Like Coming Home

By Gretchen Eichenberg

The Nelsons choose Waco to raise a family

Pictured: Photos by Taylor Nicole Photography

Character. Style. Livability. That’s what Duke and Steve Nelson were looking for in a home when they decided to move back to Central Texas from the Dallas-Fort Worth area with their growing family. They found all that — and the added bonus of welcoming, genuine and supportive neighbors who instantly made their house feel like a home — on a wooded lot in the Carriage Square neighborhood of Landon Branch in Waco.

“We walked in and immediately fell in love with all of the windows and all of the trees,” Steve said. “It was on 2-plus acres with a pond in the back and lots of kids in the neighborhood. Our oldest, Angelo, immediately asked if he could go down and say hello to the kids. In Dallas, that would never happen.”

So in 2015, Duke, a marketing executive in Microsoft’s human resources department, and Steve, who oversees operations for all the Levi’s stores in Texas, closed on a house where they could both office from home and raise their kids in a smaller, more traditional community where neighbors are like family. And if that notion sounds like something from another era, they chose a house that goes right along with it: A five bedroom, four-and-a-half bath midcentury modern with room for everyone at the table.

“We knew we wanted to have a family,” Steve said. “But we were both busy with work and travel. We fell in love with the idea of fostering children, and we thought this would be a great way to try parenting and give children a safe place to live, a home. Maybe just for one night, but it was going to be something where we would gain some knowledge and practice and apply it when we had a family of our own.”

And in 2011, the couple began the process of becoming foster parents.

“We pulled out a spreadsheet and project plan and got serious,” Duke said. “Within five weeks of our first informational meeting with the agency, we had our license.”

That same day, the Nelsons were chosen for an emergency placement. When Steve arrived home from a business trip, he found two little boys asleep on a pallet and a 6-week-old baby girl in Duke’s arms. The need was so great, they were utilized right away, before they had a chance to prepare their home for Angelo, 3, Anton, 18 months, and baby Jane.

“Something we discovered throughout this is that one thing that really unifies people is children,” Duke said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, what your beliefs are. People will rally behind children. And they rally behind those who are parenting and trying to take good care of children. We had so much support immediately.”

A year and a half later the adoption was official. And to make certain that their family was woven together as tightly as possible, Duke and Steve got married.

“It’s not very romantic, but we got married because of the kids,” Steve laughed. “After the adoption we flew to Napa. Legally, for the kids, we thought we needed to shore things up as best we could because if something happened to one of us, we wanted to know we were safe and secure. We wanted to be sure the kids were able to stay together.”

Duke adopted first, and after the marriage, Steve changed his name and filed for adoption, all in the same week.

“We needed this to tie our family unit together,” he said.

The Central Texas natives — Duke from Groesbeck and Steve from Waco — started to think about moving home to be near family. They saw their future home on Realtor.com, and it said “as seen on ‘Fixer Upper.’” They had never really watched the show but searched YouTube for hours until they found the episode to get a preview of the house. It wasn’t a house that was picked for a Magnolia remodel, but they were intrigued. A few days later, they went to look at the house, which was built in 1955, and knew it was something special.

“We wanted something that was interesting style-wise, a midcentury vibe,” Duke said, “but still a casual, ranch style. This house had a lot of potential, but you could definitely see the progression of time through different areas of the home that had been remodeled. While you could see these perspectives of the different owners, you could also tell that each family who lived here really loved the house.”

That sentiment appealed to these family men, who said they cherish many of the experiences they had growing up in traditional homes.

Certain elements of the original construction were protected, like the brick fireplaces. The house, which was built of solid redwood is strong.

“The new roofline was built with the original redwood tresses, and they were as strong as the day they were built,” Duke said.

“The bones and the mechanics of the house were pretty amazing,” Steve said.

But changes and enhancements would be needed to give the Nelsons the livability they needed for three-plus children.

