October 9, 2020

Three months after Ashley ’09 and Michael Cordray ’06 started dating in 2011, Ashley politely informed Michael that the two would buy a house in his hometown of Galveston, Texas. “Yeah, one day,” Michael replied, assuming that she was dreaming of a future milestone. “No, you don’t understand,” Ashley said, “there’s an open house tomorrow and we’re going.” A dilapidated home was listed at $55,000, and she wanted him to help her “flip” it into a livable property.

Michael acquiesced, assuming Ashley would move on from the venture if he gently played along. During the following weeks, however, she moved forward on the project at a rapid clip. A few signatures and phone calls with the realtors later, and the far-off dream suddenly manifested into a jointly-owned estate with the tall task of renovation. Looking back, Michael jokingly reasons that “if things didn’t work out, at least we could maybe exit the relationship a little wealthier.”

Thus, the Cordrays began their impromptu home renovation careers. As they promote the second season of their DIY Network show “Restoring Galveston,” the couple retraces the road that took them from that first house to television. “It still doesn’t register,” Ashley said, with good reason. Their path proved more rewarding—and more taxing—than either could have envisioned.

Life on Island Time

Former Texas A&M University at Galveston graduates Ashley '09 and Michael Cordray '06 are restoring Galveston one run-down house at a time on their DIY Network show “Restoring Galveston.”

Following two years at a Houston-area community college, Ashley enrolled at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) in 2004 to pursue a degree in marine biology. Halfway into her first semester, her interest in the subject buckled beneath the hefty workload, and she pivoted toward maritime administration, essentially a business degree with a focus on the maritime industry. Students who now graduate from TAMUG in this program graduate from the Maritime Business Administration program.

During her studies in Galveston, Ashley fell in love with the island’s laid-back atmosphere and vibrant history. The striking homes from the turn of the 20th century especially captured her imagination. “Driving down some roads, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the 21st century anymore,” she said.

After graduating in 2006, she took a position at Kirby Inland Marine in Spring, Texas, where she eventually met her then-coworker Michael, who graduated with the same degree from TAMUG in 2009. Michael had some construction experience from helping his father, who owned rent houses in Galveston. When Ashley learned Michael was a “B.O.I.,” or someone born on Galveston Island, she saw a unique chance to connect with each other and his hometown by rebuilding neglected relics of its past.

At first, the reality was underwhelming. Their first house was far from a Barbie Dreamhouse. “It was bad,” Ashley said. “We stayed there for one night before we gave up and crashed at Michael’s mom’s house.” Still, the two remained undaunted, working on the house when they could and scoping out new properties. They continued dating while jumpstarting their business and married in 2014.

A New Heading

In 2015, Ashley successfully lobbied Michael to leave his position at Kirby to pursue their renovation business, Save 1900, full-time (“I’m not sure how many other people’s wives ask them daily to quit their jobs,” he said). Soon after, an opportunity came knocking from a place they never expected.

Seemingly out the blue, calls poured in from television production companies specifically looking for couples flipping houses in Galveston. “I told them, ‘That’s us!’” Michael said. “And I told them, ‘You’re crazy!’” Ashley said. At the time, she explained, they had only flipped and sold one home and were still working on two other properties, including their first purchase. Most producers resolved to search elsewhere when the Cordrays informed them of their short resume.

“One company let me keep talking,” Michael said. Impressed by the couple’s chemistry and commitment, the company filmed a sizzle reel for HGTV and secured a full season on its sister network, DIY Network, for a show that would originally air under the name “Saving Galveston” before it was redubbed “Big Texas Fix.” Unbeknownst to them, Ashley and Michael were signing up for the challenge of their life. “We turned up the speed from buying three houses over five years to flipping eight in 16 weeks,” Michael said. “It was insane.”

The Stormy Seas

Regulars viewers will recognize certain story beats that make up an episode of a typical house-flipping show: approaching the property, planning and modeling, starting the build, flirting with disaster near the end of construction, and ultimately finishing in the nick of time. One could assume the last two parts involve some scripted elements to add dramatic tension.

During the second season of the show, Ashley was six months pregnant when production began. During the whirlwind season, she had their daughter on a Thursday and was back on set three days later.

The Cordrays needed no such theatrics during their show’s first season. “We weren’t ready,” Ashley said, laughing. Between working with a full television crew for the first time, taking out a $2 million loan to buy the eight houses necessary for filming, and adopting an airtight six-day, 12-hours-a-day work schedule during which they juggled all eight projects at the same time, anxiety-inducing moments were not scripted and were indeed in steady supply.

One such moment came when, 12 hours before an open house, a package containing an essential light fixture for the entryway arrived. When Ashley opened the package, she found the fixture broken beyond repair. Cameras captured her pacing on the driveway as she called one local home goods store after another to find a replacement in time. Though she succeeded, the moment was just one fire the Cordrays had to extinguish out of dozens during filming.

In between the nerve-wracking segments, however, the two traded plenty of quips and enjoyed lighthearted banter on screen. They maintain that these scenes were also unscripted. “We’re not actors,” Ashley said. “We’re just two people doing something we love.” Their sarcastic back-and-forth not only helped them soldier on through the stress but also endeared them to viewers.

With their resilient attitudes and their self-evident passion for revitalizing pieces of local history, the Cordrays made for a natural screen talent. At least, viewers and network executives thought so. Soon after their first season finished airing, Ashley and Michael had a second season greenlit—this time with another new name: “Restoring Galveston.”

Finding Their Footing

Determined to learn from their mistakes, the Cordrays hired more contractors to help them on their second go ’round. They appreciated the extra help even more than they would have in normal circumstances, as Ashley was six months pregnant when production began.

“I went to the hospital and got induced while the crew was on break,” Ashley recalled. “I had our daughter on a Thursday and was back on set when they returned three days later.” A very brief maternity leave notwithstanding, the Cordrays were vastly more prepared for their sophomore season. Having mastered their schedule and gained confidence from their first season’s warm reception, Ashley and Michael focused on the passion at the center of their success: finding storied, but derelict homes across the island and using every resource to bring out their potential.

Their business’ name, Save 1900, refers to the Great Storm of 1900, the catastrophic hurricane that killed thousands and razed most of Galveston. Some of the houses the Cordrays have restored survived that storm as well as every other successor to emerge from the Gulf of Mexico. Because of their unkempt conditions, however, the city is constantly threatening to demolish many historic homes. “These houses have stood for decades,” Michael said. “They just need somebody to give them attention.”

Even when they were being put through the wringer, the couple has always cherished giving back to their community in a unique way. As for what their future holds on and off the air, they plan on doing what they do best: living ceaselessly, unapologetically and ever adventurously on the spur of the moment. After all, they know better than to fix what is not broken.

“Restoring Galveston” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. CST on the DIY Network.