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Inside a Renowned Landscape Architect’s Elegant, Eccentric Compound in Old East Dallas

Robert Bellamy's World is One of a Kind

BY // 08.04.23
photography Pär Bengtsson

One evening in early June, Robert Bellamy puttered through the gardens, clippers in hand, looking for spent blooms. The delicate climbing roses he had carefully transplanted in winter had begun to migrate across Tower House’s dusky pink stucco exterior, only to unexpectedly wither. The vines would need to come out. Nearby, a hardy hibiscus he planted a year ago — and completely forgotten about — had produced a single ripe bud. Showy red petals unfurled into a dazzling blossom the next morning.

“If you are a gardener, you are always taking out and putting in,” he says. “A garden evolves.”

064 Robert_Bellamy_v23 (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
Robert Bellamy (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Bellamy, a well-known residential landscape architect, has lived on this rambling property in Old East Dallas and cultivated its park-like gardens for more than 40 years. He was 28 years old, a few years out of SMU, and running his own landscaping company when he bought the first parcel of land — about 100 feet of grassy lawn elevated a few feet above the street and set behind a concrete retaining wall. The lot held two big pecan trees and a crumbling 1930s garage apartment, which by the 1980s was the only structure left on this barren stretch of North Prairie Avenue.

The neighborhood had once been elegant and thriving but had since declined. As the story goes, a wealthy businessman and his wife bought much of the block in the early 1900s, building a large Prairie-style house and later constructing similar homes for each of their four daughters. At some point, the main house burned to the ground, and the daughters’ homes eventually became derelict and were bulldozed. The street has been mostly vacant since.

The idea that Bellamy would spend a lifetime on North Prairie Avenue was inconceivable to him at the time — but one he later found grounding, he says. His parents had grown up a couple of streets away, and although they moved to Highland Park after they married to raise a family, Old East Dallas had always been in his DNA. Bellamy slowly turned the garage apartment into a quirky stone cottage for himself, and over the next few decades, he bought several adjoining properties — about an acre in total.

069 Robert_Bellamys_House_v14 (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
A 1930s garage apartment was converted into this garden cottage in the 1980s. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

“As I bought new property, I’d build new structures or a stone wall,” he says. “I had incredible stonemasons from Mexico who could build anything. If I found a cool old window or door somewhere, that would inspire me to build something new. So, there are these little follies everywhere.”

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To help fund his follies, Bellamy waited tables at Strictly Tabu, a legendary dive on the edge of Highland Park that sometimes paid him with furniture. A compound of sorts emerged, peppered with eccentric structures assembled from found materials such as salvaged stone, broken tile, and reclaimed industrial windows. Some are freestanding — a kitchen, a dining room, an orchid room. There are also open-air spaces: a banquette and table tucked into a grassy berm, or the kind of outdoor fireplace Bellamy saw dotting the grounds of villas along the Mediterranean coast, where he spent time. Others are pure whimsy, such as a massive LED light box he reclaimed from One Arts Plaza’s sales center after it closed some 15 years ago, now installed on a manicured stretch of lawn. He planted the gardens with evergreen plum yews, Japanese maples, and topiary boxwoods, sculpted into spheres. Here and there, he’s placed mounds of shimmering blue slag glass, old stone columns, and pots decorated with colorful broken tiles, planted with lavender and pom pom juniper.

“I like layering things, putting a wall around the corner for you to discover, adding surprises to a garden like architectural and other remnants that you might not expect to find,” he says. Slag glass, for instance, is the beautifully colored byproduct of the metal-ore-smelting process, and he’s used it in gardens since the ’80s. Bellamy often brings potential clients here to show them the grounds; many of his clients, such as Jennie Reeves — a gardener herself — have been with him for decades.

Bellamy’s neighborhood has gradually gentrified since the ’80s, with townhouses popping up and raising land values. In 2018, after living in the cramped cottage for 38 years, Bellamy sold a swath of land and put the funds into building a spacious new three-level stucco house, which he designed. The Tower House, as he refers to it, was started at the height of the pandemic and finished last summer. It’s his grandest folly yet.

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The sink in Robert Bellamy’s former tile studio was salvaged from a 1920s estate on Swiss Avenue. He now uses the room as a bar. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Robert Bellamy’s Villa Life

Robert Bellamy’s remarkable compound, starting with the tiny pink stucco garage apartment in the 1980s, was a gradual process that took years to complete. For the garage apartment, he removed the front and enclosed the staircase, creating a tri-level apartment inside. Long before industrial chic was popular in Dallas, he installed heavy metal windows he discovered at a wrecking company and hired late artist Judy DeSanders to create etched-glass panes. DeSanders, whom Bellamy had known since childhood, had created artistic windows for legendary 1980s hangouts 8.0 bar, Tango, and Nostromo.

Inspired by the architecture of Charles Dilbeck, whose eccentric cottages in Highland Park had enchanted him as a child, Bellamy clad the exterior in an artistic jumble of stones, bricks, and architectural elements salvaged from demolished houses in the area.