Architect Stan Love handled the remodel of the home, which was originally designed by renowned local architect Bob Bennett.

“Stan had worked on several Bob Bennett houses around Waco,” Duke said. “He had the idea of making the front entrance a bit grander. We knew we were in good hands with his vision.”

Part of that grand entrance included a solid mahogany door. But no one could have predicted just how strong the western sun was going to beat upon those doors — and it completely warped them. But the replacement was just as impressive, if not more so. John Nichol, who crafted some of the home’s metal work, used new technology to create a door that fit the Nelsons’ style and could withstand the heat.

“We wanted something clean and simple,” Duke said. “He used steel on the front, foam on inside and aluminum on the interior-facing side of the door. At the end of the day when it’s burning hot outside, you can touch the door and there’s no transfer of heat. We added Spanish cedar handles for a very finished look.”

The door, which weighs 500 pounds, had to be secured with steel beams instead of the existing studs.

The entryway expansion included bringing the original brick — which has flecks of iron ore — inside the house. During the remodel, workers found 700 original bricks stored under the house, and they’ve been able to use those in the new design.

“Bob Bennett studied under Frank Lloyd Wright or had some connection to him, as we understand it,” Duke said. “His whole idea was bringing nature indoors and Stan really honored that theme by bringing the brick inside the entryway.”

The entryway also features cedar lap siding, again, repeating some of the exterior features of the home, and engineered wood floors.

An improvement on the midcentury modern style — and almost necessary for today’s living — is the open concept. The Nelsons’ home opens up to the kitchen, dining room and living room.

To the left, is a sleek white, but functional kitchen with Ikea cabinetry.

“We love Ikea,” Duke said. “You can get the look of a Scandinavian kitchen without a $100,000 price tag for the cabinets.”

Stan created the space and Duke, who is an enthusiastic DIYer, designed the kitchen.

“The kids and I put the cabinets together,” he said. “We chose a white enamel finish, and the beauty is that everything wipes cleans, so it’s easy to maintain. We chose white Silestone countertops because they went well with an all-white kitchen and because the simplicity and clean lines are period appropriate.”

In every aspect of the home, the Nelsons prove that you don’t have to sacrifice style just because you have children.

“The dominant kids areas typically have a lot of white, and that’s so we can find the dirt,” Duke said.

The butler’s pantry and laundry room offer more counter space and storage cabinets — but no cubbies.

“I don’t want to see all that stuff,” Duke said. “We chose cabinets so things are tucked away but still accessible on the way out the door. Everything has a place.”

The dining room has a backdrop of solid windows that provide a view of the wooded backyard. The large dining table was custom made by Dallas furniture-maker D.H. Phillips.

A cozy living room centers around an original brick fireplace that the Nelsons love but said they hardly use. What they use regularly, Steve said, is a Jens Risom Lazy Susan coffee table for serving vegetables and hummus on movie night.

The Nelsons’ furnishings are an eclectic blend of antiques, custom pieces and mass-produced essentials.

“We have West Elm chairs with Target pillows,” Duke said. “Our sofa is Crate and Barrel, but I found these Pendleton blankets and I had pillows covered in them to make the sofa more ranchy. I found a Turkish kilim pillow online, and I think the random mixture of stuff works well. We don’t have the original authentic Eames lounger; it is a reproduction but a high-quality one. A $5,000 chair is not the best idea when you have kids. Same with Z chairs and Eames dining chairs. They are simple and easy to clean, and we’re not sacrificing style or quality.”

All the rugs in the house are from a company called Floor in Chicago and can be hosed off if someone spills — or worse.

A pass-through kids library area is where video games and reading take place. The area also features a vintage Acrosonic piano, which was a gift from Steve’s grandparents.

“We found it at an estate sale,” Steve said. “It’s from the ’60s and in incredible shape.”

The couple enjoys scoring unique and interesting finds, like a vintage cabinet for the kids’ arts supplies.

