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This Couple Couldn’t Find the Perfect Old Home in Dallas. So They Built Their Own.

Cameron and Anabel Atkinson hired Ellen Grasso & Sons to build a new Highland Park home that looks like it’s been there for a hundred years.
By Ryan Conner |
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Dining Room Entryway with Heirlooms
In the dining room, family heirloom 19th-century Italian chairs are paired with a circa-1800 George III dining table, which was purchased from Wolf Hall Antique Collective. An Italian antique chandelier from Karla Katz Antiques in New Orleans hangs above. Nathan Schroder

This Couple Couldn’t Find the Perfect Old Home in Dallas. So They Built Their Own.

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When Cameron and Anabel Atkinson were relocating from Nashville eight years ago and looking for a Dallas home to suit their family, they knew one thing for sure: They wanted an old house. “I love all the character with  which they come,” Anabel says. They searched high and low for a property they could renovate, and even came close to purchasing a Hal Thompson–designed beauty in Highland Park.

When that fell through, they decided to build a new home that would feel like an established one. “They wanted the older traditional home without the older traditional home problems,” says builder Clay Grasso of Ellen Grasso & Sons Custom Homes.  

Anabel hired Nashville-based architect Catherine Tracy Sloan to draw up the plans. “Her tagline is building ‘new-old’ houses. And we really wanted to stay true to that,” Anabel says. That plan included a screened-in porch, hidden hallways, formal rooms, only one open-concept living space, and crown molding. Grasso and Anabel worked together on every detail—down to the antique-style Forbes & Lomax toggle light switches—to make sure they honored the aesthetic of a historic estate the likes of which one might find in Virginia or upstate New York. 

The Atkinsons enlisted Dallas designer Brianna Wright and tasked her with filling the home with antiques, chintz fabrics, and family heirlooms, all while keeping the space fresh and fun for the young family. “We like a lot of color and pattern, and texture, too,” says Anabel. Wright honed her design philosophy in the years she spent working for Ann Schooler, the local doyenne of traditional European design. “I’m a maximalist, and I made [Anabel] more of one,” Wright says. “The layers are what are hard to achieve. She and I were interested in having a home that felt like she had collected these items.”  

But filling a home with antiques is one thing; making sure it is livable and lively is another. “She loves color, and I love color. And I think if you love a traditional home, that’s how you make it young,” says Wright. For instance, in the entry, they chose a hand-painted Gracie wallpaper but paired it with pops of acid yellow and trim painted in Farrow & Ball “Dix Blue.” In the dining room, a bright contemporary wall sculpture by Didem Yagci hangs near the circa-1800 George III dining table, a 19th-century English Regency sideboard, and an antique Italian chandelier. The children’s rooms feature layers of Sister Parish–inspired patterns and fabrics coexisting with modern moments, such as a hanging swing and bubble-gum pink accents.  

Anabel’s dedication to the “new-old home” design credo is noticeable all over the two-story colonial-style house, from the scale of the rooms to the varying ceiling heights. She even opted for board paneling in lieu of drywall in the bathrooms. (“Anabel was always true to the cause,” says Wright.) The vaulted and paneled primary bedroom is a shining example of the team’s commitment to the aesthetic. The room is painted in a light glaze to emulate an 18th-century home: “Back then, they’d have a fireplace lit. So the walls would be a slightly different color, due to the smoke,”
explains Wright.  

And despite the fact that the home is not yet two years old, it still inherited some idiosyncrasies expected in a much older home. To Anabel’s great delight, their front door won’t open without a special “trick turn” of the knob. “It’s as though its been here for 114 years,” she says.

In With Thee Old

For the Atkinson house, builder Clay Grasso used very specific materials and methods to achieve the home’s historic aesthetic. “[Designer] Brianna [Wright] and I spent a lot of time working together to come up with the molding details, the paneling details, and the detail on the stair balusters. Everything was thought through,” says Grasso. Here are some takeaways for how to achieve the look.

  1. Think about the exterior details. The Atkinsons chose a true cedar siding so that they could achieve the architectural look of a home that has been in Highland Park for decades. “The cedar siding is not something you see much of anymore. Within the last 20 years, you have seen a big shift to cement-based products like Hardie board and Masonite products,” Grasso explains.
  2. Vary the ceiling heights. “Different ceiling heights looks like a house that has been remodeled over the years,” says Grasso. For instance, the hallway from the entry to the family room is only 8 feet tall, which gives the sense that the living spaces could have been added on at some point.
  3. Create patina with texture and paint.  In the laundry room, Vigini Paint and Design created the octagon-patterned blue floors. “The idea is that the paint will get worn and you’ll see the stained floors underneath,” says Grasso.
  4. Select period-specific windows and doors.  “We went with lower heights on doors and windows, like an older-style house would have. Their door is 7 feet tall, whereas most new builds install an 8- to 10-foot door,” says Grasso. They also chose double-hung windows instead of casement windows, another detail that makes the home appear as if it was built in the early 1900s.


Ryan Conner

Ryan Conner

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