House as history lesson: How to live in an O’Neil Ford masterpiece

by | Architecture, Design

An iconic Dallas house is now 75. It has barely changed since 1939.
How do the modern father and son who live there do it?

by JAKE CIGAINERO | photographs by NAN COULTER

Tucked out of sight on a wooded 10-acre patch off Wendover Road in Dallas, behind Lakewood Elementary, sits one of the country’s architectural gems. (The house is recognized as such by the National Register of Historic Places.) A tree-lined driveway and a wooden bridge over a creek transitions one from city life to the serenity of the countryside — sloping, sun-dappled lawns and patches of cedars, oaks and elms — in seconds. One may expect to glimpse Alice roaming these idyllic grounds looking for the entrance to Wonderland, but instead it is a two-story ranch house of white-painted brick that appears beyond a roundabout in a clearing, unimposing and nestled in the forest as if it has always been there, just waiting to be discovered. Its wide windows and inviting screened-in porch beckon for a languid afternoon sipping mint juleps.

Texas architect O’Neil Ford, assisted by Arch B. Swank, designed and built the house in 1939 for philanthropists Juanita and Alfred Bromberg. When Dallas’ moneyed were building European-style houses mimicking French chateaus and Italian villas, the Brombergs (and nearby Nonesuch Road neighbor Stanley Marcus) went for the straight-line sophistication of modernism. Ford protégé Frank Welch said Juanita Bromberg gave the architect a Bauhaus book that influenced the design. “The house was modern before modern,” Welch says. “This was the first expression of modernism in Dallas.” He says the clean, “longitudinal line” of the roof (a stair-step design clad in standing-seam galvanized steel) flanked by two chimneys is “very persuasive.”

Not much has changed in 75 years. New residential construction in Dallas still materializes as faux-European manses, only each house is now run through a stylistic blender. (The Cha-Tudor-Ranean syndrome.) Other Ford houses, and some of Dallas architect Howard Meyer’s equally sleek, simple residences, have been torn down. When the late Alan Bromberg, Alfred’s and Juanita’s son, prepared to sell the family homestead, he specified in the deed that the original acreage remain intact and that the structure must maintain its original design. Any violations would forfeit ownership of the property to Southern Methodist University. The weathered estate was going to need not only deep pockets and attention to return it to its former glory, but the new owners also had to work within the confines of Bromberg’s contract.

Gail Thoma Patterson was president of Preservation Dallas when Alan Bromberg approached the organization about selling the property. Her husband, Dan Patterson, an investment banker, said the house’s exceptional regional architecture appealed to the couple’s “American heritage appreciation.” At the time, they lived in an arts and crafts house on historic Swiss Avenue. His wife was drawn to Ford’s early modernist design; he was sold on the then-5-acre plot where two creeks converge into a flood plain. The estate was a project they could tackle together to make a home for their two children, Carrie and Cody. The Pattersons agreed Gail would oversee the restoration of the house and Dan would take on rehabilitating the wild, overgrown vegetation that had begun to swallow it up. Tragically, in 2009, 10 years after they purchased the home and not long after the Dallas City Council declared the property a historic landmark, Gail was killed in a car accident near Santa Fe, New Mexico. For some, continuing to live in the house might have been too painful. Dan felt differently. “I see my wife’s fingerprints on every part of this house,” he says. “She did a remarkable job making it a home.”

A restoration Patterson thought would take 18 months, starting in 2000, turned into what he calls a four-year labor of love. Frank Welch was named the architect-in-charge because of his past experience working with O’Neil Ford. Welch says that he was nervous and that the task “was like being asked to perform surgery on one of my children.” (The stone bust of a bespectacled Ford, standing guard along a pathway and oriented directly at the house, seemed to watch seemingly watching Welch’s every move and did little to ease his anxiety.)

The Pattersons had negotiated to convert a screened-in porch off the formal dining room into a “family gallery.” The extension created a central space for casual living: a breakfast room and sitting room, both with views of the deep, white-rock creek beds beyond the backyard. Years of fireplace use in the library — and likely some smoky soirées — had left the woodwork dull and gray. In addition to having the wood and water-damaged walls revitalized throughout the house, Gail Patterson also tracked down an original run of the kitchen’s blue tile from local Daltile, to replace the ones cracked and broken over time under so many casseroles and collanders.

