According to Mattel Inc., one of the country’s premier purveyors of aspirational lifestyle content, a dream house (or rather Dreamhouse™) includes the following: an elevator, a two-story slide from your bedroom to the pool, a puppy play area, a rooftop deck, bunk beds, a DJ booth—of course—and one of those egg chairs that hangs from the ceiling.
This fantasy ideal of a modern home was designed for Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie®, a fashionable polymath who has worked as a physician, an astronaut, and an aerobics instructor. For decades, everything about her life—her clothes, her work, her physical proportions, and, yes, her home—has served as a model for what Americans and their children should strive to achieve and acquire. And Barbie has gracefully borne this burden on a pair of tiny, perpetually arched feet.
How humbled she would feel, then, walking through the halls of Christy Thompson’s newest home, which is still under construction, at 6915 Baltimore Drive, in Dallas’s tony University Park neighborhood. How cramped and uninspired her residence would seem compared with Thompson’s 23,688-square-foot mega-mansion, which includes six bedrooms, a kitchen with two islands, a spa bath, a safe room, a wine cellar, and a subterranean garage (one of several garages) that can, I’m told, comfortably fit eighteen Chevy Suburbans. The exterior of Thompson’s house is swathed in Bulgarian limestone—the same kind the Greeks are using to renovate the Parthenon, according to Thompson’s husband, Stephen Hill. The two-story, single piece columns outside the front door are eighteen feet tall, the second tallest of any U.S. residence. (The tallest, apparently, are on an estate in Springfield, Missouri.)
Would Barbie wail in jealousy when she saw the massive vanity off the side of the master bathroom and angrily pinch Ken when she saw Thompson’s elevator, which, by virtue of being indoors instead of affixed to the exterior and exposed to the elements, is plainly superior to hers?
Admittedly, there is as yet no DJ booth in Thompson’s home, but there’s certainly room for one. Behind the bathroom of the mother-in-law suite, for instance, lies a gargantuan white chamber the size of a small airplane hangar. The room was intended to be Thompson’s mother’s closet and office, but since she moved into an assisted living facility, Thompson and Hill are not sure what to do with it now. It could easily fit a turntable, as well as a full bar and a crowd of rowdy German ravers.
Currently, Barbie’s house is retailing online for $199.99. Thompson’s has been listed for $43 million, making it one of the most-expensive homes on the market in Dallas (another house in the neighborhood was listed for $39 million this summer). It’s a remarkably flashy property for such a taciturn owner. Thompson is not a socialite heiress in the tradition of Peggy Guggenheim or Paris Hilton. In her five decades in Dallas society, she’s managed to stay mostly out of the public eye. So far out of it, in fact, that only a few grainy photos popped up when I first googled her name.
Still, that price tag has brought with it plenty of attention. The Dallas Morning News published a story about the house, it was advertised in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and it has become the buzz of the Dallas real estate scene. This publicity has in part been carefully orchestrated by a team of realtors eager to target the kind of luxury buyer to whom the phone-number-length prices listed in the New York Times’s real estate section seem exceedingly reasonable. “Put it in the context of retail,” said Ralph Randall, one of the agents working on the listing. “When Neiman Marcus, back in the day, was on a massive expansion kick, they didn’t go to the same markets that a Dillard’s or a Macy’s is going to”—Dillard’s, in this scenario, being the equivalent of a house in the high six figures.
The attention on the property is partly organic, however. Few topics fascinate Americans more than the mega-wealthy and how they spend their money. Over dinners and drinks, the less financially endowed among us can spend hours discussing what we would do with our millions if we suddenly won the lottery. Besides the one person at the table who inevitably announces in a loud and self-congratulatory way that she would donate all of the money to charity, as if to catch the ear of any Nobel Peace Prize judges in the vicinity, the rest of us usually have some idea of our priorities among, say, a mansion with an infinity pool, an apartment in Paris, a Lamborghini, and a trip around the world on a private yacht.
Unlike most Americans, Thompson has the pecuniary wherewithal to turn her aspirations into reality. In another of the multiple garages around the house, she told me this is pretty much what she would have designed for herself when she was a kid fantasizing about what her future might hold. Initially she and Hill had conceived of the house on Baltimore Drive as their primary home, which meant they would spend a whopping 15 to 20 percent of their time there. But then the housing market got hot, prices of homes everywhere skyrocketed, and Thompson figured, why not list it?
