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Another Time and Place: The Dallas Arboretum’s DeGolyer House

Experience the grandeur of the 1940s with a visit to the newly restored home.
By Laura Kostelny |
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photography by Manny Rodriguez

Another Time and Place: The Dallas Arboretum’s DeGolyer House

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The renovation at the Dallas Arboretum’s Camp House was nearing completion in 2005. Emily Summers Design Associates had been working on the construction and interior appointment project since 2003. But Summers’ work was far from over. At the Camp House celebratory dinner, Margaret McDermott turned to the designer and said, “Now we must get started on the DeGolyer.” McDermott was referring to the DeGolyer home, also on the grounds of the Arboretum. The house was of special interest to the longtime Dallas philanthropist. She had been very close to the DeGolyer family, and they actually hosted a party for her there the night before her wedding. Built in the late 1930s, the house had seen a lot of living—30 years of family life, and after that, public tours, parties, and corporate events. It’s little wonder that the house needed some serious time and attention.

A little history: E.L. DeGolyer—or “De,” as he was known—was a renaissance man. People always say that, but this guy really was. Born in 1886, he became one of the leaders in oil and gas exploration, inventing a scientific method for finding oil. He was known as the “father of geophysical exploration,” and he was an incredibly wealthy man before he even finished college. But business wasn’t his only interest. He owned the Saturday Review of Literature. He also amassed one of the largest private libraries on Spanish Colonial America in the world. He met his wife, Nell, at the University of Oklahoma. The couple and their children built Rancho Encinal, the Spanish Colonial overlooking White Rock Lake, in 1939. “They moved into the house in their middle age,” Arboretum president and CEO Mary Brinegar says. “They knew exactly what they wanted.” The house boasted many unusual amenities for the time—the first air conditioning in Dallas, large closets, screened-in doors, and drop ceilings, to name a few. The DeGolyers lived and entertained there the rest of their lives. After the death of Nell DeGolyer in 1972, the couple’s children donated the estate to Southern Methodist University. The city of Dallas later purchased it, and since then, it has become a staple on the Arboretum tour and a choice party place. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But, as mentioned, by 2006, it needed some help, and after McDermott’s call to arms, the troops began to mobilize. Gloria McCall Sneed managed the fundraising. Emily Summers created conceptual drawings, and they were showcased to potential donors. Ann Abernathy did an extensive study in order to assess the state of the house. “After the study, we learned that there was extensive work to be done,” Brinegar says. “We fixed everything. Redid floors, refinished, repainted.”

Kristen Weeks of Emily Summers Design Associates was brought in to execute Summers’ vision. The first thing everyone noticed: the place was dark. “The Arboretum had purchased inexpensive torchiere lights to bring in some light, but they were completely inappropriate for the space,” Weeks says. The design team began looking for lighting solutions. They opted for ivory to brighten the walls and make them a bit more reflective. “We also added more table and floor lamps to every room. There are a few places where we were able to add additional sconces and pendants with approval from the Texas Historical Commission,” she says. Dark rugs and drapes were also replaced with lighter, fresher colored items.

Light aside, the biggest challenge was probably money. “We had to furnish the house a room at a time,” Brinegar says. “We’d get a chair or a settee, refurbish a sideboard, order a custom rug, thanks to a donor.” Weeks adds: “When we did have a little extra money, we really tried to make the details important. If we could save money on the overall fabric for a sofa, we would put pillows with beautiful stitching or add a trim to the bottom of a chair skirt. Emily is always really strong in this area—not skimping on the details.” The design team also brought in a number of local artisans ranging from embroiderers and iron workers to leather workers and furniture restorers.

Lucky for the design team, they didn’t have to buy a lot of furniture. Many of the furnishings are original to the house. But that didn’t always make things easy. “Some of those pieces were in rooms that aren’t currently on the tour,” Weeks explains. “It was difficult to find an appropriate space for them in a room that was on the tour. Some pieces just fit right in because they were original to those spaces. Our intent was to bring the rooms as close to the original furniture plans as possible—while keeping in mind the tours and event rental.” 

Years of fundraising, hard work, and problem solving have paid off. And unlike most projects we highlight in D Home, you can actually see this one for yourself. Summers certainly encourages it. “I just want to bring people here to see the restoration of this grand place,” she says. Brinegar bristles when asked about her role in the transformation. “I’m simply a facilitator,” she says. She’d rather talk about why people should visit. “It’s a great home for touring. It’s a celebration of what life was like in the heyday of entertaining.”

Flowers by Haile Wossen

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