Couple works to turn dream house into reality, keeping sense of whimsy


SPRINGTOWN, Texas -- It all started in the imagination.

Joe and Heather Coomer's three-story Queen Anne-style Victorian in Parker County began as only an idea, a thought. Indeed, they call it their dream house.

Now it is solid, three-dimensional reality, if not quite finished.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

Joe, author of "The Decatur Road," "Kentucky Love" and "A Flatland Fable," and his wife, Heather, a dance student at Texas Christian University, dreamed their new dwelling even before they married in 1986.

They did much more than fantasize, however. Heather designed the 3,900-square-foot house, and together they built their dream. They started building in January 1987, and moved in 1 1/2 years later.

During the construction process, Mr. Coomer kept a journal. That account formed the basis of his latest book, titled, appropriately, "Dream House: On Building a House by a Pond."

"It's not a how-to book," he pointed out. "I only know how to build my house -- I couldn't tell you how to build any other house."

The couple started out with an acre -- a gift from his father, Rufus Coomer, in the middle of the 160-acre family farm. In fact, they were married on the site they had chosen.

They chose a Queen Anne Victorian because that's the kind of house that always catches their fancy when they're driving through New England on visits to her parents. They chose to build it themselves, Mr. Coomer said, because "we couldn't afford what we wanted" if they hired a contractor.

During the design process, they repeatedly asked themselves, "Can we do this?" The answer was always, "Why not? We can do anything."

Thus they achieved a fanciful house -- and at the same time, a most sensible house. A house with a tower you have to stoop down to enter, a secret room, a cranny under the stairs that's perfect for children to play in.

Yet it functions efficiently. Ten-foot ceilings and energy-wise windows -- opened and closed to catch the summer breeze -- cool the dwelling in summer; in winter, the house stays snug. Traffic flows smoothly from room to room. A laundry chute from the second floor, where the bedrooms are, eases wash-day chores.

The Coomers had a bit of a head start on realizing their dream. They had not only the free, oak-shaded building site, but wholesale materials, too. Mr. Coomer's father owned a lumberyard and hardware store.

Furthermore, they had a free place to live -- a garage apartment next to the lumberyard. As owners of antiques malls, they could take time off to work on the house.

It was no small undertaking. The couple did all the carpentry, flooring, roofing, plumbing, wiring and painting themselves, with help from family and friends. The only things they hired workers to do were the slab, drywall and duct work, plus laying the wall-to-wall carpet in the bedrooms, because that's included in the carpet purchase price.

Frustration was not uncommon -- for instance, Mr. Coomer spent three weeks working on the propane piping only to find that the pipes wouldn't hold pressure; he learned that he should have used Teflon tape instead of a putty stick to seal the joints.

bTC "We were really building two houses, one that we built and tore apart," and the other that was rebuilt and proved acceptable, he remarked.

Fear was another familiar emotion. One time, for example, Ms. Coomer found her husband apparently dangling from the tower, drill in hand.

But the result makes it all worthwhile. The house perches on a slope, with fine views of the fields around it, caressed by bird song and breeze. Its tin roof and copper-clad tower gleam in the sun. Except for the shiny new metal, it looks like it's been there for 100 years.

"The best compliment we've ever gotten was, 'When did you guys restore this house?' " Ms. Coomer said.

Inside, whimsy abounds. A mural in the entry foyer, painted by Dallas artist Margaret Ryan, depicts scenes of the farm, family pets, even Joe and Heather in Taos, N.M., where they met. There's a nook under the stairs where children's books and toys are shelved; painted elves and stuffed rabbits and local wildflowers populate the surrounding walls.

This is where the nieces and nephews play, and someday, the couple hopes, their own children will do the same. After all, Mr. Coomer said, their intention was to build "a house to raise a big, happy family in."

The two-story library hides a secret room upstairs. "I figure every Victorian house should have a secret room," said Mr. Coomer, leaning on a bookshelf to swing it inward. What would have been a closet, in the original design calling for a fourth bedroom in the upstairs space, is revealed.

Throughout the house, the plentiful windows and high ceilings create an airy effect.

The tower adjoins a corner of the cavernous third-floor room. You have to crouch through a little opening to enter it, because a tower suggests adventure, the author explained. From here, you have the best view of the farm, including his father's, sister's and brother's houses.

Antique furnishings and accessories are everywhere: oak beds and dressers, claw-footed bathtubs, vintage photographs and prints, old toys and books, Ms. Coomer's quilt collection, hooked rugs.

Once everything is completed, they're counting on little ones to mess it up. In fact, the house already seems to brim with the essence of children cutting out cookies around the big kitchen table, chasing each other across the porch or holding scary midnight initiations in the tower room.

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