“Dilbeck’s houses always had brick walls that would go this way and that, and rocks that jumped out at you,” he says. “I couldn’t get over the way he used different materials so well. I loved his work even as a kid.”

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The outdoor fireplace with twisted chimney was inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí’s trencar-style mosaics made from broken tiles. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

Bellamy’s fascination with broken tile and outdoor rooms developed after a stint living in a château in the south of France, studying under the late British garden designer John Brookes, whose public works include the English Walled Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the College Green Garden at Westminster Abbey. “We’d go see all these luxurious Beaux-Arts villas along the Mediterranean, and they all had these little follies, almost dug out of the earth,” Bellamy says.

In Spain, he was enthralled by architect Antoni Gaudí’s trencar mosaics, a process that involves creating shapes by combining broken pieces of tile from ceramic tiles, plates, and cups. He returned home and began incorporating trencar-style mosaics into everything, including an arch made from tile shards over the cottage’s door. He built a tile studio on the property and began making and selling furniture and pots decorated in trencar-style mosaics. Inspired by the follies he’d seen in the South of France, he built a sunken outdoor banquette from old carved-stone capitals and a twisted, Gaudí-esque outdoor fireplace, which he covered in shards of white tile.

“I’d also been to Guatemala and realized how incredible it was to have these houses with green fortresses around them. So, I built a fountain, walls from stone scraps, and planted all around it,” he says. A perimeter of towering red cedars —one, 18 feet tall — shield his property from the street. “The last thing I worried about was getting a permit; you could do whatever you wanted around here [back in the ’80s] because whatever you did was better than what was here, which was nothing.”

robert bellamy old east dallas house landscape architect
The Tower House, completed in 2022, references the Mexico City studio shared by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

When a Door Shuts, a Window Opens

Like many of Robert Bellamy’s follies, the idea for the Tower House started with a window — in this case, 14 metal casement windows a friend was discarding. He sketched out the design with a contractor, coming up with a three-story loft-like structure with one bedroom and an office space. Friends who are Bellamy’s age — he’s now in his late 60s — are downsizing into single-story residences with the idea of aging in place.

“I did the opposite; I supersized and put in two staircases,” he says with a laugh. “But I did what I’d always wanted to do, so that was rewarding.”

143 Robert_Bellamys_House_v20.jpg. KITCHEN. SEND OUIT (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)
This kitchen with a pizza oven was constructed from salvaged stone elements and is now enclosed. The chopping block is from a client’s former house, and the blue metal counter is repurposed from a shop on Riverfront. The salvaged window was reconfigured to prop open so he can serve guests. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

To reference the original cottage next door, he had the exterior covered in similar dusky pink stucco and replaced some of the windowpanes with textured glass. As he had more windows than he needed, a few were repurposed into doors. While this structure is more refined than the others on the compound, much of it was constructed with scraps and collected materials. For his bathroom, he used encaustic tiles he’s been “saving forever” and big travertine panels from a marble company going out of business. Slabs of black basalt salvaged from a razed building downtown were used to create a fireplace surround. The kitchen island is made from a wood door from a long-demolished restaurant on Fairmount Street, which he’d previously been using in his outdoor kitchen.

“There are bits and pieces of Dallas all over this house,” he says. He enlisted help from local artisans corralled over the years to work on various projects for clients. “I used my glass guy, my metal guy, my tile guy, my stucco guy. It was a nice blending of the teams.”

The Tower House gives off an earthy Mexico City vibe with its faded pink stucco and climbing New Dawn roses. Bellamy has spent time there, too, where he was inspired to model his new house after the studio shared by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

robert bellamy old east dallas house landscape architect
The round antique-glass window in Robert Bellamy’s bedroom slants inward like a garret apartment in Paris. Artwork by Ben Reynolds, Guatemalan coverlet from Garza Marfa. Side table made from a Japanese maple trunk. (Photo by Pär Bengtsson)

There’s a timeless quality to Robert Bellamy’s house. “It’s the windows that make it look like it’s always been here,” he says. The massive windows he’s talking about — no easy task to install — are variously angled toward the inside or outside, depending on the view Bellamy wants to emphasize. The round antique-glass window in his bedroom on the top floor slants inside and reminds him of a romantic garret apartment in Paris. It looks down over the original cottage, where he spent four decades of his life. He’s ambivalent about the change.

“It feels aimless in a way,” he says. “I’ve created this Fabergé egg that’s so pretty and has so much of me in it, and I come home and put the latch on and look out the windows at the lawn; except for what happens in the seasons, the gardens won’t change. There’s nothing left to build.”

Yet, this newfound free time has given him a fresh start. “I have more reason to get up and travel now,” he says, and maybe spend more time at his house in Marfa. Recently an artist friend began using the bottom floor of the cottage as her studio. Bellamy’s job now, as he sees it, is to keep the garden thriving. “I like to give life to things,” he says.

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