Architect: Ken Tate, Ken Tate Architect, 433 N. Columbia St., Suite 2, Covington, LA 70433; 985/845-8181, kentatearchitect.com.
Landscape architect: Helen Grivich, 832/457-5021.
Builder: R.B. Ratcliff & Assoc. Inc., 281/346-2794, rbratcliff.com.
Photographs by John Granen
Text by Rebecca Christian
It doesn't get any more "Old South" than growing mint for juleps in your garden. That's what oilman Glenn Smith and wife Judy do in the orderly yet vibrant gardens surrounding their new home in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston. The Creole-influenced French Colonial home and outbuildings were designed by Ken Tate of Covington, Louisiana. His name is synonymous with the high and hospitable style of the Old South.
"I wanted it to feel as if you were transported back in time," says Judy, an adept hostess who uses her own little courtyard and garden off the sunroom to create menus for parties that spill from house to grounds, often including poolside dining. More than a dozen tall French doors provide a casually elegant transition to the outdoors, and most windows afford views of the rolling emerald grounds. Transoms are left open in warm weather, when the fragrance of gardenias--that emblem of Southern gentility--imbues the air.
When the Smiths, long smitten with Louisiana style (they also own a small home in the New Orleans French Quarter), decided to build in Houston, their horticultural designer, Helen Grivich, suggested architect Tate. "I had admired his books on architecture because I love the old Southern style," Judy recalls. "So we went to New Orleans to see homes he had designed, and they were just magnificent."
"Glenn's a wildcatter oilman, and they like to take risks," Tate deadpans. The intuitive, poetry-loving architect says the grounds drove the design of the home, which appears to have been added onto over time. The property looks surprisingly natural in a modern planned community where, Glenn chuckles, they had to get a dispensation in order to set one outbuilding just "two inches" over a designated line.
Grivich, who specializes in water conservation and organic gardening, and who explains that she worked closely with Tate, says, "I designed from the outside in, covering the brick walls with vines. Inside the walls, it's both structured and lush, with parterres and boxwood edging, creating what I call 'ordered chaos'--nice, trim little edges that surround looser, more flowing plantings. I used all the different flowers and colors that Judy loves and the order that Glenn likes. I like a little whimsy in the middle--I think a garden should make you smile!"
An entry gate with an air of mystery, an imposing fountain with water lilies and frogs, a brick overhang on the back porch, antique wrought-iron furniture, and four tall, exquisitely gnarled crape myrtles give the garden its lazily sensuous French Quarter vibe. Sequential plantings create the illusion of separate seasons in mostly hot Houston, balancing native plants with tropical ones. The grounds feature a wealth of trees--yew, magnolia, lime, lemon, and pomegranate. Camellias, larkspur, snapdragons, roses, hydrangeas, irises, and bird-of-paradise are among the profusion of plants and flowers. "Deer and climate dictated what to plant," Grivich says. "I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the inside look tropical, because Houston has colder winters than New Orleans."
Intriguing outbuildings include two pigeonniers (French for dovecotes), one serving as a children's playhouse with Lilliputian-height ceilings and its own wee garden, the other as a gentlemen's cigar bar. The pigeonniers were Tate's idea: "I needed architecture out there in that circular drive of the compound, something that referenced--but didn't echo--the architecture of the house."
This time of year, 14,000 tulips in a spectrum of undulating colors carpet the grounds. In the spring, lovely deer-resistant larkspur creates what Grivich calls "a huge canvas that's completely blue, like a Monet painting." Despite such floral operatics, the approach to the property is quietly graceful, planted with deer-resistant alyssum and dianthus. Set on the 18th hole of a golf course, the home is cloistered on three sides by courtyard walls made of vintage brick as tendriled with vines as Rapunzel's tower. "It's pretty low-profile," Glenn says. "We're not trying to announce ourselves to any passersby."
Tate finds his way into his designs through fictional narratives, an idea that enchants former English teacher Judy. The story here is that in the '20s, the scion of an old New Orleans family ventured to Texas. Nostalgic for home, he built a dwelling in the piney woods outside Houston that eventually became "a beautiful architectural relic that can barely be glimpsed through a dense screen of trees."
"We wanted a friendly home where everything seems used and comfortable," Judy says, "and that's just what we got."