Critic Mark Lamster on Philip Johnson’s Beck House, and how it can be all yours

by | Design, Home

As a masterpiece of a Dallas house hits the market for $27.5 million, architecture critic Mark Lamster explains his (and President Obama’s) connection to it

If it were not for the Beck House, I would not live in Dallas today. Let me explain. Early in the summer of 2012, a magazine editor contacted me, wondering if I would like to write a story on the transformation of the Beck House grounds by the Massachusetts landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand. Because I was then (and still am) writing a biography of the house’s architect, Philip Johnson, I seemed a logical choice for this project. This house I found, designed in 1964, was extraordinary, a museum of itself. Hilderbrand, working with the restoration architects Mil Bodron and Svend Fruit, had reinterpreted the place for a new day, and in the process managed to “do Johnson” better than Johnson had himself.

The trip down from New York gave me the chance to visit other Johnson projects in Dallas and Fort Worth, and to get to know some of the people in the local architecture community. When the opportunity to take up the dual jobs of critic at The Dallas Morning News and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington presented itself, the prospect, thanks to that early trip, seemed not so outlandish. And it was a happy surprise when my new employers decided to throw me a welcoming reception and chose the Beck House as the venue. How perfect.

A date was chosen and all seemed in order until a call came in from the caretaker of the 12,000-square-foot house. Due to an unforeseen obligation, we would have to move our reception to another day. OK, no problem: The invitations had not yet been sent. Turns out, the day we originally had chosen was a busy one in Dallas: It coincided with the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. As I was reviewing the schedule of events attendant with that occasion, I noted that the Beck House was booked that evening for a fundraiser thrown by its owners, Naomi Aberly and Larry Lebowitz, for Barack Obama. Then it struck: I had been bumped by the president of the United States. A few days later, we had our event. The company may have been somewhat less exclusive, but the place still looked great.