Much like Mattel’s, Thompson’s new home, with its grand scale and top-of-the-line amenities, represents an ideal. It represents glamour, abundance, and opulence—and the supreme comfort of a frictionless existence in which all eighteen of your Chevy Suburban–owning friends can show up at once and you don’t have to worry about where they’ll park.
Like Barbie, Thompson has sleek blond hair and smooth, apparently poreless skin. Also like Barbie, the 52-year-old’s exact profession is a little ambiguous. “We have luxury vacation rental homes,” Thompson said vaguely when I asked about her primary business.
Thompson is the daughter of the late wildcatter James Cleo Thompson, known to friends and family as Jimmie, who founded the Thompson Petroleum Corporation with his father in the seventies. In nearly six decades in the oil business, Jimmie made a fortune as one of the biggest independent oil producers in America. Wealth generated wealth, and soon he expanded his business beyond the oil fields. He served as chairman of Crockett National Bank. The consummate Texan, he also owned cattle ranches in his home state and in Colorado.
Like her father, Thompson was born and raised in Dallas. When she was sixteen, the family moved into a large, white-brick home directly across the street from her current construction. The property at 6915 Baltimore Drive used to belong to her grandparents. She bought it from her father in 2005, and when the house next door to it became available, in 2016, she bought that too and combined the two lots.
Thompson credits her mother, Dorothy, with instilling in her a passion for home renovation. “It was something that she did and she did well,” Thompson said. She recalled her mother’s remodeling of their home when she was a child. Dorothy enlarged the den, raised its ceiling, and added a glassed-in sitting area that jutted out into the yard. Most excitingly for Thompson and her sister, Linda, Dorothy revamped the game room upstairs. She installed a balance beam, on which Thompson could practice her gymnastics. Thompson said that watching her mom taught her a lesson most children only learn when using a cheat code in The Sims: “You can get exactly what you want in a house if you build it yourself.”
After high school, Thompson initially stayed in the neighborhood, enrolling at Southern Methodist University, in University Park. But after two years, she said, she felt she had to get away and do something different. Her family had often vacationed in Colorado when she was growing up, so she transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied geology, sociology, and Spanish.
Her escape from the Park Cities didn’t last long. After she graduated in 1992, she came home to Dallas and joined the family business as a partner. And when Jimmie died, in 2010, she and her sister took over what by then was a constellation of businesses. But they soon found that oil and petroleum production was not the license to print money that it had once been, especially for independent producers.
In 2017 Thompson and her sister started shifting increasingly toward another booming industry: real estate. While the Thompson Petroleum Company continued to extract oil and gas, the women began investing in various office buildings across the Metroplex. They dabbled in luxury vacation rental homes, mostly in the United States.
In 2015 Thompson was reintroduced to Hill. The two had traveled in the same circles their whole lives but had never interacted much. They both grew up in the Park Cities area, not far from the house they’re building now, and their dads had played football together at nearby Highland Park High in the late forties and early fifties. Hill had managed a construction company and commercial properties for years, and the pair bonded over their shared passion for real estate. They’ve been working on 6915 Baltimore almost as long as they’ve been together—they officially broke ground on the project in January 2018—and Thompson attributes much of the project’s success to their partnership.
The couple complement each other well. In person, Thompson is quiet and slightly skittish. Any time I raised my phone to take a picture of a particular architectural detail, she would step back a little to ensure she stayed out of the frame. Though she made vague allusions to her “Florida house” and her “Colorado house,” she declined, citing security concerns, to say exactly how many homes she owns. She said that she sometimes wishes she could just go as “Chris” in interviews because it’s more “neutral.”
Hill, at age 58, is more outgoing and outspoken. He’s of average height, with a well-groomed ring of gray-brown hair around the back and sides of his head. He has the confident, competent demeanor of a man who knows his way around various power tools. He’s particularly passionate about the environmentally friendly aspects of the house. As we walked around on a bright day in early November, he rattled off stats about the energy they’re saving with solar panels, insulation, the geothermal heating and cooling system, and 15,000-gallon groundwater holding tank.
“This will be using less energy than a ten-thousand-square-foot house twenty years ago,” he said assuredly (though he didn’t get into what the energy expenditure might be for, say, shipping huge slabs of Bulgarian limestone around the globe).
