Demolition Looms for Architectural Gem in Fort Worth
The 8,400-sf Fort Worth residence known as the Andrew Fuller House (1953), designed by modernist A. Quincy Jones, may be doomed to a wrecking ball. The city has issued a demolition permit to the Frost Bank trust department. The house does not carry a historic designation, which would trigger measures to safeguard it from demolition.
By Chris Vaughn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas
Jan. 19, 2012
Atop a bluff overlooking Luther Lake sits one of the most undeniably interesting houses in Fort Worth.
Designed by one of the most influential midcentury architects and decorated by one of Hollywood's best-known interior designers, the house was built for a Texas oilman and his wife, a jet-setting couple who hosted screen legends such as Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart at their Ridglea estate.
"It is a one-of-a-kind, and not just in Fort Worth," said Adelaide Elizabeth Biggs, the original owners' niece, who bought and lived in the house in the 1960s. "It is an architectural masterpiece."
But the 8,400-square-foot residence known as the Andrew Fuller House and designed by modernist A. Quincy Jones may be doomed to a wrecking ball. The city has issued a demolition permit to the Frost Bank trust department, which is officially listed as the owner but is acting on behalf of Amon Carter III, the grandson of former Star-Telegram Publisher Amon G. Carter Sr.
The house does not carry a historic designation, which would trigger measures to safeguard it from demolition. The City Council could issue a historic designation on its own, but that step is rarely taken without the owner's support.
Carter said he has tried to sell the house and 2.5 acres for two years and has found all offers too far below his asking price, which started at $1.25 million and eventually dropped to less than $1 million. The house, according to numerous people who have been in it, has been abandoned since 2008 and is deteriorating rapidly.
Carter said it is time to move on.
"It's definitely a historic landmark," Carter said. "It was way ahead of its time. ... I did everything I could to preserve the house."
Preservationists in Fort Worth were shocked in 2010 when they learned of the Fuller House from a California architect. Its existence on Charron Lane, a small cul-de-sac of homes mostly built in the 1990s, had escaped their attention.
Since then, several have worked to find a buyer to save the house.
"The best option for a threatened house is to get a new owner," said Jerre Tracy, executive director of Historic Fort Worth Inc. "We had a board member who wanted to buy it. She was working toward that when she became ill. When she recovered, it was off the market. We were so hopeful it would be sold."
However, a senior vice president in the Frost Bank trust department, Diane Madalin Wright, indicated that demolition may not be a foregone conclusion.
"We understand it is significant," Madalin Wright said. "Nobody wants to see it gone. We would like nothing better than to sell it. As long as the house is still standing, it's not too late."
If the house is demolished, it would be one of Fort Worth's most captivating architectural losses.
An architectural marvel
Andrew and Geraldine Fuller were once well-known Fort Worth residents. He was a West Texan, a Princeton University graduate and a World War II veteran who had moved to Fort Worth in the late 1940s to work for his father, then president of the First National Bank. She was a California native with friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Andrew Fuller and his brother, William, started the Fuller Petroleum Co. and made a significant fortune during the boom years of domestic oil exploration.
In 1950, the couple commissioned the hugely influential modernist Jones to build them a house on 17 acres off Edgehill Road in west Fort Worth. Jones is best-known for his work in California, where he was also the dean of architecture at the University of Southern California. (Sixteen years after he built the Fuller House, Jones designed a home in Westover Hills for Eddie Chiles, who later became owner of the Texas Rangers.)
Finished in 1953, the Fuller House is a marvel. Every room is a different shape. The original house has almost no right angles. (A 1957 addition was mostly conventional in style.) The dining room is a diamond. The walnut-walled library is circular. Another room is a trapezoid, another a parallelogram. Thirteen-foot double doors open onto a grand hallway. And with only four bedrooms, the rooms are staggeringly large.
"The hallway leading to the front door was so wide and long that my children used to ride their bikes up and down it," Biggs said.
The Fullers also hired William Haines, a famous designer and former Hollywood actor, to design the interior and Englishman T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings to design the furniture specifically for the unusually shaped rooms.
Biggs remembers the star power visiting her aunt and uncle at the house.
"I spent a lot of time with Joan Crawford when I was a teenager," she said. "I would travel with her during my school vacations. Gloria and Jimmy Stewart came in for a party. I was too young to go to the party, though. A lot of Hollywood people came in."
Biggs bought the house from her aunt and uncle in 1965 and lived there until 1972, hosting her own parties for tennis stars such as Cliff Drysdale and Nikola Pilic. Other friends from her school in Switzerland, namely Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal and Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, also stayed there during the late 1960s and early '70s.
"My uncle had started a large vegetable garden there, but it had gone dormant," she said. "When I moved in, I had two young children, and they began to think food came from boxes and cans, so I brought the garden back. We grew 40 different kinds of vegetables."
Joe and Ruth Bravenec bought the house in 1990 and lived there for 13 years, sinking what she remembers as close to $1 million into renovations and refurbishment. They sold it to Carter in 2003 after building a house in Westover Hills.
"It was in tiptop shape when he got it," she said. "I spent a fortune on that house. We lost money on it."
Ruth Bravenec thought the house was well-built, luxurious and interesting, given its history. But it wasn't her style, she said.
"It had wings, and it was so far from one end to the other," she said. "It was a country mile from our bedroom to the utility room. I was glad to move. But it should have been preserved for others."
Decline and damage
Carter, who now lives near Rivercrest Country Club, said that the house was "like a small country club" and that its maintenance needs were too much to keep up with. He said he moved out in 2008.
The house "wore me out," he said.
Since then, apparently nothing has been done with the house. (The property taxes have been paid; the 2010 bill was $33,917, according to county records.) People who have seen it say the power has been shut off for some time.
Cory Buckner, a Los Angeles-based architect who wrote a biography of Jones in 2002, walked through the house in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Historic Fort Worth. It left her awe-struck at Jones' inspiration and saddened by its condition. She said the house was heavily damaged by water from roof problems and needed at least a half-million dollars' worth of work.
"It's probably the most beautiful luxury house I've ever seen of his," Buckner said. "It combined the scale of his modest-income houses with the feel of his luxury houses. I've never seen anything like it in his work. There are so many interesting details in it. There's almost a sculptural feel to it."
Andrew and Donna Rosenberg of Amarillo started searching last year for a midcentury house in Fort Worth to live in part time. Andrew Rosenberg said they looked at the Fuller House, which he said was listed for more than $900,000 at that time. He said it was in "tremendously terrible condition" with a "lot of rot and a lot of mold."
Still, he made two offers on it, the highest last month for $625,000, he said.
"It would probably take close to a million dollars to restore the house," he said. "We would buy it, and we're willing to put the money into fixing it up. At the same time, I'm not sure we want it, if you know what I mean. It needs a lot of work."
Carter said he received offers larger than Rosenberg's but rejected them as too low.
"It's not a good offer if it's less than the appraised value," he said. "The land has more value than that."
Carter did not say what his plans for the land would be if the house is torn down. The land's market value is $307,910, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District.
Rosenberg said he has no problem with his offer being rejected as too low. But tearing down the house is unimaginable to him.
"A. Quincy Jones has houses in Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, [Calif.,] and there's this one in Fort Worth, Texas," Rosenberg said. "It's not that I have to have the house. But tearing it down? It's a piece of art. And Fort Worth is such an artistic town."