Posted Wednesday, May. 08, 2013
All the money along Texas' central Gulf Coast seems to have blown to Rockport.
Corpus Christi looks aged and brittle. Port Aransas has suffered so many years of spring break abuse, it might never revive. But Rockport, once a sleepy fishing village, is now the moneyed hub of seaside activity. The town, with fewer than 10,000 residents, is thrumming with the sounds of new construction. Even the flocks of noisy seabirds that are in constant circulation overhead can't drown the sounds of earth-moving equipment.
Along South Austin Street, the town's main drag, are the requisite art galleries, cafes, clothing emporiums and restaurants that thrive on tourist dollars. They all look quite healthy. For years, Rockport has been a summertime getaway for North Texans; now it is a year-round destination and permanent home for some, as well.
It is where car dealer Allen Samuels and his wife, Donna, chose to set down their retirement roots. Samuels was born in Grapevine but spent his Wonder Bread years in Fort Worth.
The two met in Acapulco in 1986. She had taken her children there for spring break, and Allen was attending a Chrysler convention. They have traipsed across Texas building car dealerships, and each move took them closer and closer to the coast. Eventually it seemed inevitable. This is where they were meant to be.
On a stretch of land bordered by canals and an unobstructed view of the Intracoastal Waterway, they planned their perfect house. Design and construction took six years.
The palm tree-lined drive-up to the two-story Mediterranean-style home suggests an ample-size house, but there is nothing that prepares the visitor for the enormous scale of the foyer and the living room beyond. From the front door, the entry and living room stretch to lobby-sized proportions. An 18-foot chandelier hangs from a hand-painted rotunda and is almost dwarfed in the 43-foot-tall entry. A staircase swirls to the second level and the gold-hued Syrian stone floor gleams like summer sunshine.
From the entry, it is obvious that the house has opened like a fan, with the rooms arching across the back, all featuring large floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the water.
The living room has multiple seating areas. It is the only gathering area for a large group inside the home; outside are a number of seating areas, around the saltwater pool, and upstairs on an enormous patio that has the outdoor kitchen and trophy wall for Allen's big catches.
But inside, there is just this large gathering spot right off the kitchen.
The Samuelses do a lot of entertaining. With nine kids between them, six of his from an earlier marriage and three of hers, plus two dozen grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, they entertain their family in shifts. With all the family and friends, visitors begin arriving in April and continue in a steady stream until the end of October, when Allen and Donna get a short break until the winter holidays, when all their children come back for a Christmas visit.
The couple had to have a large house -- and this one is, at 11,000 square feet.
"I had a budget," Donna says.
"We went over it by five or six times," says Allen, almost ruefully.
"It was appraised for $10 million, and that's not counting the interior furnishings," says Donna. "That's not what we had in mind."
"Now I can't retire," Allen says.
On a gusty spring day in April, he sits on the edge of a chair in his expansive living room, dressed for work and coiled with energy. At 80, he plays tennis every morning after a 30-minute workout. He is wearing his daily uniform of suit pants and a crisp white dress shirt with several gold-capped pens in his front pocket. Should anyone need a deal signed at a moment's notice, he is ready.
He insists on always looking like management. He demands this same uniform of all the sales people in his 17 car dealerships that stretch across Texas, from Fort Worth to his newest, in Aransas Pass.
"You won't find anyone else down here in this area wearing a white shirt and tie," he says. "They say, 'Why do you do that?' I say, 'Because you need to be able to tell the players from the spectators.'"
Allen peppers his conversation with motivational maxims from experience well earned. He is a self-made man, building his empire of car dealerships, slowly picking them up one by one, often from the unenlightened sons or grandsons of successful forebears who did all the hard work and then bequeathed the real estate but not the life lessons.
"Do not hire family" is another one of his business tips. Even though he had seen the damage that could come from helping the offspring, he, too, wanted to help his. It doesn't work. "The worse thing you can do for a child is give them something instead of making them earn it," he says.
He began earning his way as a child in Fort Worth. He had a newspaper route and, on weekends, would help deliverymen for Boswell Dairies.
"I was 10 or 11, and they would pay me 50 cents a day," he says. "One of the drivers covered the west side of Fort Worth, delivering to Westover Hills. On his route, I would take these metal racks of milk bottles into the big mansions where the Carters and the Basses lived. They all had these big walk-in coolers with sides of meat and trays of eggs. I was so impressed, I thought, 'One of these days when I get rich, I'm gonna have a walk-in refrigerator.'"
Now he does. The back wall of the large kitchen pantry looks like a bank vault; it's the metal door to the walk-in. No sides of meat, though, just cases of beer and bottles of wine for the influx of visitors that will soon arrive.
The families are parceled out among the four guest bedrooms known by their predominant color. There is the coral room, upstairs and facing the street, and the three ground-floor guest rooms that all have a view of the water -- the terra-cotta room, the blue room and the green room, also called the Tommy Bahama room by interior designer Doug Salzman, owner of Dallas' Top Drawer Interiors, who has worked with the Samuelses on their homes in Waco and Arlington, on a Richland Chambers lake house and now their last and only home in Rockport.
"He knows our taste," says Donna.
"They've kept me happy over the years," says Salzman. He began each of the bedrooms' color schemes with exotic marbles and onyx for the countertops in the adjoining bathrooms. The richly colored veins in the stone dictated the color of the walls, the tile work and the fabric choices. Neither he nor the Samuelses seem afraid of color.
While the living room tends toward neutrals, the more intimate spaces and the artwork and glass objets throughout the house are quite colorful. There are paintings by Anthony Pettera and Barbara Goldstein, a wall display of glass roundels by Seattle-based artist Robert Kaindl and a bronze sculpture of dancers by Penny Collins in the enormous entry hall. Even some of the glass mosaic work in the bathrooms is made by artisans -- such as the sunflowers over the tub in the master bathroom that was handmade in Italy by Sicis.
All of the woodwork, including the cabinetry, closet interiors, the piano and even Allen's fishing rod cabinet in a room dedicated to his favorite pastime, is mahogany. The hardy wood known for its resilience to moisture and rot is perfect for the setting, but a larger threat often appears on the horizon.
It is impossible not ask the Samuelses about the threat of hurricanes. Do they worry?
The house is built to Dade County, Fla., hurricane specifications, Allen says. As the Samuelses are located in an unincorporated area, there are no guidelines, so he found the most stringent codes possible and instructed Rockport-based builder Albert Johnson to follow the demands of Dade County.
To make it as impervious as possible to high wind and fierce tides, the house sits on 101 piers that are sunk 41 feet deep, "and we are already 14.5 feet above sea level," Allen says. "So if there was a tide surge that washed out under the house, we'd have a heck of a boat house."
The foundation could support a 10-story building -- he says that is why the house cost so much to build. If threats of hideous weather did shake their confidence in the structural integrity, Donna says they would decamp to Dallas or Fort Worth, where many of their children live.
Or they might build another house to be near their family, but not immediately.
"Maybe in 10 years," says Donna.
"Or 20," says Allen.
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