By Marilyn Bailey
Photos by Ron Jenkins
A man with a passion for preservation set his stakes in a historic neighborhood and grew an empire.
For decades, Old Home Supply in Fort Worth’s Fairmount neighborhood has sold all the vintage fixtures, doors, hardware, tubs, bits and bobs that a dreamer needs to fully restore a (let’s say) century-old classic. Business owner Ralph Watterson was ahead of his time. He moved into the neighborhood in the ’70s, long before others caught the renovation bug. One thing led to another, and his love for restoration — and the need for a steady supply of products — eventually saw his sprawling business take over all four corners of the intersection of College Avenue and West Jefferson Avenue.
Old Home Supply’s main building at 1801 College, a former neighborhood grocery, bursts with bins of knobs and hinges under a forest canopy of vintage hanging lights. Across College, in an old tiled-roof gas station, is Watterson’s garden-fixtures shop. Cross Jefferson from there, and you enter a wonderland of antique wood doors, many of them ornate, one-of-a-kind beauties sourced from India. Complete the circle, and you’re in yet another building brimming with old doors and curiosities, including a roulette-wheel stage prop from Casa Mañana’s Billy Rose era. We strolled through it all while asking Watterson about the renovation business, the neighborhood’s history, and his musings on shiplap.
817 Home What made you start Old Home Supply?
Ralph Watterson I was a contractor specializing in historical preservation and restoration, and a friend was doing demolition, deconstructing houses by hand. Whenever he got a house he was going to demolish, he would let me know and I would buy mainly the light fixtures. He wasn’t interested in the lighting, the plumbing, the doors. So I would bid on it and take out what I wanted. And I used a lot of it for my restoration business, because it was frustrating to be doing a period house and needing a certain door and have to go out and look for it.
817 Was your restoration business at that point largely in this area?
RW It was all over Fort Worth. I bought a house in Fairmount in 1977, and started buying houses and rehabbing them and selling them. That was during a boom when there were a lot of investors buying houses and turning them into duplexes. I was doing the opposite — buying duplexes and turning them back into single-family. They thought I was crazy.
817 What kinds of objects are most in demand now? And then?
RW Doors have always been something that people in Fairmount want. It’s funny. Years ago, I was on the board of the Fairmount [Neighborhood] Association when we got a historical overlay, and occasionally people would come in [complaining] about the guidelines. You can’t replace your old windows with new metal windows. They’d say, ‘Who the hell was responsible for this?’ and I’d say, ‘Me.’ We do sell a lot of windows.
817 How are people using these gorgeous Indian doors?
RW We sell a lot of them to restaurants. And hotels. People with a bed-and-breakfast, a few days ago got a bunch of stuff to do a wedding chapel or wedding venue.
817 Do people who are redoing a house come in and just say, ‘I’ll take that, that, that and that’?
RW Yes, and people who are doing restaurants come do that. Several of the breweries have bought stuff. We also do a lot with movie sets. They were filming the movie 12 Mighty Orphans, a really great Fort Worth book, Fort Worth history. They filmed it mainly in Weatherford because the old original orphanage is now some business, and they’ve changed it so much. But they were in here recently getting a lot of stuff for this movie. We have several movie-set people who know us and come in on a regular basis for stuff. The first was probably JFK, the part that was filmed in Dallas — they got a lot of stuff for that movie here.
817 Are there trends you don’t like?
RW Oh, there’s a lot. Especially on the exteriors, there are a lot of things I see where people maybe got by with the landmark commission and they shouldn’t have. I’ll see houses where the porch railing is made of cedar or something — rough cedar, like a ranch house. Or inside, when they take out the old-tile bathroom floors that are in good shape.
817 What do you think about so-called barn doors, the doors on sliders we see everywhere?
RW I think they’re very functional. You know, I have one as my bedroom door and I like it. My door is open all the time. If it was a hinge door open all the time, the door would be in the room and I’d have to walk around it. With a sliding door, it’s out of the way. I think they’re convenient a lot of places, and they’re especially good for large openings because with the weight of a large door, in most cases, the hinges won’t support it. They can solve problems but, yes, they’re very trendy.
817 Same question with shiplap. A certain HGTV show has changed the market for that, I’m sure.
RW We were out of shiplap for quite a while, but I’m buying salvage again, as a lot of houses are being demolished. Shiplap is a big deal now. It’s essentially just a 1-by-12 or 1-by-6 or 1-by-8. It’s always been available. It’s kind of rough — people like that roughness. Back when I first started doing salvage work with my friend, he didn’t even save it. He took it off, you know, as he was taking things down to the studs, but a lot of the time he just threw it away. So it wasn’t something anybody cared for that much.
817 Are people looking for old shiplap?
RW They are. I just got salvage rights to a house over by TCU, one of those houses they probably shouldn’t be tearing down. I don’t feel good about it. There are several houses I’ve bought salvage rights to that were grand houses and didn’t have any business being torn down, considering what they were putting in place of them. It just makes me realize that what we did here in Fairmount was a really smart thing to do. Because of the historic overlay — you can’t tear down anything in Fairmount — this neighborhood is going to keep its personality forever.