“Duke is amazing at finding pieces for $100 or $200 that are worth so much more,” Steve said.

Family art and photos are everywhere in the Nelson home.

Jane, 8, has her own girlie bedroom with a spacious walk-in closet she can grow into, while the boys share a room with a turtle named Easter and two hamsters. All the kids go to Mountainview Elementary School and enjoy having friends over to play in their magical backyard.

“We have turtles, foxes, roadrunners,” Duke said. “The kids saw fireflies for the first time when we moved here, and it was like magic.”

Duke and Steve agreed they love the diversity of people with whom their children go to school.

“Where we lived in Dallas, everyone had the same houses, drove the same cars,” Steve said. “Here the kids are able to see that not everyone has what they have, and we want them to understand that.

Ramona, Steve’s grandmother, lives in the remodeled original master bedroom, making this a truly intergenerational home.

The backyard is a dominate feature of the house, as you can see the it from almost every room.

“We have views of everything,” Duke said. “Some of the oak trees are estimated to be about 250-300 years old.”

And there are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoor space. Duke built a wooden pergola by Toja with a fire pit beneath it. He also built a massive pine dining table that he found a design for on the website modernbuilds.com. Giant wooden Connect Four, dominoes and Jenga were constructed by a local craftsman. An expansive concrete patio has a cushy sitting area for hanging out.

“When the weather is nice, we spend a lot of time outside,” Duke said. “We have an outdoor projector, and we watch movies. The neighbors all come, and we put blankets on the grass and have popcorn. We wanted a place where our families and friends could come together and hang out — people eating inside, outside. This space is great for that.”

Back inside and on the other end of the house, the Nelsons converted a den to their master bedroom, a space that has a fireplace and was original to the house.

“We think this space was something like a gentleman’s study,” Steve said. “It wouldn’t have been uncommon during the time when this house was built for a man to have a place where he might come home from work or from hunting, change clothes, have a glass of brandy and unwind without interrupting whatever is going on with the family.”

All the aesthetics aside, what the Nelsons love most is the way their home and their neighborhood makes them feel cared for and loved.

“I love the house,” Steve said. “It fits our needs, and it reflects our style. But more importantly, I love that our neighbors are amazing and this feels like home. When we were remodeling, before we had moved to Waco, we would come down on the weekends to check on things. Neighbors came by to see what all we were doing, and we met a lot of great people. A couple named the Scattergoods came by and, through conversation, Florence realized that Steve was in her seventh and eighth grade boys choir class at Lake Air Junior High. I put it all together. I thought how wonderful to come back to a neighborhood where you’re remembered by someone. To come back home and find your seventh and eighth grade choir teacher lives on your street. It felt like coming home.”

Duke had a similar experience when he was working in the yard and heard his name called out from a passing car. It turned out to be a former coworker of his, who also lives in the neighborhood. They hadn’t seen each other for 20 years.

The reconnection with old friends has even been life-changing. In June, the Nelsons adopted a fourth child, a newborn baby girl named Cora, who is the granddaughter of a friend with whom they reunited after moving back to town.

“Waco is special,” Steve said. “When we moved back, we just felt completely embraced. It’s because we moved back to Waco that Cora came into our lives.”

Whether it’s neighborhood Halloween and Fourth of July parties or being included in the annual neighborhood directory — a tradition that’s been around since the residential street was first developed — Duke said living here feels like walking through time.

“I love the history, the connections with our neighbors,” Duke said.

Both the house and the family are progressive, yet traditional.

“I think that’s part of the evolution,” Steve said. “I think now you can be both. We are traditional in the sense that we grew up with memories of our parents taking us to different places, making us certain dinners and we try to incorporate that into our lives. The kids are so curious about their family’s history — their adopted family. We talk about color and race. We have opened ourselves up at different times to put a face on other aspects of our lives and our family because we think it’s important that people understand who we are. We’re just like everyone else trying to raise kids and be good people.”

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