One Man's Monument

Author Robert Edsel meticulously restored a 1920s Dallas mansion with the same attention to detail found in his best-selling books.

The original pool was redesigned with custom azure and gold Murano glass tiles, and teak chaises from David Southerland.

Robert Edsel is well-versed in the art of discovery. His oil and gas company, Gemini Exploration, was an early pioneer in the use of horizontal drilling technology in the 1990s. When he moved to Florence in 1996 to pursue a passion for the arts and architecture—including renovating a villa there—the seed for a whole new career as a researcher and writer was planted. Edsel’s fascination with the extraordinary efforts it took to protect Europe’s great works of art from the Nazis during WWII blossomed into a series of books on the topic. His 2009 tome, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, has been turned into a movie directed by George Clooney, opening in theaters Feb. 7.

Home for this The New York Times best-selling author is a secluded estate in Dallas sited on more than 2 acres facing Turtle Creek. The three-story 6,000-square-foot Mediterranean dates to 1926 and was the second residence built in the Turtle Creek area after the iconic Sheppard King Mansion (now the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek). Designed by architect John Allen Boyle, both feature lavish Mediterranean and Moorish influences. With a large expanse of rustically cultivated green space that rolls gently into the creek, Edsel’s home seems something from another country, if not a more gracious era. Says Edsel: “This bucolic wildlife-filled setting engenders a feeling of living in a nature preserve that’s seemingly far removed from a busy metropolis.”

His journey toward ownership began in 2005 at an art fair in Maastricht, Holland, where a contingency from Dallas had gathered to buy art. It was there he learned about the villa on Turtle Creek that was owned by a couple who were considering putting it up for sale. “When we all returned to Dallas, I made a point of visiting the house and knew that I’d found my next canvas,” he says. Negotiations over the sale took more than a year and a half, but Edsel returned to the house often to decipher the many phases of construction that had occurred during its 80-year history. Once the deal was sealed, Edsel christened it Bellosguardo (Italian for beautiful view), after the villa he’d restored atop the hill of Bellosguardo in Florence.

Despite its historic importance, the house needed work. “Some of the changes and additions were well considered,” he notes. “However, many were not; in particular, the obfuscation of the home’s original balconies and overpaint of mosaic tile—both of which defined the property.” Yet where others might have rushed in, Edsel waited. “I lived in, and with, the house for one year without doing anything,” he says. “This allowed me to understand what had been done by the previous 12 owners—each of whom had added their own mark.”

Vaulting in the living room is original to the home—an unexpected surprise when workers removed a false ceiling. The wall tapestry is 17th century, the mohair chaise is by Scott Hill and the coffee table is by Murray Ironworks. Florentine craftsmen made the game table and the chairs are 17th century antiques. The floor lamps are Italian antiques from Philip Maia Antiques.

When Edsel was ready to proceed, he brought architect and interior designer Ike Isenhour (with whom he’d worked previously), onboard to help bring his vision to life. “The overall approach was to maintain that which was original to the character and old world ambience of the home, then incorporate modern conveniences, particularly in bathrooms and dressing areas,” says Edsel.

This proved an ambitious project that brought out the researcher in Edsel. Using photographs of the home from the 1930s that he found in the Dallas Public Library, Edsel worked with Architexas, a firm that specializes in the preservation of historic homes. “These photographs guided me in my detective work and throughout the restorative process,” he says. Such research also helped Edsel keep every original design element in the home, including the home’s iconic blue tiled roof and distinctive mosaic tile.

Working within the existing footprint, Edsel reimagined, then reconfigured rooms to make the home more functional and relevant. This was no small task in a structure made of poured concrete and stone composition. “Bellosguardo is built like a bunker and thus quieter, and far better insulated,” says Edsel. “It has the sense of permanence one more often associates with the great homes of Europe.” However, working with this type of construction was far more difficult than with homes of typical construction in the United States. “Make a mistake or change your mind on something and the work involved to correct it requires a jackhammer, and a lot of time, money and mess,” he says. Meticulous planning was, thus, essential. Still, there were some unexpected design finds. When a false flat ceiling was removed in the living room—an unfortunate addition during the 1980s—a spectacular 25-foot-high oak-beamed vaulted ceiling was revealed. Elsewhere, another addition had sealed up an original doorway and balcony.

Edsel also studied how the house interacted with natural light. “Having lived in Tuscany for five years, I have an acute sensitivity to light,” he says. The home’s juxtaposition is ideal.”

The current exterior sightlines are not original, but became an integral part of Edsel’s work. “I believe a great property and garden should take a visitor’s eye in deliberate directions along corridors, down walk paths, through an opening in trees, toward an outdoor sculpture and under an arbor—always emphasizing the natural gifts each property possesses,” he says.

Edsel’s affinity for precision and detail were well suited for the task, imparting a sense of order and continuity inside and out. An understated color palette draws the eye to his extensive collections of antiques and old master art, and to the many architectural strengths such as the staircase decorated with original tiles.

“It’s been my privilege to restore and live in this beautiful and unique home,” says Edsel, who now has Bellosguardo on the market for $15.9 million with Dave Perry-Miller and Associates. “The time has come for me to pursue another chapter in life, just as I now enter a new phase of The Monuments Men project in what is my third career.”

As Edsel sets his sights on his next conquest, the result of his patience and hands-on involvement in this home is evident. Bellosguardo is more than a beautiful view—it reveals the passion Edsel has for the arts and his gift for bringing history to life.