Wherein twin 5-year-olds go amok in a house laden with paintings, rugs, sculptures, books and dads
by RICK BRETTELL | photographs by NAN COULTER
Less than half a mile from the Rachofsky House, that Spartan modernist masterpiece designed by Richard Meier, is its opposite: a house, built more than a generation ago in what was then a rather bleak part of North Dallas, that is so chock-full of art, books, furniture and people it can only be called a memory palace.
The contrast between the two is utter. If one walked throughout the Rachofsky House counting every object — furniture, carpets, paintings, sculpture, et cetera — the total would be less than 75, mostly art, and nothing would date before 1940. Yet, before even walking through the front door of this house, more than twice that many objects pass before one’s eyes: iron gates, architectural fragments, real columns, fake columns, cast-iron fountains, garden furniture, dried palm fronds and uncountable bricks, all arranged in a formal manner evocative of the garden of a retired British general in 19th century Madras rather than a North Dallas front yard in the early 21st century.
In terms of both metrics and history, the Rachofsky House and said palace are opposites — and yet each tells us something about our city and its anxieties.
Why do I call this house a memory palace? The title comes from Renaissance theories of memory codified years ago by the great British historian Frances Yates and rallied years later by Jonathan Spence in his wonderful 1985 book about an Italian diplomat in Ming China, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. In this theory, the intelligent modern person, in his quest to remember all that he has read and experienced, and all that he knows, creates an immense palace in his mind — a palace with many rooms, staircases, attics and gardens in which he places his memories carefully so that, when he forgets something, he can simply walk through the palace in a prescribed order until he comes upon the room containing the memory he seeks. The palace preserves the memory, and walking through the palace is an exercise of one’s memory.
Who owns — and who created — this very real palace? Perhaps the most interesting family in Dallas: James Dowell, 63, John Kolomvakis, 64, and their twin sons, Campbell and Demetri, both 5. The two dads of this testosterone-laden family have enormous treasure-troves of memory, and the house they have created for themselves and their sons is a place brought alive by shouts and clattering feet, by the Legos, puzzles, books and toys of their active boys. This house for children is the opposite of childproof.
I sat the other day talking to the two dads in what one might call the Family Room. We drank white wine from cut-crystal glasses while the boys played happily on a portion of the floor covered by not one, but two stacked Oriental rugs. In this single room, I could see, without moving, as many objects as in art collectors Cindy and Howard Rachofsky’s entire Preston Road monument: paintings from the 16th through 20th centuries; French and Italian sculptures; African sculpture; 17th- and 18th-century leather-bound books; wood paneling; caskets and boxes made of leather, wood and mother-of-pearl; tables of stone and bronze; and on and on and on.
Through the room’s doors, some opened wide and others screened by wrought-iron gates, countless other objects in the rooms and gardens beyond made me want to leap from my chair and explore the wonders of this house. A corridor lined with Old Master drawings leads to the bathroom. A large doorway opens onto a comfortable, light-filled bedroom and sitting room with still more treasures. To even get to the family room, I already passed through a suite of what I can only call formidable “formals,” in which many of the greatest works in this palace are kept awaiting “formal” inspection.
No one, not even these two dads, can have control of the vast realms of human knowledge and history embodied in the works of art, decorative art and literature in this house. Each man, though, has a mature lifetime of memories and associations that explain why each object is in the house — from which small auction in New York or Dallas it was rescued, from what specialized dealer or collector it originated, through what kind of worlds it has passed before finding its way into this utterly 21st-century place.
Dowell is a Dallas-born artist from an old Texas banking family. He went to art school at SMU and at the University of Iowa in Iowa City before going to New York in 1974 to make his way in that bigger world. There he met Kolomvakis, who was born in the small town of Chania, Crete, and had come to New York in 1966 to study at the Pratt Institute, where he received his master’s degree in architecture. Kolomvakis’ fascination with architecture complemented Dowell’s obsession with the visual arts in all mediums.
The two men — one from the Old World who was fascinated by the new and the other his opposite — conjoined their interests to create a life of travel, study and enjoyment, centered for many years in an airy but object-filled ground-floor apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Dowell returned to Dallas year after year to see his parents; he stayed in his boyhood bedroom and painted in the studio beneath it. Yet, his life was not yet centered enough to consider having his own family. That happened after his parents died in 2002: He inherited the house in which he grew up and for which he had worked with his mother to purchase many of its remarkable objects. His parents had built the house in 1954 and moved the family into it in 1955. (“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Dowell says. “With no furniture in the house, it looked huge to my small eyes.”) His mother and father died in April and November, respectively; Dowell and Kolomvakis moved into it soon after, adding the results of three decades of treasure-hunting in New York.
