Architect Scott Martsolf agreed to do a renovation project for a friend from his church that was supposed to be a relatively small job. With their four children launched, the friend and his wife wanted a little reconfiguration done on their Fort Worth home.
They planned to entertain more, so there were some spatial needs that had to be addressed.
Four years later, the job is finished. What began as a little renovation turned into a full house rebuild. It went beyond down-to-the-studs. Once the demolition began, it was apparent there were some serious structural problems to the original house that had been exacerbated by water.
The house sat on a hill, with a 37-foot grade between the front and the back: Water had not been channeled away from the house and years of moisture buildup had severely compromised the structure.
An entirely new house, in a new location, was briefly considered but, ultimately, they decided there was too much history to walk away from the troubles. Three of the family’s four children had been married or had wedding receptions in the backyard. This wasn’t just a house; it was a family home.
So the family moved out, the soggy house and parts of the crumbling foundation were scraped off the hillside and Martsolf began anew.
He enlisted the help of builder Dan Whiffin and interior designer Sally White, and this team of three orchestrated a miracle. The result is a house with so many subtle perfections that it would be difficult to highlight them all.
For inspiration, the clients had handed over a brochure for a Mexican resort and said, “This is what we like.” It was contemporary — as was their last house — except the resort suggested a more organic undulating line rather than a series of stacked white boxes. And the husband requested windows, telling Martsolf he could not put in enough windows to make him happy.
Armed with his brief and succinct instructions, “a contemporary with windows,” Martsolf began the design work. Soon, it became apparent the clients had many more ideas.
Now that it is finished, it meets the contemporary checklist while incorporating details and configurations that challenged the architect, builder and interior designer. And everyone is quite happy with the outcome.
From the street level, there is little sense of the magnitude of the home. It tumbles down the hill, and only from the back can its true size be appreciated. There are four kitchens in this house. Four. The main kitchen is gargantuan, because both husband and wife love to cook, and there’s a caterer’s kitchen just off the dining room — to make things easier when entertaining. But, there’s also an outdoor kitchen and another on the lowest level, near the wine cellar, wine-tasting room and guest rooms.
The main kitchen has a larder — so called to distinguish it from a paltry pantry — that is a refrigerated room, the size of a large walk-in closet, fully stocked with delicacies. There is a stainless-steel wall that houses a refrigerator, freezer, warming drawers and a microwave. It is sleek and almost seamless. Massing all these appliances on one wall really helps give the kitchen a streamlined appearance.
There are multiple dishwashers, since parties for 100 are not uncommon. The number of potential guests also necessitates a large foyer, plenty of room in the kitchen and a long seating area in the bar area in between, as these are the locations where people tend to congregate.
White, Whiffin and Martsolf met weekly during the building process, addressing one area or room at a time. This attention to detail and the way the areas would be used, and the number of people expected, created a cohesive whole and ensured that each room would be built to the exacting standards of the owners and reflect the scrutiny of the team. White designed new furniture for the home rather than order it from Italy, where you find most of the world’s best contemporary designs.
“I had it made because the owners are so particular,” she says. “And you often can’t get custom colors or sizes from Italy.”
She cites the morning room sectional as one particular challenge. The room is configured in a trapezoid shape and the sofa needed to mimic the angles of the room. “I had to draw a template to get that angle right and have the sofa custom-made,” she says. If she had relied on a foreign manufacturer, she wouldn’t have been able to oversee the production and, if it had arrived and not worked, it could not have been returned.
There is also a substantial savings having it made locally, she says. William & Wesley Co. in Dallas made more than 20 furniture designs to her specifications, and that is counting the dining room chairs as one design.
“Sally knows where to spend the money and where to save it,” says Martsolf.
Often she would tweak what the owners were bringing from the old house. The dining room table, for instance, seats 16 easily. Originally, it had heavy turned legs that posed a problem for additional chairs, so White had the legs removed and replaced with two Warren Platner wire bases. This gave the heavy antique table a sleek look and allows additional seating when needed. Upstairs, it’s all about accommodating large numbers of guests.
Downstairs, at the bottom of the curved stainless steel staircase — one of Martsolf’s major challenges — are the family-centric rooms. There’s a game room, card room, media room for a dozen people, guest bedrooms, the roomy wine-tasting room with a table that seats six, a library with a grand piano and the aforementioned gargantuan kitchen.
Here, also, are some beloved pieces of heirloom furniture. They are not at all contemporary but were reupholstered to fit with the aesthetic of the library. White understands that not everything can be new, and families have emotional ties to pieces that may not jibe with their design preferences.
Some of Whiffin’s touches are the seamless finishes to walls. He recesses air vent covers, and finishes walls to a museum-grade smoothness, the highest available in gypsum board finishes. The doors have no surrounds and the hinges are invisible, so only the door handles and stops can be seen. The door stops also are commercial grade, in keeping with the contemporary style of the home.
“Dan is a perfectionist, I don’t know anyone else who had the patience for this,” Martsolf says.
There were hidden vexations with this project that no one expected. In the foyer, for example, a three-part chandelier by New Zealand-based designer Jeremy Cole required each porcelain blade to be inserted individually, but there were no instructions. It took two weeks to assemble.
Then there were the usual considerations of building a contemporary home. Without any trim or moldings, everything has to be perfect. “When you build a contemporary home, you can’t make mistakes,” says Whiffin. “The littlest mistake is going to show up at the end. There is no margin for error.”
He adds: “If you look at every door, you’ll see there is no casing; the jamb is hidden, the hardware, recessed and invisible. You don’t see a hinge on the outside or on the inside.”
Whiffin says the framing of this house was “a huge challenge” that took a crew of 18-20 workers almost a full year to complete. But, there was an upside to the challenges of building this kind of house. While the owner was quite particular and asked for numerous changes during construction, his requests often stretched the contractors’ abilities. They were challenged by the job and felt an ownership that doesn’t usually happen.
“Everyone that was involved was attached to it — emotionally attached,” says Whiffin. “This promoted a real can-do attitude. I think that when a job comes along that is challenging, it draws you in. It becomes important that it not only looks good, but that is has quality.”