The home of David and Diane Bell is the fruit of conscientious design, a reverent attention to landscape, and an affection for trees that has lingered in the family’s bloodline for generations. While its steel framing and prominent angles conjure the best of modernist architecture, the Bell family home in Franklin, Tennessee, draws substance from roots stretching as far back as the Nebraska frontier.
Nearly 150 years ago, in the open prairielands along the Platte River, Jesse Bell built a forest. Having bought a single square mile of land from the Union Pacific Corp., Jesse, a lover of trees, planted hundreds of them by hand. In the years following Nebraska’s recognition as a state, he established more than 250 varieties of hardwoods and shrubs in the soil of what was otherwise a vast and treeless plain.
When the Burlington rail company sought to lay line in the vicinity of Jesse’s burgeoning woodland, he saw an opportunity. In exchange for right-of-way on his land, he secured a Burlington depot for the area, and got immediately to work hiring a civil engineer and pursuing the task of growing a town.
Naturally, Bellswoods was to be the name. For reasons unknown, the Burlington men didn’t care for all the S’s in that eponym. To this day, we know the treed little town, 10 railroad miles south of Columbus, simply as Bellwood.
More than a century after Jesse first put the family name on the map, David and Diane have expanded the family brand into the foothills of Appalachia on their own secluded oasis of trees. Twenty miles from Nashville, down a rambling two-lane highway bordered by dry-stacked stone walls and plantation vistas, an unassuming turn into the woods leads to the family’s 20-acre estate. Perched 200 feet above the road below and fully ensconced in its forested hillside, the Bellswoods name has finally found its rightful home.
To encounter Bellswoods in photos alone is to know a particular kind of envy—one fixated less by the rich material beauty of the home, and more with the resonating calm and timeless quietude its design embodies. “We called it rustic modern,” explains Omaha architect Steven Ginn who, over the course of five years, designed the Bell family home. The house’s palette—warm Douglas fir, exposed steel, durable stone—creates an effect that, as Ginn describes, “accentuates and exemplifies the idea of shelter.”
From the earliest stages of design, the Bells envisioned the sort of shelter that would feel fully at home in its environment. “We wanted it to feel very open and draw on the materials of the area…A house that feels like you’re outside,” David explains. With nearly half of its walls made of glass, Bellswoods achieves this effect rather gracefully. Other considerations—a bedside window designed to perfectly frame an existing sassafras tree, a living room positioned precisely to capture the warmth of the winter sun—situate the home within its environment as naturally as any other living inhabitant of the forest.
In designing the home, Ginn drew inspiration not only from the unique environmental qualities of the land, but also the architectural character of the area. Sustained by his own Nebraska roots, Ginn sought to bring an “agrarian thoughtfulness” to the design. Inspired by the 19th-century farm buildings still dotting Tennessee’s rural landscape, Ginn worked to design a home that reflected the understated beauty of these utilitarian structures. “Farm simple,” he calls it. “Everything you need and nothing you don’t.”
David agrees, noting that functionality was a critical consideration when designing the home. Although Bellswoods can certainly feel cloistered from the rest of the world, the Bells are no hermits. Because the home was always meant to be a welcoming space for visitors in all seasons, Ginn worked to develop a “carefully choreographed space,” allowing for natural, fluid movement. Anchored by a central structural cross, the home is divided into quarters, beginning with the most public rooms (foyer, kitchen, living area) at its entrance, and moving eventually to the more private office and bedroom areas.
Ginn notes that his understanding of movement’s relationship to structure was informed by his years spent designing Catholic churches with Omaha’s BCDM Architects. “Movement is an important part of the Catholic liturgy. That procession. How you move through the space, the views, what you’re looking toward. The building itself works to direct your reverence and attention.”
A similar sort of reverence is found in David’s personal collection of over 20 years’ worth of reclaimed wood, much of which contributed to the furniture and finishing details of Bellswoods. Like his great-grandfather before him, David describes himself as a “lover of wood.” A skilled woodworker by hobby, he passed two decades living in Germantown, Tennessee, collecting the wood of nearly every felled tree he could find. After accumulating some 15,000 board feet of red oak, walnut, cherry, and several truckloads of his great-grandfather’s Nebraska-grown hardwoods, David couldn’t deny he was having more fun collecting wood than making much of anything with it.
These years of careful collection finally bore fruit when construction on Bellswoods began in 2010. While some wood was used in the family’s dining room table (paired with ebony sourced from Nashville’s Gibson guitar factory just down the road), most of David’s collection contributed to the more than 14,000 board feet of wood used throughout the home’s construction.
While Bellswoods is undoubtedly a grand achievement of style and form, Ginn is quick to note that the true success of any home design can only be measured in the way it enlivens the everyday experience of those living inside. There are certain, less conspicuous details at Bellswoods—the hidden grotto tucked behind the waterfall that cascades into the pool; the accordion windows separating the dining room from the porch, which open and erase the border between inside and out—that don’t show quite as well in photos. Subtleties like these spark a dialogue, not just among family and friends, but between the built world and beyond. As Ginn explains: “The natural light, the movement through the day, the light, the dark, the sun, the wind—they all help to embellish the daily life of the inhabitants, help to further create a fulfilled, enjoyed life.”
Visit stevenginn.com/tennessee-hilltop-residence for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.