As the couple led me around the house, rooms seemed to spontaneously generate in every direction. Precious stones twinkled at us from various corners: an amethyst fireplace here, a rose-quartz floor detail there, a shower made entirely of turquoise-colored amazonite. They gave the impression of traveling through a gargantuan jewel box.
Hill and Thompson clearly delight in the details. At one point, Hill gestured at a bamboo floor that stretched across a great room roughly the size of Luxembourg and invited me to feel how soft it was. I looked at him blankly. This sounded like a riddle or an exercise in mindfulness—one at which I would surely fail. He and Thompson explained that the bamboo was backed with cork, which created a softer landing.
First, Hill directed me to a narrow walkway of black-and-white marble—known as panda marble—that divided the unfinished foyer from the great room beyond it. Obediently, I stepped onto it. After taking a couple of strides, I confirmed to my hosts that it indeed felt like a floor.
“Now go to that,” he said, pointing at the bamboo expanse beyond. I was skeptical, but indeed, it felt more like stepping into the warm hug of a loved one than stepping onto a floor. Instead of the slight jolt that comes from treading on lesser, uncorked floors, this wood seemed to absorb the bottom of my boot in a gentle embrace while simultaneously propelling me to take another step forward. This was a floor that absorbed all of your stress and joint damage through your arches and left you a better version of yourself—more limber, more virile. Suddenly, I felt I better understood the human impulses to bungee jump or gamble.
Later, Thompson drew my attention to the walls. To my untrained eye, they looked white. But they were not just white—they were white-white. The whitest white available. “I said, ‘Take out all the color, as white as you can go,’ ” Thompson recalled. None of the samples were white enough for her liking. Then, finally, the construction superintendent held up a white pencil, and Thompson said, “Yes, just like that.” She couldn’t remember the name of the color they eventually settled on. “I don’t know that it was a color.”
Hill and Thompson seemed more captivated by the idea of the house’s amenities than the reality of using them. When we visited the pool, I asked them whether they swam often. “No,” Thompson said simply. Surrounded by the massive, empty shelves in the library, Hill confessed that his favorite book was “anything on audio,” and as we passed the wine cellar, the couple said that they enjoyed wine but weren’t serious collectors. After Hill mentioned possibly installing a private golf simulator in the empty space behind the mother-in-law suite, I asked if he was a big golfer. “Not a big one,” he said. “But I like to play.”
The most luxurious amenity of all, it seems, isn’t something you put in your dream house but the opportunity to build from scratch, to obsess over the details and then recount those decisions to visitors who might not have noticed them otherwise. As we stood on the back patio, looking out over the pool, Thompson told me that for four years, the building of this house had consumed her. She recalled sleepless nights spent planning and designing. But despite all of her effort and agonizing, Thompson said, she didn’t think living there would actually change her and Hill’s lives all that much, should they not end up selling the home.
“I mean, we just have to move in and organize our belongings again,” she said. “But otherwise, we just keep going on the same as we always do.”
Upstairs, we wandered through vast bathrooms and bedrooms the size of handball courts. We were accompanied on our trek by various realtors who occasionally chimed in to clarify details. There was a cinema room the size of a small-town movie theater, outside of which was a small concession room with glass-topped counters to display the snacks on offer—both a charming novelty and, one presumes, a safety measure, so guests wouldn’t get lost and perish on their journey to the kitchen, questing for Mike and Ikes.
In the soft glow of the cinema room, after briefly discussing which shows they looked forward to watching in their home theater (Yellowstone, the Dexter reboot), I asked Thompson why someone clearly so preoccupied with privacy would willingly accompany a journalist around her home and help schedule photo shoots. She looked taken aback: “We’re doing this to promote the house.”
Still, Thompson and Hill said, they had become emotionally attached to the home over the years they’ve spent building it. “I might tear up a little bit if it got sold next week,” Hill told me.
Most of America’s most populous cities boast some sort of natural wonder, often aquatic. Los Angeles has the Pacific Ocean. Chicago has Lake Michigan. New York City has the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson and East Rivers, not to mention the famous fatbergs of floating grease and bathroom detritus that form in its sewers. Dallas, in comparison, has the topography and ecological biome of a sheet of printer paper. But it’s consistently been a magnet for the über-wealthy because what it may lack in natural beauty it makes up for in one of the most valuable natural resources of all: other rich people and the amenities and entertainments that spring up around them. The base of Dallas’s appeal, said K. J. Murphy, a longtime Dallas resident who recently entered the real estate business, is that there are numerous pockets of wealthy estates in the city. “Like attracts like, in a way,” she summarized.
