Collinwood: Plano’s oldest home running out of time

The year was 1861. James Bell was a freighter, hauling logs and boards to frontier settlements in North Texas in the days before the Civil War. His wagon, filled to the brim with cypress boards from Jefferson, Texas, pulled up to a home along White Rock Creek. Teams of oxen powered Bell’s wagon for the days-long trip and would have appreciated a drink from this fresh water source. A high point along the Shawnee Trail was the perfect site for this pioneer home. The nearest neighbor was well out of sight.

Originally a log cabin built in the first days of Plano’s settlement, the home along White Rock Creek was enlarged into a planked house by owners Julian and Charles Fox in the 1850s. When James Bell arrived with his haul of wood in 1861, local boys were already signing up to fight for Texas in the War Between the States. Bell apparently assisted in the construction of the Fox house when he carved his name and the date on a cornerstone of white rock. Less than 100 years later, that same rock was moved to a place of prominence over the hearth and surrounded by modern bricks.

James Bell’s inscription dated 1861 // photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

From those rather humble beginnings, a larger two story house was built. The next owner was Clinton Shepard Haggard. Haggard bought the property from the Fox brothers in 1862 for twice what the brothers had paid. He married Nancy Katherine (Nannie Kate) Lunsford, and they expanded and called the old house home until around 1884. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Carpenter was Nannie Kate’s half sister and wrote about their pioneering experiences moving from Kentucky to the frontier North Texas in diaries kept for several decades. The Haggard, Lunsford, Mathews and Carpenter families made up a sizeable portion of our early settlers.

The old homestead along the creek, referred to as the White Rock house in Lizzie’s diaries, was passed down to Clinton and Nannie Kate Haggard’s daughter Annabel Aldridge and then to granddaughter Emma Kendrick. During the late 1930s, farms west of Plano changed hands frequently due to the depression. The land and the house were sold to a Highland Park family, who in turn sold it to their neighbors in the 1940s as a rural summer home.

The owners in the 1940s added cedar shingles over the cypress boards, as well as second story dormers. The old house was disguised to look much newer. When the last private owner purchased the farm in 1956 they named it Collinwood. Although the old house displayed its faux New England look, one section of the “breaking wave” trim still adorned the eastern façade, but was later replaced with the less ornate type still seen on the home. A photo from 1958 shows the former wave design. That trim matches the style used on the R.W. Carpenter house built in Plano in the same era. Historians suspect both houses were designed by one of the Mathews, well-known homebuilders of their time.

a 1958 photo of the Collinwood home showing the breaking wave trim design // photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

The Sowell family bought the land and the Collinwood house in the mid 1950s. The Sowells were Texas pioneers in their own right with direct ties to the Alamo and the lawmen we know as Texas Rangers. The homestead was kept in the family for some fifty years as an occasional retreat from the city. Summers were spent fishing and riding horses while the pecan trees planted west of the house grew large. Great memories were made for the children and grandchildren of both the owners and the caretakers of the home. Despite modernization of the kitchen and the addition of a sunroom, square nails and wooden pegs still spoke of the early construction, as did the narrow back staircase and wide plank floors. Mr. Bell’s autograph remained a focal point above the wooden mantel.

the original cypress boards are visible beneath the cedar shingles // photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

The rural setting around Collinwood Farm morphed to paved roads and large tracts of single family homes. The Dallas North Tollway extended its reach in the 1990s just a half mile west of the old house. The traditional entrance to the farm was relocated to 5400 Windhaven, north of the farm. The original western entry to the farm was around the corner from old Yeary Road. After more than 150 years, the land and the home, built in the days of Abraham Lincoln, were sold to the City of Plano in 2009 for development as a park.

A vision of the park with the house as a key feature was presented to the city in a draft plan in 2012. The house was touted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The cover photo of the plan was a close up of James Bell’s hand-scribed rock. That plan was replaced with one that offered a pavilion where the house stands, along with bike trails, a playground, a dog park and parking spaces for 350 vehicles. Keeping the historic home as a part of the park was not a box to be checked on the neighborhood survey. The name was changed from Collinwood Farm to Windhaven Meadows Park.

In 2014, local preservation groups were alerted to the homestead’s history and tried to convince our city government to reconsider their decision to replace it. Media coverage erupted and pressure mounted, which led to an offer from the City of Plano to give the house away to anyone with the funds to remove it from the property. Preservationists felt that moving the house was not a good option. City Council was called upon to intervene.

photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

City staff objected to keeping the house in the park with a laundry list of concerns. Costs for restoration, maintenance and operation were not in their budget. Risk of vandalism to the structure was a major concern. A history of old structures being burned was cited as one of the main reasons the house could not be left in a city park.

City Council agreed to give local preservation groups three months to come up with an acceptable alternative to removing the house. Calling themselves the Collinwood Consortium, preservationists teamed up with top-notch design firm Architexas to present a complete plan. During the 90-day reprieve, in January 2015, city staff sent out a Request for Proposals to restore and reuse the old house. The Request rescinded the offer to give the house away. Among criteria was the caveat that no city money was to be used or requested to either restore or maintain the house post-restoration.

The Collinwood house had gone from “free to anyone who will move it” to suddenly so valuable no one could afford it. Only one proposal was submitted which came from the Collinwood Consortium, led by the Heritage Farmstead Museum. That proposal was rejected due to its request for a public-private partnership between the Farmstead’s successful organization and the City of Plano.

photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

This led to another round in front of City Council where a 30-day “stay of execution” was granted to allow fundraising. Supporters for keeping the house in the park raised a half million dollars toward renovation expenses during that month. When returning to Council chambers, arguments favoring the City staff’s recommendations won the day.

Private negotiations took place after that rejection in March 2015, and another offer was made to move the house to another park. This offer seemed illogical to preservationists. Relocating to another park site contradicted the arguments about defending an empty house within a public park against vandals and arsonists. Moving the house out of its original site would also eliminate its eligibility for National Register status.

The next round of Requests for Proposals reverted to asking someone to move the house “somewhere else” at their expense. Once again, only one offer was received and it was deemed non-responsive. That proposal was made by local entrepreneur Patti Snell. Patti asked the City to reconsider its decision to demolish or move the house. She felt it could be renovated in place for a much lower cost than previous estimates. Her experience with restoring the historic Wells house on Coit Road (now Sip and Savor) was cited as a successful reuse of an iconic Plano landmark.

In the meantime, a Cultural Resources Survey has begun on the Collinwood Farm site as required under the Texas Antiquities Code. No one knows what will be found since the structure has only been previously evaluated for salvage. Promises have been made to allow recording of the deconstruction of the house itself for the sake of the historical record. When all is said and done, a sign may stand in place of the old house, telling visitors what used to be.

photo courtesy of the Collinwood Consortium

The oldest remaining home in Plano still stands, awaiting its final destiny. In the event someone would like to relocate the house, they’d need to contact Plano Parks and Recreation department or Plano City Council (serious inquires only). But they better hurry. The bulldozers are lining up.

Featured photo at the top of story is provided courtesy of Cody Neathery and can be seen on his Instagram account Texas Homes.

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