Rich Man, Poor Man

Dallas architect Tom Stanley crafted buildings that endure on city skylines across the country, but his fortune and family wouldn't survive their own shaky foundations

Mamie says her father's second open-heart surgery in 1978 "fed my addiction. The fear of losing him scared me to death." It also may have caused Stanley to rethink his life. The pinch of the credit crunch in the mid-'70s made new business harder to find. Perhaps this was the right time to slow down.

Stanley searched for a new revenue stream, turning his firm's direction toward development. He partnered with actor John Wayne, who owned one of Stanley's sculptures, and a wealthy rancher from South Dakota to build a hotel-casino in Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Palace seemed a natural: The rancher committed $65 million, John Wayne lent his name, and Tom Stanley would design and develop the 1,000-room hotel from production drawings to groundbreaking to finish-out.

Six years of litigation later, all that was built of the Palace was its foundation. The Sierra Club and the state of California took the position that the hotel would be an environmental nightmare and convinced a court to halt its construction.

Lillian Stanley, who once lived in grandeur with her husband, now lives on Social Security.
Lillian Stanley, who once lived in grandeur with her husband, now lives on Social Security.

Although Stanley had no money in the project, it sapped the resources of his firm, which he was forced to downsize to a staff of seven. In the process, Stanley sold his Oak Lawn office building and moved his firm into a Turtle Creek high rise. He leased more space than he could use, optimistic he would see better days. He still had one more project on the drawing board--a resort hotel on Mustang Island in South Texas. In the mid-'70s, he had purchased several tracts of land on the beach, believing the island both underdeveloped and undervalued. He designed and built villas and a 42-unit condominium whose sales were intended to help finance the construction of the El Cortez, a 12-story hotel. Unfortunately, with oil prices plummeting in the early '80s, a depressed Texas economy interfered with his plans. The units just didn't sell. Yet Stanley believed in his vision so wholeheartedly that he dipped into his personal assets to keep the project afloat.

At the same time, he began converting Sycamore Farms into a master-planned residential community called Brookgreene Estates that he intended to market as one-acre lots to busy professionals looking to escape city life. But in 1986, in an effort to save El Cortez, he borrowed $4.3 million from Southwest Savings, putting up what was left of the Brookgreene (200 acres) and 15 units of the Mustang Island condominium as collateral. Then came the real estate crunch and not far behind it, the savings and loan scandal, which would eventually put Southwest Savings into receivership. Interest payments alone were close to $1,200 a day, which Stanley paid out of his own pocket.

"It's kind of ironic," Hardy McCullah says. "For so many years he had done architecture that worked well economically, and here he invests all his resources in a project that's just not economically feasible."

By 1988, Stanley could no longer make the payments, and he traveled across this country and Europe, looking for new sources of funding. With no new money, with his land worth less than half its original value, with his personal assets nearly depleted, Southwest Savings finally posted the property for foreclosure. To stave off financial ruin, he filed for bankruptcy in March 1990, hoping to reorganize his debt. Before it was over, he had lost almost everything, with no way of getting it back.

He had just gotten old at the wrong time in his life.

It was tough enough being the son or daughter of Tom Stanley in the best of times. He was so certain, such a captivating presence, that none of his children could have equaled him. "Because he was this powerful figurehead," McCullah says, "the rest of his family would have trouble with their own identity."

Now in the worst of times, with Stanley vulnerable, less godlike, his children's weaknesses seemed more defined. Edward, who had played off his father's name in business, filed for bankruptcy (though it was later dismissed on his motion); Hutch, who stood by his father during his financial demise, turned first to drink and then God; Jill phoned Hutch at least twice, he claims. "She asked me how much Dad had in the bank. She was obviously concerned if there was going to be any inheritance left." Mamie, who derived her strength from her father's, allowed her addictions to consume her.

Of course, Mamie had her rationalizations: In 1989, she crushed her hip and pelvis in a car accident and was lucky to escape with her life. Surgery did little to alleviate the pain, and she began taking Dilaudid, a morphine derivative, which she abused daily. When her doctors finally cut her off, she took to the streets, mainlining heroin--"my drug of choice," she says. In and out of rehab, busted numerous times for possession, she used heroin to get through the night and speed to get through the day.

Tom and Lillian never abandoned her, garnering their limited resources to help, excusing her addiction as the sad consequence of an unavoidable accident. The main assets the bankruptcy trustee didn't seize and sell were the Stanley home and its contents in old Preston Hollow. But the upkeep on the house was unaffordable, and Stanley sold it himself in 1994, moving into a smaller home in North Dallas. The new home couldn't contain the contents of the old--valuable paintings, antiques, a lifetime of mementos. According to Lillian, most of the furniture was stored for safekeeping in the warehouse of her son-in-law Larry Meletio's company, which manufactures electronic parts. Some items were sold or given to family members. Jill and Larry, whose own house and furnishings burned in 1992, received an antique china cabinet, an ornate chandelier and two French wall tapestries. What remained was left unpacked in boxes in the Stanleys' new home.

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