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Real Estate / Home + Design

The Ultimate Country House

French Manor By Round Top Brings Style to the Fields

BY // 10.02.15
photography Tim Street-Porter

Out here, Eleanor Cummings wakes up at the crack of dawn. “The first thing I do is open my shutters and watch the sun rise over the field,” says the Houston interior designer, who built this second home four miles outside of Round Top in Winedale in 2008. “Then I go downstairs and make coffee and watch the sun rise over the east from the living room and the screened-in porch.”

This simple routine brings enormous pleasure. “The house is surrounded by fields, and I like watching the morning activity,” she says of the area’s many migratory birds that pass through the open meadows. One Easter, she arrived at the house to discover that a coastal bird had built a nest in the gravel drive. “The eggs were a gorgeous pale blue,” she says — her favorite color, and one similar to what she’s used as an accent for the interiors. Cummings has forgotten the name of the bird, which a friend later identified for her, “but it was dark gray with an Hermès orange ring around the neck,” she says.

After placing fire logs around the nest to protect it, she and her overnight guests “spent the weekend on bird watch,” noting how the female would fly away at night and the male would sit on the nest until morning. Hearing Cummings talk about her house and the wildlife that populates the acreage — she’s seen coyotes in the fields, snakes and scorpions in the pool drains — is made all the more fascinating by her sumptuous drawl, acquired while growing up in rural Georgia.

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Cummings discovered Round Top when she moved to Houston in the 1980s. “Back then, all you could get in Houston were American antiques,” she recalls, so she began frequenting the semi-annual Round Top Antiques Fair to buy pieces for her clients. “It’s really evolved since then. When Marburger opened up 10 or 15 years ago, it was Katy bar the door. Things got insane.”

The Marburger Farm Antique show is known to have the best goods from top dealers, while hundreds of other dealers come from all across the country to set up in the fields in Round Top and neighboring Warrenton, Carmine and Shelby. Cummings still shops Round Top, often going 10 days before it opens to scout new vendors setting up in Warrenton, one of her favorite areas for good rugs, antique stools, ikat pillows and oversized white ceramic water pitchers with hard-to-find flat tops.

“At Warrenton you never know who’ll be selling there. I’ll often go when I’m working on a French or soft modern house. If I see something fabulous, I’ll buy it and hold it until I find a place for it.”

The crowds of vendors, shoppers and second-home owners have almost squeezed out any available land in Round Top proper, putting tiny communities like Winedale on the map for those hunting land to buy. Cummings fell in love with Winedale, which is located four miles from Round Top, while visiting Houston interior designer Beverly Jacomini, who also has a second home there. “I made up my mind that I was building a house there,” says Cummings, who started her search for land in 2006. “It had to be off a dirt road with a huge setback so that you couldn’t see the house. I wanted it flat in the middle of a field. It took me a long time to find it.”

When she found the perfect spot, she enlisted the help of architect Kirby Mears, who had done a French manor-style house for a friend that she admired. “I liked how it was on one great slab and then went up,” she says. “I wanted something simple and straightforward with French drains and no gutters. I wasn’t looking for typical Round Top country style.”

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Mears’ design for Cumming’s house includes a classic French mansard roof, but instead of tile, he’s used standing-seam metal, in the long tradition of Texas vernacular architecture. “The sun is so brutal out here, the standing-seam roof really holds up,” says Cummings.

Inside, the materials are just as elegantly practical. In lieu of reclaimed hardwoods — a choice she was seriously considering — she left the concrete sub-flooring through much of the house and painted it pale gray. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret. “The maintenance on this house is really easy,” she says. “I have four grandchildren, and when they come over, there’s always dogs involved, so concrete really works.” There are pinefl oors in the kitchen and upstairs bedrooms, and natural limestone floors in the screened-in porch, Cumming’s favorite hangout. “We use it a lot more than we thought we ever would, all year-round. We have fans in there, and it gets a great cross breeze. In the summer, we eat all our meals out there.”

An exposed support column made of stacked stone in the screened-in porch pays homage to historic Texas Hill Country architecture, and a 19th-century French limestone fireplace sourced from Chateau Domingue stands sentry in the living room. Floor-to-ceiling shutters instead of window coverings keep the look streamlined. “Shutters make it easy to adjust the amount of light coming in the room, because this house gets a lot of intense light,” she says.

Awash in soothing pale gray, white and linen hues, a simple 115-year-old French orchard table in the dining room, a once battered chaise longue in the bedroom that Cummings recovered in linen and a 19th-century Swedish cupboard from Found in the living room that houses the TV, impart a sense of place. In the mix are a smattering of newer pieces, such as dining room chairs from Restoration Hardware slipcovered in Schumacher fabric and a mid-century brass and leather vanity stool in the bedroom. Many of the accessories are from years of hunting at Round Top.

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An old French pastry table serves as a center island in the kitchen, which stays drenched in sunlight from a bank of large windows and glass French doors. “We eat in there a lot,” says Cummings, who admits she rarely cooks except for the occasional peach cobbler. “But my children cook all the time here, or we go out. Round Top has gotten so fancy, there are four restaurants nearby now.”

What started out as a solitary retreat from Houston has evolved into a boisterous weekend and holiday house, regularly filled with friends and family, which is how Cummings prefers it. “This weekend, there’s a huge festival in Winedale, and I have friends from Houston and Austin coming. Every bed in the house is taken,” she says of the four bedrooms that include a bunk room with six twin beds.

Does she ever envision herself trading the city for quiet country life? “Lord no, like my son tells me, I have to have my neon lights,” she says.

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