Story by Heidi Pool | Photography by Ryan Siphers
If you close your eyes and imagine the quintessential beach house, the picture in your mind likely contains these elements: a neutral color palette punctuated with splashes of muted blues and greens, crisp white cabinetry and window frames, warm wood flooring complemented by bamboo window shades, and a spacious lanai from which to watch the sun set into a shimmering sea behind swaying palm trees. Transform that image into real life, and you have George Rixey and Randy Wagner’s beachfront home in Kihei.
When the couple purchased the property in 1996, the two-bedroom, one-bathroom structure was essentially a teardown — “a total mess,” Randy recalls. But as architects, she and George could see the potential. “The sun was streaming through the windows, and we could see beyond the disarray that it really was a beautiful home. Plus, its architectural style reminded us of houses in the mid-Atlantic region where we both grew up. It had that East Coast ‘beachy’ feel that spoke to us on a personal level.”
And the home came with an interesting past. “The original St. Theresa’s Catholic Church was down the street,” says George. “Built in 1935, this was one of three dwellings that housed church personnel. It’s the only one still standing, and it served as quarters for the nuns, who also took in orphans and widows. Because of its past, there’s a tremendous feeling of mana [divine power] in this house.”
George and Randy lived in the house for nearly sixteen years, and raised two children here, before tackling a complete remodel. They made the place livable by patching all the holes in the walls, replacing the windows, retiling the bathroom, giving the kitchen a much-needed facelift, and adding a bedroom loft for their son. After the kids were grown and on their own, the couple decided it was time. By then, says George, “The house was shifting on its foundation, and there was extensive termite damage.” But what finally led them to remodel was their desire for an indoor laundry room. “This area floods fairly frequently,” Randy says. “Our laundry area used to be under the house, and once, over a period of two years, we had to replace our washer and dryer two times!”
The renovation began in June of 2012, with George and Randy estimating it would take six months. “We operate the cottage on our property as a vacation rental,” says Randy. “We blocked out six months for ourselves, and moved in.” But as the renovation stretched on, they became veritable vagabonds. The couple served as architects and general contractors throughout the project, so although they own a cabin in Upcountry Maui, they didn’t relish a daily one-hour drive to or from the construction site. Instead, they moved into temporary housing two more times until the now-three-bedroom, three-bath house was ready to be occupied in July of 2014.
Why make the project DIY? “The craftsmanship and intricacy that went into the remodel was too complicated to convey to someone else with drawings,” George says. “We designed everything ourselves, down to the last centimeter,” adds Randy.
By accident, they met a family of skilled craftsmen who live near the couple’s cabin. “Their car broke down on our road and we couldn’t get out,” Randy recalls. “When we discovered the three men had carpentry skills, we first had them do small jobs at our cabin. We ended up employing them for the entire remodel here in Kihei.”
During the early stages of the project, George and Randy realized the house had originally been built to last. “One of the first things we did was remove the old roof,” George says. “We discovered the underlying materials were of a quality you can’t find today. The rafters were old-growth fir that’s lightweight but hard, and it was completely dry. You can’t buy lumber like that today, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to replace it. So we ran the wood through a planer, resurfaced it, and reused it. We also recycled the original doors and the one-inch tongue and groove wherever we could.”
They also added a second floor, which contains the master bedroom and bathroom, and two spacious closets. But before they could do so, the foundation needed shoring up. “The new foundation is a combination of concrete-block walls and posts,” says George.
Remodeling their house gave George an opportunity to flex his builder muscles. “I grew up in the construction business, and have been around it my whole life,” he says. “I love the smell of wood, and pounding nails with a hammer. It’s much more satisfying than using power tools.”
“George had a hand in everything, from the framing, to the carpentry and built-ins, to the cabinetry,” says Randy.
The one feature of the home they didn’t have to completely remodel, just repair, was the oceanfront concrete lanai — the only part of the house that hadn’t shifted over time. “It was basically holding the house in place,” George says. He and Randy enjoy drinking their morning tea out there while gazing at the ocean and looking for the migratory kolea (Pacific golden plover) that’s been visiting for years. “He hangs out at the edge of our property for months at a time,” says Randy. “When he arrives in the fall, he’s all brown, and by the time he leaves, his feathers have taken on a tuxedo-like quality.”
“When we first moved to Maui, we lived in Wailuku, then Wailea,” says Randy. But neither town felt like home to them. “I found this house while George was on a surf vacation in Sumatra. I picked him up at the airport, drove him past the property, and said, ‘I think this feels like us.’”
Being close to shops, restaurants, and services has its perks, also, says Randy. “We can walk or ride our bicycles to everything. We could get by without a car if we wanted.”
George and Randy stay in Kihei most of the time, spending a day or two each week at their Upcountry cabin. “We have olive and fruit trees, and a vegetable garden, so there’s always something to do,” Randy says. “We truly have the best of both worlds — mountain and ocean.”