Tour opens doors of Chiles house, where presidents and kings once stayed

Built in 1966, the former Westover Hills home of Fran and the late Eddie Chiles captures the light and shadow of its garden setting through glass walls that transform the views into framed art. Light flows through skylights, reflects off walls and filters into interior courtyards, creating a sense of movement that belies the solidity of the travertine tile, the massive doors, the flanks of fossil-imprinted stone. Thanks to this play of light, even were it empty, the home would never be the same house twice. Fill it with furniture, decor and art reflecting the vision of 19 area designers, and the Historic Fort Worth 2010 Showhouse lights up with another sort of magic -- sometimes swank and often swell good fun.

A fine example of a midcentury modern house can be the architectural equivalent of a haiku: a vibrancy within the lines of the construction intensifies with contemplation. The poetry in the Chiles home flows from a thoughtful study of the taut geometrical limestone monolith that -- despite its 12,000 square feet -- seems to float above a 3.3-acre garden. But to laud the home, designed by renowned architect A. Quincy Jones, for good bones alone is to damn it with faint praise. This is no been-there-done-that tour home.

The Chiles house is remarkable not only for the architecture of Jones and the original interior design of William Haines and Ted Graber. It is also the first modern home selected by Historic Fort Worth for its biennial designer showcase. Noting that houses built midcentury are often less valued than their large lots, Executive Director Jerre Tracy says this year's showcase home reflects the desire of HFW to explain why this architecture matters. "This was an education opportunity for us," she says. For the designers, it was an opportunity to work with the challenges of scale, give homage to the retro spirit of the home and embrace the givens, such as 12-foot walls of glass, floating counters and mirrors, and subtle Orientalism throughout.

Pulling into the parking court, the first clues that this design showcase is a one-off are the classical urns filled with pyramid stacks of limestone rubble. It is landscape architect Bruce Berger's simple and tranquil homage to the repetitive details of the house's architecture and reminiscent, too, of mani, or Chinese piles of prayer stones.

Along the portico, a broad sweep of travertine rolls to 12-foot walnut doors and on into the house, an illusion of carpet hemmed by parquet. Designers Joe Minton and Paula Lowes have graced this space with giltwood antiques upholstered in off-white silk and architectural antiques from Thai temples. The soft corals and patinaed green accents are a bow to the wow of the original 18th-century Chinese hand-painted wallpaper, the backdrop of foyer and living room. The stunning scene is alive with pheasants and peacocks and butterflies -- emerging from one garden you have entered another.

Big as Texas

It is an amazing feat for a designer to wrestle into submission rooms of Brobdingnagian scale, such as the 45-foot stretch of formal living room that backs up to the foyer and shares its wallpaper. John Bobbitt sought to find a sofa equal to the 12-foot beast originally commissioned by Haines. He met the challenge with an oversized Axel Vervoordt originally shown at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris in the '70s. Its massively relaxing lines and neutral palette offer both comfort and visual relief against the enchanted garden wallpaper. This room is the hub of a MOMA-worthy gallery of large-canvas, big-ticket art, but don't overlook the clockwork base of the sofa table or a cheeky tribute to Michelangelo's The Torment of St. Anthony. Tucked around a corner, the small-scale reproduction of the original drawing (which proved too large for the room) features none other than Disney's iconic Snow White as an understudy for the demon-beleaguered saint.

In the dining room adjacent to the living room, designer Justin Seitz was not intimidated by the proximity of the famed Chinese wallpaper. Instead, he painted his walls with a roiling pattern known as "Lost Worlds Found," inspired by 16th- and 17th-century Japanese screen paintings of floating cities. "The goal was to create a really dramatic, moody foil and then have everything else be very tailored and light and airy ... set into a more traditional environment." Traditional, maybe, but with many a wink and plenty of wit: A turtle fossil stands as a sculptural element before an 18th-century Italian cabinet faced in tortoise shell. The table set for dinner features napkins embroidered with the names of William Haines' most famous clients, Joan Crawford to Ronald Reagan. The hint of trellis work in a Moroccan tribal carpet is a nod to the spirit of the house, but as Seitz says, "What's so fun about Moroccan carpets is that the patterns are pretty much what any drunk person on a Friday night might scribble on a napkin....It's just a crazy design." Maybe, but there's method to the madness here, if you note the subtle repetition of the carpet's geometric shapes in the curtains.