The persistent survival of historical objects, many of great beauty, and the idea of layered time appeals to both of them, and Kolomvakis’ obsession with film had led them to combine their talents to create, in 1994, a small independent film studio, Symbiosis Films, which has now produced four important documentary films, shown globally. Three of these are devoted to often-overlooked American artists in different mediums: Charles Henri Ford, an artist, writer and journalist; composer Ned Rorem; and Edward Albee, the great playwright and the best known of the three. Not only did Dowell and Kolomvakis collaborate with their subjects and film unforgettable interviews, but they also tracked down illustrious friends and associates of each, from composer-author Paul Bowles and poet-activist Allen Ginsberg to architect Philip Johnson and artist Dorothea Tanning.
The interpenetrating worlds of their films — the symbiosis of life and the arts that has always been their ideal — is embodied in their home. It is here, in Dallas, where Dowell and Kolomvakis made a joint decision as mature men to have children, in this case now-5-year-old twin boys who are natural children of both men, born through surrogacy. Many of the couple’s friends thought them mad for wanting to add the chaos of youth to a life of comfortable middle age in a beautiful home, but Dowell and Kolomvakis yearned to be dads, and dads they have become. They didn’t produce Mini Mes: “Each of them does not represent carbon copies of either one of us,” Dowell says. The twins’ own characters, too, are quite different. “Campbell,” says Dowell, “is more a Type-A personality,” with “more artistic bent” than his brother. “Demetri brings an extra spark of delight in everything that comes his way; [he]is emotionally highly expressive.”
No doubt he is encouraged here. When one visits this home, one enters a kind of time-warp trap, in which anyone who thinks that he or she can simply have a drink, a chat and leave soon realizes that it will take far longer to do just that. (“Just an hour?” Dowell recently exclaimed to me. “It takes me an hour to get warmed up!”) The stories begin as one enters and flow so easily from the hosts that one soon inhabits a cocoon of swirling words — and old-fashioned eloquence. At first, Dowell dominates; it is, after all, the home in which he grew up and reflects, thus, a longer part of his life. But the illusion of dominance tumbles when he asks Kolomvakis to remind him of something or is gently corrected, and a conversation between the two begins its dance of words, as Kolomvakis slips in and out of the room and we move through one part of the house to another. Every visit is different because each of them watches guests with a practiced eye to see what they find interesting or walk toward — thereby customizing each tour.
I remember taking my Introduction to the Visual Arts students from the University of Texas at Dallas to the house. The students were collectively a portrait of the New America, with family origins in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the plain old U.S. of A. Each found something in the house that spoke directly to them. Each was amazed at how comfortable they felt visiting a completely nontraditional family, in a house that looked nothing like any of the homes in which they grew up — a home that is a place of comfortable acceptance of the diverse worlds in which we all live, not only of its languages, histories and cultures, but also of the diversity of our yearnings for beauty.
The last time I went, it was my “task” to examine a recently acquired Cézanne watercolor, which was completely in my comfort zone. As I left, Dowell asked me to look at a newly acquired work of East Asian ceramics. There were so many in the living room that I had to go from one to another before my eyes were arrested by a rare ceramic vessel from a period of Korean art history about which I confessed complete ignorance.
“Of course you remember the one in the Kimbell,” Dowell reassured me. (I didn’t.) “I think ours is a little better.” I only wished that he had shown me that object when I brought my class to the house, because in the class was a Korean-American science student, struggling to learn the language of his ancestors and trying to come to terms with his history. Here sits this beautiful vessel, more than 1,000 years old, in a room that seems, at first glance, utterly European, dominated, as it is, by a portrait of an early 18th-century pope’s nephew from Rome. The couple’s highly personal palace will supply uncountable memories to their sons — who will need few conventional toys with which to play and who will be able to go on virtual trips without ever turning on a computer.
RICK BRETTELL is the Margaret McDermott distinguished chair at UT Dallas and the founder of CentralTrak, The University of Texas at Dallas Artists Residency.