Inside Saltine

The owners navigated red tape to turn this historic site into an oyster bar.

Converting a 1920s schoolhouse in Jackson, Miss., that’s on the historic registry into a restaurant was no easy feat for designer and co-owner Rachel  Horn Houston, especially on a “really tight” budget.  She had to maintain the original features of the building, from the plaster and windows to the science cabinets. To add a layer of complexity, all changes had to be reversible, should Saltine vacate, to restore the building to its original form.

1. Choosing battles

Houston fought to remove baseboards and chair rails in a walkway. “We had to compromise and reuse the wood elsewhere,” she says; it’s now the bar’s facing and shelving. “It’s hard to find a contractor who won’t charge you more to reuse on-site [materials].”

2. Preserving history

While most of the original flooring was protected with a coat of polyurethane, floors in the kitchen and behind the bar had to be triple-layered with plywood and a moisture barrier, adding extra weight and requiring Houston to put more support under the building.

3. Cost-cutting design tricks

Houston spent two years searching salvage yards, estate sales and garage sales, finding school-inspired decor such as lockers that she turned into the community table. To save, she also used porcelain tile made to look like marble in the bar instead of buying the real deal.

4. Keep versus cover

“We wanted to honor that we’re in a school,” especially since the building’s history resonates with some of the older clientele, says Houston. While some of the original chalkboards were covered up, these were cleaned, framed and turned into menu boards.

5. Wise workarounds

Houston maintained the old ceiling, except near the bar where it was falling. Her  cost-conscious solution was to brace the original and cover it instead of repairing it. The HVAC was then suspended from the ceiling, since she couldn’t cut into the ceiling or fit it into the attic to hide it.

6. Treating windows

Windows above the banquette look out into the hallway, now a gangway to other businesses that share the schoolhouse. “We couldn’t touch the corridor,” says Houston. She also had to keep all windows, sills, blinds and slats. As part of the design, Houston concealed some of the original windows, including in the kitchen and behind the wood-fire oven. 

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