The Old Grande Dame of Fort Worth

Take a look inside the River Crest home that only gets better with age

| by FWTX Staff | photography by Alex Lepe |

It was just after World War I in Fort Worth. The Blackstone Hotel, now the Courtyard by Marriot on Main Street, had just been completed, and the “Lancaster Jewels”—the Texas & Pacific and U.S. Post Office—were well underway. The original craftsman-style River Crest Country Club opened in 1911 making way for nearby development and the construction of stunning revival period homes like the historic Tudor Revival home built in the early 1930s that still stands statuesque at 500 Alta Drive.

By the 1920s Fort Worth’s West Side had a pumping station, storm sewers and four new schools, which invited more people to move into the area. The city paved Camp Bowie Boulevard in brick in 1928, and that same year Montgomery Ward was erected on Seventh Street. All of this was both a symbol and a result of the rapid industrial and residential development during that time.

“The Depression slowed, but did not stop, the furious pace of growth on the West Side,” according to the Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey.

By the end of the decade, the Depression eased, and Amon Carter Sr., a resident of Fort Worth’s West Side as well, assisted the development of the nearby blooming Cultural District with the erection of the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in 1935-36. All of these nascent projects brought about the charming and grand background of 500 Alta Drive, also known as the Old Grande Dame of Fort Worth, originally designed for oilman Stanley Thompson in 1931. Thompson was a pillar of the city who served as the president of the Fort Worth Cats for five years, and was a major booster to the TCU football program.

According to Thompson’s obituary in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Amon Carter spoke fondly of Thompson when he presented an award for his civic deeds in 1936. “I only wish we had more Stanley Thompsons,” Carter said. “I don’t believe we will ever find a man more deserving of the honors paid him.”

Thompson’s family was the first of four to live at 500 Alta Drive.

When current owners Carol and Jim Dunaway bought the Tudor Revival home in 1996 from Lyn and Gerry Grinstein, they were told they would merely be stewards of the home, never an owner. It sounds gruff, but there is something beautiful and true about that statement. It’s a home that holds much history in a close-knit city. Carol and Jim took those words to heart when they completed a costly and exhausting renovation in 2011 to make thoughtfully sensitive additions and updates to continue the home’s story. 

This duty seems even more important knowing one of Fort Worth’s most prominent and respected architects between 1920 and his death in 1968, Joseph R. Pelich, designed the original home.

LANDSCAPING AND FIRST VIEWS

A massive lawn reaches up to the vast driveway and sandstone exterior walls. Beautiful pecan trees, live oaks and blood-red Japanese maples shade the understory. Two lions guard the front door flanking the flagstone walkway. These lions are an original detail of the home carefully left untouched. Native stone and plantings make a harmonious setting with an ever-changing palette of colors and vistas. For this reason, visitors appreciate standing inside the home looking out. There are heart-stopping views from the multi-level terraces. The expansive landscaping includes formal English gardens and natural plantings. The current owners also added the element of water with a placid and understated lap pool and fountains. 

Standing on the grounds, you no longer feel like you’re in Fort Worth. Maybe in England, which is probably why the gardens lend themselves to special events and weddings. Carol’s daughter and niece married in the home. One of the eight children from the previous homeowners married there decades earlier. Many brides have had their portraits taken in the gardens, as well.

THE HOME 

The form of the house splays open to the expansive 2.8 acres of landscape below. Then your eyes may work their way up to the elegant details of the home, like the windows. In true Tudor fashion, the tall windows, or “casement windows,” with small steel diamond and square frames are consistent throughout the grounds. When original Tudor homes were built 500 years ago in Shakespearean England, glass was difficult to make and hard to come by so only the elite could afford it. The technology didn’t allow for the large sheets of glass we see today; hence, they were made in small panes or pieces. What it took to build a Tudor home then would not be affordable today, but to see these diamond and square pieces of glass fitted between the steel throughout the Dunaway’s home is an exquisite detail.

A company in England made the original windows. So when completing the new guest wing and expanding the kitchen, the current owners found the same company, Crittal, and made windows and doors to match. Even the new windows are made with steel and individual panes of glass; and although Crittal didn’t make this exact system anymore, the design team was able to work with them.

When the Dunaways added on to the home with the help of a team of experts, their research and attention to detail was extensive and sensitive. One of the most difficult tasks was finding roofing that would match the terra cotta Ludowici Celadon Provincial roof tiles that are original to the house. 

Reclaimed Roofs, Inc. in the Mid-Atlantic region was charged with finding the rare tiles.

“Samples of the existing tiles were sent to some historic restoration materials companies to see if someone could match the tiles. A company in Baltimore sent us samples of tiles they had removed from demolished homes in the Maryland area,” Carol said.

The new tiles were not as weathered as their existing tiles, thus had different coloring. They put all the newer tiles on the north side of the garage and a few other areas to blend in with the existing tiles.

Multiple richly decorated fireplace mantles typical of Tudor Revival style can be found in several of the rooms. A new fireplace was added along with the guest quarters in 2011—one heats the guest quarters and the other side heats one of the back patios.

