A House Of Gilt In University Park

A Dallas couple builds a family house around their extensive collection of 17th- and 18th-century architectural elements and antiques.

HIGH RELIEF: (Below) The Stevens found this carved oak piece over the door transom in one of Napoleon and Josephine’s outbuildings at Chateau St. Cloud, just outside Paris. It was covered in cement, which took six weeks to remove. The putti (carved cherubim) is more decorative than symbolic. • (Left) This exquisite painted and parcel gilt 18th-century Italian door separates the Stevens’ bedroom from their master bath. The silver gilding is gold in appearance, which is common for a piece of this age and provenance; over time, the glaze or varnish picks up soot, turns yellow, and loses its silvery luster but is beautiful, nonetheless.


Gold Standard

Shelley and David Stevens created a house of gilt in University Park and, oh, how they live it.

Your best bet, if you want to catch David Stevens all dressed up, is to ask to see a family photograph; there is on record a picture of him wearing a tuxedo, standing (and smiling) next to his wife Shelley, at a local gala. To say that David is unconcerned with formalities would be an understatement, which is why if you met him for the first time and followed him home, you would be doing a private “huh?” as you pulled up to his very grand-looking Louis XIVstyle French chateau in University Park.

LOCAL FIND: Not all of the Stevens’ treasures were purchased in Europe. These 18th-century Italian, probably Venetian, painted and parcel gilt doors were acquired in Dallas. The curved arch over the door was an adaptation created in Orion’s atelier. Flanking the door on the left is a Louis XIV rognon, a kidney-shaped table; on the right is an Italian bronze winged putti console.

David and Shelley, an equally charming and affable character, are just that way: they are constitutionally incapable of putting on airs, yet they surround themselves with 100- and 200-year-old European architectural fragments and furniture. That they deal in antiquities is not completely unexpected (they own Orion Antique Importers), but how they live with these objects “that is, with utter ease “coupled with their knowledge of and passion for history, is quite remarkable.

First: the house. If the Stevens do things in an unexpected manner, it’s not surprising that they did not follow the typical homeowner timeline: buy a house and then fill it up with beautiful objects. They spent the first few decades of their marriage scouring Italy and France for beautiful objects—doors, fireplace surrounds, cabinets, mirrors, and columns “and then, and only then, decided to think about a house where they might install these treasures. From our earliest days as newlyweds we bought important antiques and architectural pieces as anniversary gifts—from Italy, France, and other dealers here in the United States—and stored it all until we were ready to start building ‘the perfect house, Shelley says. We picked out the columns and the doors years before we owned the dirt to build on.

FINE DINING: The original Italian Empire walnut dining table, made in 1790, was too small for entertaining, so the Stevens had 12 walnut leaves made to lengthen it. The beechwood chairs are from the period of Louis XVI. David and Shelley bought the set of 10 chairs at an auction; they reputedly were previously owned by Gloria Vanderbilt. The tapestry is restored and rewoven. The floors are oak parquet, recovered from a 19th-century chateau. • (Below) The focal point of the coffered dining room ceiling is a wall panel that sustained fire damage years ago. The Stevens found it in an 18th-century French chateau, and, where the damage was irreparable, had the carvings recreated and incorporated in such a way that the naked eye cannot detect where the original ends and the newly carved portion begins.

The Stevens had collected so many pieces that it was impractical to consider anything but new construction. “We knew how many rooms we wanted, and what we wanted in each room,” Shelley says.

The Stevens’ architect, Stephen Chambers, worked with them to install their anything-but-standard-sized fireplace surrounds and 9-and-a-half-foot doors with curved wooden arches. The fact that they had all of these elements before the house was drawn up, rather than installing them as an afterthought, made the process more economical in the long run. Nevertheless, installing gigantic cast-iron doors and fireplaces that weigh 20 tons requires foresight, patience, and a flexible budget.

While some of the pieces hover near museum-quality, the atmosphere in the Stevens household is hardly hush-hush. A family of four—the two daughters are college students; one is fluent in French and the other in Italian and Spanish—have always immersed themselves in European history and art. They live with it breezily; one is as likely to see a sleeping dog or a soccer ball on the floor as an 18th-century tapestry. This is a family home, resonating with personal history, 1940s jazz on the stereo, cut bougainvillaea from the garden, Shelley chopping vegetables (for a killer gazpacho) in the kitchen, and books on every subject, as well as a gilded vibe of architectural history.

At a glance, it is difficult to give a date to the Stevens’ house because every inch of crown molding was custom-cut to replicate the edge of a cornice from an 18th-century French armoire they both admired. (In fact, the house is only eight years old.) The kitchen floor is slab granite, salvaged from the original Dallas Times-Herald building. The doors—all of them—are original to a European chateau or villa. Second-century Roman marble columns in the back courtyard were excavated from Southern France. The Stevens personally brought back the two columns, in six pieces weighing 3 tons each, and when University Park police saw the mountainous artifacts trucking down Amherst Street, they nearly arrested the two for contraband.

Although most people do not have the luxury of owning 17th- and 18th-century architectural elements, the lesson is not lost on even the most humble homeowner: architectural details can give even the most banal structure character and importance. What the Stevens show us best, however, is that regardless of what we have to work with materially, the idea is not just to create houses, but to create houses we can actually call home.

GILDED BLISS: The master bedroom, which you enter via one of the 18th-century
Venetian doors, is filled not only with exquisite antiques but also piles of books and photographs. The gilded piece is ecclesiastical, a hinged altar entrance panel that was reconfigured into a headboard. On the bedside table is a marble bust of Diana;
hanging above is an 18th-century Italian verre églomisé mirror. Paintings in the Stevens’ collection range from American impressionist to Parisian flea market finds.


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