Plus, Dallas is growing fast. With a massive international airport and its central location between the two coasts, it is an attractive destination for both companies and frequent-fliers. (Goldman Sachs has been growing a presence in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, prompting speculation about a possible Dallas campus.) In 2020 alone, 75,000 newcomers moved to DFW. As a result, Dallas real estate has been booming. Luis Torres, a research economist at the Texas Real Estate Research Center, at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, told me that home prices shot up by about 24 percent in the Metroplex in 2021.
Dallas real estate experts I spoke with buzzed at the influx of wealthy, fleece-vested investment bankers from the coasts. “You’ve got to remember,” said Murphy, “when they’re coming from New York or California and see a two-million-dollar house, they’re like, ‘This isn’t an obstacle.’ ”
Nowhere is the area’s opulence more visible than in the Park Cities. Highland Park and University Park are two of the most monied enclaves of Dallas. And Volk Estates, the neighborhood in University Park where Thompson is building her house, is among the wealthiest of the wealthy—the little golden hazelnut at the center of the Park Cities Ferrero Rocher.
On the day of my tour, as I waited outside the construction gates for Thompson to arrive, a trim blond woman in a matching workout set jogged by with an obedient Weimaraner by her side. A few seconds later, another trim blond woman in a slightly different matching workout set jogged by with a glossy Dalmatian. Leaves rustled in the wind like crisp twenties being counted out for tips. Brand new Rolls-Royces and Teslas and Mercedes floated past, and when they parked, their doors closed with velvety thunks that sounded like gold bars being dropped onto Persian carpets.
Unlike the massive estates of the Gilded Age, mansions no longer have huge staff quarters that their owners rarely visit, and the kitchen is now a centerpiece rather than an eyesore that’s hidden away from guests. Still, the implications of owning a massive house have not changed. “Then as now, it’s about status,” said R. Scott Gill, an architectural historian and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “It’s a symbol of achievement.”
And in order to announce that achievement to those around them, luxury home buyers are looking for a specific set of status signifiers. Per various experts I spoke with, to be competitive in the market, a luxury home must have high ceilings, a pool, an elevator, multiple kitchens, a primary suite (formerly known as a master suite) on the first floor, en suite bathrooms in every bedroom, and, ideally, a wine cellar. How these elements fit together architecturally or whether the buyer is actually a swimmer, a cook, or an oenophile hardly seems to matter. It’s about making sure your home is well equipped should you choose to put it on the market. “With exceptions, of course, size, scale, and features are now just as important as having a really beautiful design,” Gill said.
Maybe a dream house is not necessarily a home full of everything you personally love but one full of a bunch of stuff that seems kind of cool. Thompson’s home has personal touches, certainly: the residence boasts a breakfast nook inspired by the one her family had when she was growing up and a stairway modeled after the famous outdoor staircase in Venice’s Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which she fell in love with when she visited Italy. But it also hits all the prescribed luxury signifiers in a way that feels, at times, almost clinical.
When I asked Thompson and Hill if there was anything they might have done differently, Hill said he would maybe have made the whole project smaller, more manageable. “I mean, we could have a party of three hundred people, and I don’t think it would be crowded,” he said, gazing out over the vast great room from the walkway upstairs. Far below us, ant-size real estate agents paced around the space, scoping it out for potential buyers. Thompson didn’t seem to agree. “The thing is, for a double lot, you need a house of this scale,” she said. “A smaller house would be dwarfed on this lot, so we needed something like this.”
There haven’t yet been any solid offers on 6915 Baltimore. Some real estate experts I spoke to expressed skepticism it would sell at all. But others had ideas about who the ideal buyer might be. The project’s realtors said it would be a multigenerational family with lots of kids. Thompson said she hoped it would be “someone who appreciates what we’ve done and the thought and the time and the intention.” Hill joked that he hoped it would be someone who paid cash.
Update: On January 12 the price of 6915 Baltimore Drive was raised from $37.5 million to $43 million.
Madeleine Aggeler is a writer who lives in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Good Mansion Is Hard to Find.” Subscribe today.