Updating the outside of the home was just as important to Carol and Jim Dunaway as the inside. Carol said only two fixtures previously lit the exterior, and she wanted more lighted areas. A company called Iron Age in Dallas replicated, or “hand forged,” the original fixtures, adding 18 new, identical elements of light outside. The updates to the historic home were so charming and meticulous that the property won an award from Historic Fort Worth for the renovations the Dunaways brought about in 2011.

In addition to the new guest quarters and larger kitchen, the renovations included a larger garage for the cars of our times, an elevator, and two remodeled bedrooms upstairs. The master suite is on the second floor, and moving it to the first floor would have created too much change to the original home, so an elevator was added instead.

The Dunaway’s home is a cultural Fort Worth landmark, so they had to get changes to the home approved by the historical and cultural landmarks commission.

They were asking for a “certificate of appropriateness.” Jim Dunaway, along with their architect, went before the board and explained what it is they wanted to do and how they were going to meet the federal government’s standards, and how the renovations could meet those requirements while staying sensitive to the antiquated structure. 

They approved.

Other changes preceded the Dunaways. The immediate former owners, the Grinsteins, removed an exterior back wall in the front foyer, placing the first set of steel and glass doors from Crittal, which match the windows. This opens to the outside upper terrace patio from the front room of the home. They moved the master bedroom fireplace and mantle into another space down the hall, replacing it with a wall of windows, and they removed the breakfast room wall and cabinets, opening the space up to the kitchen area.

A collector of antiques, Carol has filled the home with period-appropriate furniture including two new marble fireplace mantles she found during a serendipitous trip to New York. The design and décor return and complete the warm feeling the home has brought to the four families who lived there since 1931. The scale lends to this as well, which is intimate. The height of the ceilings is not too high or grandiose. All of the additions were considerate and restrained. Scale is much about proportion. If the scale is correct, it feels like it belongs there.

HISTORY

Stanley Thompson was the original owner of the home completed in 1931, which was purchased by Tommy Mercer and his family of eight children in 1964.

Mack Mercer was 9 years old when his family of 10 moved into the Old Grande Dame. For the longest time the home was referred to as “The Mercer Home.”

Now 60, Mack remembers all the boys piling onto the front lawn at Thanksgiving to play flag football around the magnanimous stone lions. They would sit around the big fireplace, which is still there, and talk. He will also never forget the beautiful views from within the home out the back where he and his high school sweetheart would ride horses along the Trinity River.

“There was plenty of room…to other people, it was a mansion, but to us, it was a warm home with a lot of love,” Mack said.

The Dunaways would agree. The owner’s have changed, but the home has continued to be a gathering place for nearly 85 years.

“We have lived here for 20 years, and it has been a joy,” Carol Dunaway said. “We have had family reunions, Christmas parties and fundraisers. You name it, we have probably hosted it.”

The home’s original architect, Pelich, ensured the home would be ideal for entertaining with a seamless flow from the inside to numerous outdoor terraces.

Pelich’s imprint remains in big ways all over Fort Worth. He designed what Philip Johnson did not complete of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in the 1960s. Pelich is also responsible for the Van Zandt Cottage, the “Hill House” on Avondale, which TCU just purchased for the chancellor, Casa Mañana and other significant structures that define Fort Worth architecturally.

Pelich was the first architect to receive the Texas Restoration Award from the Texas State Historical Survey Committee, now known as the Texas Historical Commission, in 1967, architecture historian Susan Kline wrote in her National Register of Historic Places form.

Before Pelich became a big-time Fort Worth architect, he received a bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University in 1916. As a student, he won the Charles Goodwin Sands Memorial in 1915, and the Beaux Arts Society and Clifton Beckwith Brown Memorial in 1916.

After the country’s entrance into World War I, Pelich joined the U. S. Army Air Corps and was assigned to Canada with the Royal Flying Corps. He was then sent to Fort Worth to receive training. Following his discharge from service in 1919 with the rank of second lieutenant, he decided to stay in Fort Worth to pursue architecture because from his plane in the air, he could see miles of opportunity and need for development. Pelich succeeded in becoming a charter member of the Texas Society of Architects and served as the first president in 1946 of the Fort Worth American Institute of Architects.

According to old Fort Worth newspaper clippings, Pelich wanted to make his work about the community and quality. The clippings revealed he kept his staff small and said he didn’t care if they changed the name of his firm after he died.

“We don’t care about doing so much as we care about doing it well — to please our clients and to please us,” Pelich is quoted saying in one clipping.

A series of bronze-colored whimsical faces line the perimeter of the home’s exterior. Functionally speaking, they are structural corbels, but they are also one of the most charming details of the home. The current owners continued the faces on the new guest wing. But there is one peculiar face tucked in the corner near the front door of the original portion of the home. It looks more realistic than its cartoonish peers. It looks like Pelich.

The Dunaways have successfully kept a piece of Fort Worth aging history evolving into the 21st century.