A Fort Worth Tribute to a Great Texas Architect
T.His wide, scalloped house with its white porch could have been built 80 or 90 years ago, around the same time as many other houses in Fort Worth’s leafy Crestwood neighborhood. The stately home, shaded by the tangled branches of old post oak trees, draws attention: people driving by slow down to snap a quick photo, and pedestrians on the Trinity Trail stop to admire it. Visitors could ask about the era it was built in or the extent of the renovation. “When people find out it’s new, they are amazed because it looks like it was a while ago,” says Rob Sell, who built the house in 2018 with his wife, Lizzie Sell. “We built it the way it would have been 100 years ago, so it has the soul of an old house. But the color and finishes and the larger windows make it feel new. It’s a great combination. “
Sell, President and Co-Founder of V Fine Homes, often draws on the past as inspiration for the homes he builds, many of them in Fort Worth’s oldest and best-known neighborhoods. For their own family home, they borrowed ideas from the clapboard houses they love so much on Long Island, where they were married. “I wanted to build a clapboard house, and there are quite a few in Fort Worth, but I haven’t been able to get a client to do so. We really wanted to build our own clapboard house, ”he says.
The architecture for Rob and Lizzie Sell’s Fort Worth home was inspired in part by the Palmer Hutcheson home in Houston designed by John Staub. (Photo by Manny Rodriguez)
The couple lived in a 1940s brick house – too small for their budding family – when the opportunity arose to buy the house across the street on larger property. “I shook hands with the owner to buy it the day our third child was born,” recalls Sell. They tore down the nondescript ranch-style house that it said – “the kind you don’t feel guilty about tearing it down,” he says, “and when we were done designing the house, we had also a number of twins. “
Crestwood reminds them of the neighborhood they grew up in in Amarillo, an unexpected oasis on the dusty plateau of West Texas, with brick streets lined with old elms and charming 1920s houses. They lived three blocks apart but didn’t meet on a blind date until decades later. They married in 2009. Old houses from their founding years had made a huge impression on them – not just the traditional styles, but the meticulous craftsmanship and beautiful design that went into them. “A hundred years ago, most buildings were built to be beautiful,” says Sell. “Nowadays, beautiful buildings are more the exception than the rule. Yesterday’s factories are more beautiful than today’s churches. “
Through his membership in the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art in New York, he studied and visited the work of great architects for years, including Sir Edwin Lutyens from England, David Adler’s magnificent American country houses and George Washington Smith’s elegant houses in the style of the Spanish colonial days on the west coast. He immersed himself in the architecture of John Staub, whose houses he discovered as a student while visiting friends in Houston as they drove through the city’s prettiest neighborhoods, particularly the historic Broadacres neighborhood near Rice University. “I think it’s the nicest neighborhood in Texas,” he says. For her new family home in Fort Worth, Sell borrowed design elements from one of Staub’s most famous houses in Broadacres, the Palmer Hutcheson House. At the start of his career, Staub had worked for HT Lindeberg, who specializes in New York country houses, and the 1924 Colonial Revival is reminiscent of the shingled Long Island estates the Sells admire.
The Floyd family golden retriever basks in rays of light in the hallway. Many of the ceilings in the house are made of wood. (Photo by Manny Rodriguez)
With contributions from Lizzie, Sell sketched many versions of her home on paper napkins in restaurants and on paper towels in her kitchen until they found one that felt right at home: a modern take on the traditional. “It’s a symmetrical design with a traditional stair hall in the middle, formal living on one side and a dining and kitchen area on the other,” he says. “But we gave him a little pizazz with dramatic all-round windows in the kitchen and study. And we took our cue from Lindeberg’s work in New York, with a long dormer in the attic to create a playroom for the kids. “
Local craftsmen built the house the same way they did a hundred years ago, with carved plaster and soapstone chimneys and coffered wood ceilings. Instead of sheetrock, a mix of oak paneling and shiplap adds texture and interest to the walls. Fine brushwork is an art, and skilled painters used brushes to add subtle depth to painted surfaces. A traditional pier-and-beam foundation gives the herringbone oak floors a solid but hollow sound when stepped on – something you subconsciously associate with old houses. And the rooms vary in ceiling height and volume, which Sell says is important for houses to feel inviting and comfortable. The large, airy kitchen enters a cozy den where the family often gathers. A low pantry and coffee bar – two of Lizzie’s favorite rooms – are under the back stairwell. “We have small nooks and crannies in the house with suspended ceilings and larger rooms with higher ceilings,” he says. “All of this should bring joy to the house – something that is missing in many buildings today.
The kitchen is painted in Farrow & Ball and Benjamin Moore flax, dove and gray colors. Suzanne Kasler lamp for visual comfort. Sub-Zero and Wolf devices. (Photo by Manny Rodriguez)
The designer Trish Sheats, partner of V Interiors, worked closely with the couple on colors, lights, tile and stone selection, bathroom and kitchen fittings and furniture. “They wanted it to be clear, but comfortable and warm, with lots of color that would be timeless. For five young children, they used fabrics that were easy to wear, like mohair, cut velvet, and wool, ”she says. Lizzie’s favorite color is blue, so many of the walls are painted in lush Farrow & Ball and Benjamin Moore blues with hints of green and gray. They selected elegant but durable fabrics for upholstery and curtains, including Coraggio, Kravet, Holland & Sherry, Brunschwig & Fils and Cowtan & Tout with braids from Samuel & Sons and Brunschwig & Fils. They kept a handful of family items, including the 1940’s dining table and chairs that belonged to Lizzie’s grandmother, but most of the furniture was custom made for each room.
The Sell’s House is primarily a comfortable family home, but it’s also a masterpiece of understated design, beautiful materials, and expert craftsmanship – in other words, the kind of home that would have been built a century or more ago.