. Like the use of strong damask in the entry hall, a wrought-iron screen dividing the space from the living room diffuses what many would perceive as clutter. Stemme has an uncanny knack for combining elements and displaying knick-knacks and crystal objects in a room like arranging flowers in a vase.
In this house composed of vignettes and intimate spaces, there is something enchanting at every turn. "Everything means something to me," explains the self-professed Guild Shop addict. "I can tell you where I bought each item and how much I paid."
The sizeable living room is anchored on opposite ends by seating areas tied together with a pastel-toned Savonnerie-style rug. (FYI: Savonnerie is the deep-pile counterpart to the flat-weave Aubusson--both popular in the pre-guillotine courts of France.) The furniture arrangement is pleasing, but most striking about the room is the medley of paintings. Every inch of available wall space is utilized to display Stemme's collection.
But Stemme is not overly serious about his artwork. "That is horrible," he chuckles, pointing to one painting. "But a friend's mother made it for us. It's sentimental."
Above the sofa hangs a cluster of charming
landscapes with bluebonnets. Stemme can tell you when and where he
bought every one, with an aside, "It's not valuable, but it's an old
The most formidable feature of the home is the solarium, which Stemme created when he enclosed the space that was once a yard connecting the garage to the back of the house. A clear vinyl ceiling two stories overhead encases a sitting garden where the climate never changes. "It stays green in here all year long," explains Stemme, who once owned Hannah Niday Florist in Houston, as he shows off his 50-year-old Rafus palm. With his horticultural background, he has also been successful at cultivating fishtail palms, birds of paradise, ivies, and a whimsical atmosphere. "A lot of these plants were rejects from the days when I owned my flower shop," he says.
Though now retired, Stemme is a fixture around Darrell Gorski's Village Greenery & Flowers, chatting with clients, arranging flowers, and saving rejected plants to nourish in his indoor garden. "I love the flower business," Stemme says.
Four stately fluted columns define the sitting area in the solarium. Statuary and specialty lighting punctuate planting beds. In one, cement Pans clapping tambourines dance in the greenery. And at the center of the space hangs the crowning gem, a fanciful French chandelier with colored crystals arranged into flowers and leaves.
An exhaust system keeps the space dehumidified during the summer. An air-conditioning system keeps guests comfortable when Stemme entertains. Known for his intimate social gatherings, he has also hosted up to 100 guests. "Smoking is allowed in this room," he genially offers.
In the southeast corner he has placed an antique Catholic altar that he converted into a bar. Primarily used for parties, the piece is a testament to the kind of creative ingenuity characteristic of Montrose.
Jansen died shortly after he and Stemme moved into the house. But since that time, the residence has evolved into more than just a home. The walls of the structure have come to define an enormous keepsake box where Stemme stores his treasures.
"I'm not one to change much," he says, which is a surprising testament from a man who converted a vanilla townhouse into an unanticipated fantasy.
Troy Broussard, who writes regularly on design for OutSmart, profiled a house in Eastwood for our August issue.
Read more about Bill Stemme at William J. "Bill" Stemme AAF