The fun steps up in the bar, a cocktail of retro delights with a dash of whimsy (orange and green gumballs act as a design element) created by designer Danny Lee. The Rat Pack salute features a wall of barware from back in the day, including a red upholstered ice bucket flanked with highball glasses etched with numbers -- as if anyone was counting. It a mini-mise-en-scène that makes you want to sit down with a martini beneath local artist Sarah Green's natty painting of Emma Peel, the stylish Avenger.

Each of the home's floors features a pair of bed and bath suites flanking a sitting room. Known for radio commentaries that opened with "I'm Eddie Chiles, and I'm mad!," Chiles was a man of opinions and might whose bedroom was designed as a manly man lair with a restful, clubby feel. Designer G. Bradley Alford has allowed the view and walnut paneling to take center stage, which isn't to say there isn't a zebra-skin rug in the dressing room.

As a counterpoint to the cool darkness of Eddie's cave, Fran's ivory-painted redwood bedroom has been swathed in neutrals and metallic splashes for a look that is glam and chic. Designers Steve Mayfield, Paula Brown and Nancy Courtney sought to create an updated contemporary blend of vintage and modern. "We wanted it to be a little glitzy, but still elegant and feminine," says Brown. Chinoiserie references are found in accent screens, pagoda mirror and fretwork furniture frames. Retro tweaks include a '50s-era dresser painted white, its originally gold geometric hardware refinished as brushed nickel. There is Hollywood appeal here, with just enough sparkling chrome, Plexiglas and Lucite -- don't overlook the transparent Dancing Flamingos sculpture -- to make you smile. Amidst the gallery of vintage art, Fort Worth artist Matt Clark's highly textural white-on-white painting makes for a smooth connect between past and present.

Not to be missed is Fran's closet, staged by vintage clothes dealer and jewelry designer Tamra Novak with everything from vintage Neiman Marcus catalogs and crocodile shoes to a Pucci pantsuit and Koslow's mink stole.

Famous guests

Downstairs bedrooms have a subterranean feel. The card room between them is walled on one side by the pool and garden view and on the other by a window to the courtyard that appears like a Japanese maple-filled aquarium. The palette of designer Deborah Reed echoes the soft blues and grass greens of the view.

The "Reagan Bedroom," in which the Reagans actually slept (as did the King of Spain and George Steinbrenner, the king of baseball -- Eddie owned the Texas Rangers in the '80s) is perhaps the showcase's purest distillation of the spirit of William Haines' period designs. From the hypnotic calligraphic pattern of the Reagan red Sister Parish and Albert Hadley wallpaper (contrasting curtains canopy the pale-blue lacquer bed) to a reproduction of Haines' iconic, low-profiled "elbow chair," Cathy Kinkaid's comfortably retro design captures the best features of the legendary designer's signature look.

A second downstairs guest suite stands as designer Joe Don Conger's tribal tribute to global design. Conger's design is a study in black and white. "I like strong contrasts," he says, speaking to the color palette of his room, but it is a statement equally applicable to the point-counterpoint of the fabrics and textures in the ethnic folk arts -- Mexican pottery, African headdresses, Egyptian baskets -- he champions. The garden's greens enrobe this room, nature's art framed beyond glass on both sides of the sleeping area and a floor to ceiling window in the dressing area. But it is the view from the bedroom's entry to the garden outside the dressing room that is particularly stellar. "It has it all, the hard lines and the overdone curvilinear lines," Conger says. He pulls both lines together by placing an arching Larry Whitely iron sculpture of a bird in the window; in the illusion, the bird perches in the trees beyond the glass. Conger has blurred the lines between inside and out.

And that, at the end of the day, is what the house is all about.