The stairwell is line with what appear to be large paintings and photographs at first glance.
“They’re puzzles,” Sheila Conner says. “We did them during most holidays and vacations.”
Conner says that rather than undo all that family labor, her husband Steve built frames for the fractional creations and up they went, along with the house.
“Here’s how it started out,” Conner says, opening a scrapbook to display 1970s photos of a typical one-story ranch-style house with a rustic brick fireplace and informal built-ins.
“We like it then; it was what we needed. I was pregnant with Chad, and this house had four bedrooms – one for us, one for him, one for a study and a guest room for all of our out-of-state family. And there was room for a pool, which Steve had always wanted, and still enough separate yard for the boys to play in when they were little.”
Today the house and the “boys” have grown and changed quite a bit. Chad is 24 and a second-year medical student at UT Galveston. The Conners’ second son, Justin, is a senior at the University of Minnesota and is shopping for Texas law schools: “He wants to come home.”
Both Chad and Justin grew up in Lake Highlands schools – Merriman, LHJH and LHHS – and both were gymnastic stars.
“Chad was State All-Around Champion,” Conner says, “and Justin was on the Lake Highlands men’s team that won first in state – that’s how they both ended up at Minnesota, gymnastics scholarships.”
And the neighborhood home has come into its own during those years. After the pool, the next piece of the puzzle was a 1984 rear addition to create a larger den and an upstairs game room and study to accommodate rowdy, tumbling boys who grew quickly into teenagers desirous of Nintendo and later a media room – “the space grew as the kids did” Conner says. Most recently came the seven-month re-creation of the original structure’s interior.
“We shopped for other places,” Conner says. “But I guess we didn’t really want to leave. Our Realtor told us: I think you like your house too much.”
So remodeling it was, with the input of neighborhood architect John Humphreys, who helped the couple knock down walls and re-locate doorways and halls, turning the earthy ’70s boxed-off rooms into an open, elegant light-filled showplace that could have drifted off the pages of House Beautiful.
“We call this last remodel ‘Our New Front Door’ – I’ve always wanted one…and then the carpet really needed replacing and…oh well,” Conner says.
“No,” she rebuts grimly, pulling curtains back from French doors to indicate a barren patio area leading to the pool.
“But it’s okay. We’re planning to live here forever. We love Lake Highlands, and I don’t believe we could ever think of moving elsewhere…it’s like a family here.”
“When I was recovering from breast cancer, neighbors literally came out of the walls to offer support. I’m so grateful to live in a place where people care.”
The Conners have done their part to create a neighborhood where caring is the standard. Both have been involved community members and parents in a number of ways, including Mike’s efforts as president of the Lake Highlands Soccer League and Sheila’s work as treasurer of the Lake Highlands Women’s League. A 10-year volunteer, she talks with great emotion about resources such as the League’s emergency fund for the neighborhood schools that she credits largely for her children’s success in life.
“This one boy had been a straight A student and just overnight became a behavioral problem. Turns out his mother couldn’t afford the co-pay for his medication, and we’ve been able to take care of that.”
Just another part of building a life that fits for the Conners, like the 1,500-plus pieces of the enormous puzzle framed at the very bottom of the stairwell.
“That one we started before Christmas one year in the breakfast room on a piece of plywood. Come time for Christmas dinner, we weren’t finished and I said: We have to move this, I need this table.”
Turns out the plywood wouldn’t fit through the door. So ditch the puzzle, right?
“Well, no. Chad put another piece of plywood over it and I hid it with a tablecloth,” laughs Conner, shrugging. “We just had very square corners on that one table.”