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Rebecca Sherman | Photo: Timothy Kolk | October 8, 2012
A Fort Worth showplace for art commands a sweeping panoramic view.
It was a bad game of golf that scored food industry mogul Billy Rosenthal the land for his spectacular Westover Hills house in Fort Worth. Ten or 12 years ago when he first started playing the game, “I used to slice the ball a lot, and I used to slice it over onto this hill,” he remembers. Climbing up the wooded knoll overlooking the Shady Oaks Golf Course to retrieve errant balls became a regular event, and it also piqued his curiosity about the big dome-shaped plot secluded behind tall trees and brush. It was oddly configured, and if you managed to climb to the top, you’d find a steep 80-foot cliff over the fairway. But it had one really great attribute that made Billy yearn to build on it. “It has skyline views all the way around it. That’s what makes it so special,” he says. After talking to his broker, he learned that the land belonged to the daughter of the original owner of the club, who had saved the best lots for his kids. “She’d always meant to build a house on it, but never got around to it. So I negotiated a deal,” he says. Rozanne, Billy’s wife, says it made many of the people at Shady Oaks jealous. “It just looked like a wooded, wild area, and no one knew it was here,” she says. “If I hadn’t been such a bad golfer,” adds Billy, “I’d have never found it.”
The Rosenthals are big-time art collectors and on the board of several museums, including the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. So when it came time to build on their new property, they asked fellow art collector and friend Deedie Rose for advice. She referred them to Bodron+Fruit, a Dallas architecture and design firm whose clients have included the Roses and other prominent arts patrons. Says architect Svend Fruit: “It was hard to imagine a house being on that lot, much less a big house. There wasn’t a flat spot anywhere.” The solution was to build up enough surface area to create a substantial main level, then carve into the hillside and build down, as well as up. When all was said and done, the effort took three years of design and construction. The Rosenthals, who have three grown children and several grandchildren, moved in eight years ago.
Organized around a central glass staircase that switchbacks as if it were traversing a mountain, the 12,000-square-foot house is built like a rock. Made with a steel frame and studs, “almost like a museum would be,” says Fruit, the house’s entry is on the second floor and opens to dramatic views on three levels to the rear. With a living room that cantilevers over the trees and faces downtown Fort Worth in the distance, it’s all about the views. “With most houses, you know exactly where your land ends,” says Fruit. “But with this one, we blurred the boundaries. It just looks like it goes on forever.”
With massive, solid mahogany windows custom made by DuraFrame—the same company favored by Louis Kahn when he designed the Kimbell Art Museum—the scale of the Rosenthal house had the potential to overwhelm. After all, the living room ceiling soars 21 feet high. “We didn’t want giant expanses of glass,” says Fruit. “We did horizontal mahogany mullions to bring down the scale to human level, so that when it’s just the two of them in the house, it’s still comfortable.” But the large, open rooms were designed for hosting big arts events, and the house has easily accommodated 100 people inside, spilling out onto the numerous limestone terraces and pool area, all artfully designed by famed New York landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg. The grounds and views are a big draw of course, but it’s the Rosenthals’ museum-worthy modern art collection, curated by art consultant John Runyon, that puts the crowd atwitter—there are noteworthy works by Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Tom Wesselmann. The homeowners are always getting requests to tour the house. “We have friends who call themselves docents,” jokes Rozanne.
But, for as much as this is a showplace, it’s also a family home. “We wanted it to be comfortable for our kids when they are in town,” says Billy, who requested that the bedrooms and baths have the luxury of a resort, with copious natural light, beautiful views, slabs of marble, sycamore-paneled closets and custom-woven, wall-to-wall Edward Fields carpets.
A serene, spa-like atmosphere extends throughout the house, with the interior furnishings playing a supporting role to the architecture and views, says designer Mil Bodron, who used lots of neutral colors like cream, taupe, charcoal and chocolate. “I didn’t want people to be distracted by the furniture,” he says. “Ideally, I wanted people to look beyond it to the views.”
Rooms may be understated, but they’re filled with fine midcentury and modern pieces, including a few that the Rosenthals brought with them from their previous home, such as a gray lizard-skin game table by Karl Springer and an original spinning coffee table by Dakota Jackson. Bodron took them on shopping excursions to New York, where he and Rozanne narrowed the choices down first, then Billy tried them all out at the end of the day. “I sat on every chair and every sofa,” Billy says, with a hint of pride. After a long day, the trio treated themselves with martinis at the Peninsula Bar, remembers Rozanne.
Some of Bodron’s favorite finds include a rare vintage Knoll Joe D’Urso safety wire table and a set of insanely comfortable, upholstered chairs by Mario Bellini for Cassina, that Bodron describes as “a contemporary version of a Victorian chair.” His pulse races when he talks about an antique rug by the great Arts and Crafts era designer C.F.A. Voysey, snagged at FJ Hakimian in New York, that turned out to be the perfect size to go under the custom Dakota Jackson dining table. “The house has such a crafted quality about it, and I knew it would soften the newness,” Bodron says. “It’s a casual house, but at the same time very elegant.”