by RICK BRETTELL
photographs by NAN COULTER
Ranch house. The image those words convey is a rambling, one-story dwelling with lots of leather- covered furniture and a tough, masculine atmosphere. Food is plentiful and basic. “Coat and Tie” or “Formal Attire” would never be on the invitation for a party there. But if Texas is home to thousands of such ranch houses, it is also the state where one can find some of the grandest of them in the world — homes that meld the American ranch house with the more refined English “country” house. Many were built by legendary ranchers in the late 19th century in the Rio Grande Valley and in the early 20th century in the Panhandle and West Texas. But, we have a few near Dallas and Fort Worth, and perhaps the most spectacular is located in gently rolling countryside half an hour from downtown Dallas.
It was designed and built by a great Texas lady who was born outside the state, but is at home in it. She funneled her dreams, aspirations, travels and ideas into a home of her own design, which, although she worked with an architect, reflects her so completely that it could be called a self-portrait. One secret to the house is found under its sheltering eaves in a small, windowless attic room in which her childhood toys, miniature furniture, doll house, tea sets and dolls are arranged in a way that illustrates she has been dreaming about this house since she was a little girl in rural Oklahoma. The tiny tables are perfectly set, the beds made with crisp linens, the furniture plumped for a perfect doll in a manner that all but completely predicts what the owner has built in full scale.
There is no grand entrance gate. After we get through an unpretentious one, another swings open and, after a short drive across the prairie, we find ourselves in a stone-paved motor court that would make a regional Dorothy exclaim, “We’re not in Texas anymore!” The façade, with its rhythms of limestone gables and its carved coat of arms with the Texas star, reminds us of English architecture — before 17th-century Italian “good taste” arrived in that country — but infused with grandeur and formal rigor. But, wait. The interior hall, which one enters after traversing a small porch, is a three-story gabled room that runs the length of the house. The space tells us our lady is a hunter — and a rather accomplished one at that. Trophy heads greet us, and the great wooden balconies supported by carved-walnut Corinthian columns are draped in pelts. (If we had any doubts about being in a power house, they are dispelled at once.) But amid this display of prowess, there are doors that open onto wonderfully comfortable rooms with wood paneling, chintz-covered chairs, appropriately rural paintings, Staffordshire figures, an army of Napoleonic toy soldiers and porches — lots of them — with views of a manmade lake Lancelot “Capability” Brown himself would have envied. There are even distant cattle fields on the rolling hills.
The dining room is a realm of dark polished wood: 19th-century paneling, substantial wood tables, comfortable Windsor chairs. Well-shined silver from England and the U.S. and a nest of silver vessels from Turkey adorn one of the tables. Everything gleams, and one can easily envision a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in the evening, in which the light from the fireplace and the candles plays on the shiny surfaces. There are many more rooms, for casual dining, for a glass of port after dinner, for intimate conversations and for power meetings. There are places to read a good book, to take a nap or to escape from others. From the lower level, there is direct access to the sculpture-dotted lawns, a waterfall and a lake. But another secret of the house is found on its slate-roofed attic level, not just in the collection of childhood toys, dolls and houses, but also in a north-facing art studio, where the owner looks over fields that unfold all the way to the towers of downtown Dallas. Here, she paints, from life and from photographs, often with her visiting grandchildren, whose own paintings line the walls. Sometimes an artist comes to give lessons. Other times, this great Texas lady paints alone in silence at the very top of a house that she has created to share her happiness with others. As you look at these photographs — her self-portrait in stone, wood, fabric, metal, ceramic and skins — just try to imagine her.