The dining room’s ivy-motif fireplace surround was inspired by original owner Juanita Bromberg’s Wedgwood china. Decorator Josie McCarthy has updated the home’s furnishings, now a mix of contemporary and original pieces.

Ford’s human-scale, three-bedroom, three-bathroom design makes for fluid indoor-outdoor living with its downstairs porch and screened-in sleeping balconies. What’s more, the house is, except for the addition, just one room wide, which facilitates cross-ventilation during stifling Texas summers. Dan Patterson has put his own gentle mark on the estate in the great outdoors. His subsequent purchases of neighboring plots have reclaimed the estate’s original 10 acres — the Brombergs had sold some off — and added a bit more. Patterson is an undeniable tree-hugger, a passion he adopted on bike rides with tree enthusiasts. He has served on various related boards including the National Tree Trust, Texas Trees Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation. He and Cody share a love for nature, and, together, they have cleared sloping meadows, cleaned creek beds, cut trails and installed stone pathways across the property, which now hosts urban campouts for area Boy Scouts of America troops.

Dan Patterson takes advantage of the home’s relaxed ambience and genteel setting to host political fundraisers and casual events. Just before the start of the school term this year, the Patterson men — daughter Carrie lives in Dallas but not at the house, although she comes for a weekly family dinner — hosted 150 people for a pool party for the Episcopal School of Dallas? football team, for which Cody, a 17-year-old junior, is a varsity running back. A three-tier stone swimming pool, basketball court and pool house — all recently added, and in keeping with the understated house — kept 60 football players fully entertained while coaches gave parents the game plan for the year ahead. “The house isn’t stately,” Dan says. “I don’t feel like I’m showing off but sharing art. That makes me happy.”

Although the Bromberg art collection included works by masters such as Matisse, the craftsmanship and woodwork of the home stands on its own as art. The interior woodwork is by Ford’s brother, Lynn Ford, and reflects the house’s arboreal enclave with beechwood floors, unpainted hemlock trim and stout, square wall panels of elm and mahogany plywood with V-grooved ceilings of the same. Cody’s bedroom of floor-to-ceiling knotted pine — it was once son Alan Bromberg’s room — could be mistaken for a deluxe treehouse or alpine lodge. Lynn Ford also crafted five unique fireplace surrounds. The dining room mantel’s wooden reliefs are modeled after Juanita Bromberg’s ivy-leaf patterned Wedgwood china. Another mantel’s decoration was inspired by one of her bracelets. The front porch has a fireplace, too, and its surround incorporates painted, Mexico-themed tiles from a San Antonio manufacturer that closed in 1939. A sixth surround was designed by O’Neil Ford himself and incorporates pewter-and-copper inlaid tiles designed for it by University of North Texas students. But it is Lynn Ford’s gracefully curving, hand-carved beechwood stair railing in the front hall that draws the most comments from visitors, according to Patterson. Welch says it is “the most beautiful thing in Dallas.”

In contrast to the Brombergs and their avant-garde circle of literary and artist friends, Patterson says he and his wife never, really, collected art. Today, collector friends — and perhaps the intellectual spirit of the house’s previous owners — have stoked his interest. Recently, he bought a small painting by Jacob Lawrence, the noted painter of African-American life, that he proudly displays in a small book room off the library, over a fireplace. It is a rare personal touch to a house that is blissfully unscathed by remodeling or over-modernization. (Granite countertops? Not here.) Before this purchase, the black-and-white photographs along the stairway were the only works in the house, some of which were prints Patterson found in the Dallas Public Library archives and had reproduced.

Despite punctilious terms and maintenance that would deter most other buyers, Patterson says that it was ultimately his late wife’s philosophy of stewardship and preservation that inspired them to buy the estate. “You never really own a house,” he says. “You preserve it for future generations — if it’s a fine house. Now it’s my wife’s legacy. This is where my kids will come back. It’s a part of us now.”

A bust of architect O’Neil Ford watches over the house from the lawn.