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All in the Family
Helen Thompson | Photo: Portrait by Ben Garrett | Rooms photographed by Charles David Smith | July 9, 2013
A compound of chic, modern cottages built on a private lake east of Dallas gives two brothers and their families a sense of place.
A weekend retreat is usually synonymous with “escape” but in the case of the Robinson family, their home-away-from-home is where life has meaning. For this outgoing clan of two grandparents, two sons, their wives and two children each, being together is the most fun they can imagine. It’s what their lives are all about.
So when it came time to expand the living arrangements at their weekend retreat—which consisted of a large main house, a bunkhouse that sleeps 12, a private, manmade lake and a swimming pool—they did that together, too, with the help of Dallas architect Bentley Tibbs. The architect was faced with accomplishing two seemingly opposite goals: Make room for more people away from the main house but do it without destroying family unity. “They originally asked me to add on to the main house,” says Tibbs. “Everyone was worried that separate houses would bring a sense of separation.” But Tibbs knew how to ensure that their worries wouldn’t come to pass. What did happen in the project maximized the family’s enjoyment of their compound and the narrative of their personal history. Robby Robinson, 47, and his brother, Ryan, 45, live that history every day. The brothers are principals in Signal Metal, a steel fabrication business started by their father, R.W., in 1973. The brothers work together, and their father (the “chairman emeritus”) joins them daily in the office. The Robinsons have a zest for family life, and there is really no way to overstate the fact. “We are a tight family,” says Robby. The place where being tight coalesces is at their 400-acre compound in Cash, Texas (pop. 56), a farming community 50 miles east of Dallas. The Robinsons have owned the ranch since 1982 when R.W.—who grew up on an Oklahoma farm—decided he needed to have some wide-open space that he could just look at. “We were excited about that,” recalls Robby, “because to us it would be a place where we could ride our dirt bikes and do some target shooting.”
But more than target practice happened there: Nearly every weekend for the past 31 years, the family has cooked and shared meals together, talked around the kitchen table until late at night, wakened at dawn to fish for bass and continually made physical improvements to the spread. They built a 3,500-square-foot, two-bedroom house—steel inside and out, of course—that morphed over the years into a 7,500-square-foot lodge. They’ve built a steel bridge to span the lake they also built. They’ve built fences and a bunkhouse, too. “We’re builders,” says Robby about the obvious. “We like to see something go from nothing to something.”
Fast-forward to a few years ago, when both Robby and his wife, Kelly, and Ryan and his wife, Carrie, had their own children. Even with the bunkhouse, space was in short supply. But something else had happened that wasn’t as quantifiable as head counts. “We began to think of this place as a legacy that would be in our family 100 years from now,” says Robby. And that’s where Tibbs came into the picture. “This is an exuberant family,” says Tibbs, who had worked with Robby and Kelly on their Dallas house. “They are also very considerate of each other.” So considerate, that it had never occurred to any of them to build separate houses. “We didn’t want our parents to think we didn’t want to be with them,” says Robby, “because just the opposite is true.” Even so, the notion of a pair of houses kept asserting itself. When Tibbs found two perfect sites, both overlooking the lake and just a quarter mile from the main house, the architect realized he had the answer. “I designed both houses to be about sleeping and bathing,” Tibbs says, “places to come back to and lay your head.” Places that wouldn’t be so alluring that their residents would opt to hang out there instead of with the grandparents at their big house.
Actually, the 2,300-square-foot, native stone, cedar and metal cottages are alluring. Both consist of a series of stone “boxes” and screened porches. Ryan’s—the one overlooking the lake—is made up of five boxes that wind through a grove of oaks (some of which the boys transplanted decades ago from saplings elsewhere on the property). Robby’s house is made up of three boxes. Tibbs’ design takes into account the Robinson notion of the long sweep of history. If, over the passage of centuries, Tibbs opines, the wood screened porches fell away, the stone boxes would remain, like picturesque ruins in a small settlement. Of course, at the rate the family fixes, improves and repairs, the likelihood of such a collapse is remote. Tibbs deliberately made the combined living, dining and kitchen areas in the houses focus on what’s going on outside, as if to encourage all who pass through to keep on moving. Kelly and Carrie decorated their houses with practical elan. Interior walls are the same native stone as the exterior walls; there’s drywall in the children’s bedrooms. Leather sofas, sisal rugs, and glass-, wood- or metal-topped tables can take abuse and still look good. White oak floors are no-nonsense in a scenario where rogue fishing poles, kids’ wielding camping equipment, and muddy dogs are a constant threat. In both houses, the living rooms open directly onto screened porches, which are stopping off points for kids heading toward the lake. After a long day swimming, careening around on dirt bikes and four-wheelers or target shooting, the dirty and sweaty can hose off in outdoor showers. The big question, though, was always whether having the two houses would keep children and grandchildren away from the big house. It turns out that the answer was “no.” “Ever since we built the cottages,” Robby says, “we spend even more time at the main house.” Tibbs’ thoughtful architecture worked as intended, acknowledging what the family is all about. “We like to see things grow, watch the rain, see how water flows across the land,” says Robby, now dreaming of a new irrigation system. “This was a great experience,” he says. “I’d do it again tomorrow, but it’s nice to rest and enjoy it.” Not for too long, though… “My head is full of other possibilities,” he says. “That’s the glue that holds this place together.”