One stop on the Swiss Avenue Mother’s Day Home Tour this year is not like the others.
It lacks the manicured lawn, the expensive furniture, the art and antiques, the updated kitchen, the care of an exacting owner.
Once upon a time, the home at 4949 Swiss was known as the jewel of Swiss Avenue.
That was back when Mary Ellen Bendtsen was a famous young model, blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, the leggy girl who played piano and dazzled Dallas.
This jewel, with three Rookwood fireplaces on the ground floor and a ballroom mirror the size of a billboard, was the center of Bendtsen’s identity. She lived there for 55 years.
But it began falling into disrepair in the 1960s, and by the time Bendtsen died in 2005, the house was a shambles.
Call it the Dallas version of Grey Gardens.
Except the story of 4949 Swiss and Mary Ellen Bendtsen is more sinister than that of the batty Bouvier cousins, the “Big” and “Little” Edith Beales.
For those who haven’t heard the story, here is a recap: Two antiques dealers, Mark McKay and Justin Burgess, are accused of attempting to swindle Bendtsen before she died. At one time, they had an antiques store in Deep Ellum and a habit of befriending and borrowing money from wealthy elderly people.
Bendtsen signed legal documents giving McKay power of attorney, and he used it to keep her family away at the end of her life. She also signed a will, days before she died, leaving her beloved Swiss Avenue house to McKay.
A court later declared Bendtsen’s daughter, Frances Ann Giron, to be the legal heir of Bendtsen’s estate, nullifying the McKay will.
It’s a dramatic story that has made the front pages of newspapers and has been fodder for TV shows such as “20/20”.
But that’s not what Bendtsen’s family wants people to remember about her. They would rather she be remembered for her beauty and grace — she posed for art deco statues in Fair Park and was known for her fabulous parties.
The house is on the market now, listed at $795,000, and preservationists are hoping for a buyer who wants to restore the jewel of Swiss Avenue to its former grandeur.
Home tour organizers hope that by putting the house on the tour, they also can restore Bendtsen’s reputation and remind the public that before her dark end, she was a jewel, too.
“As notorious as this house is, we want to remember how wonderful Mary Ellen was,” says Cynthia Robinson, one of the tour’s organizers.
Henry McClamrock, Bendtsen’s nephew, says his grandparents “fell in love with the house” the last time it was on the market, about 60 years ago, but they didn’t have the money to buy it. His mother, Ann McClamrock, had just received a divorce settlement, so she lent them $29,500 to buy the house. W.W. Caruth, who donated the land for Southern Methodist University, was its original owner.
“It needs a tremendous amount of work, but for being over 100 years old, it’s in really good shape,” McClamrock says.
The grand mahogany staircase and wood and tile floors are intact. It has two full bathrooms on the second floor and one in the attic, which was finished out and used as a ballroom.
One hurdle for a potential buyer is the carriage house, which was badly damaged in a fire in 1960 and never repaired. Because of historic preservation rules that govern the street, it cannot be demolished. So a buyer would have to rebuild it.
The house needs everything from plumbing to plaster, but the details are one-of-a-kind. It hasn’t been subjected to the 1950s or ’80s remodels that so many older homes often have. It’s untouched by renovation and even has 1920s draperies.
Tour organizers plan to show only the home’s ground floor, and they’re hiring a crew to clean the place up. They’ll have letters to the family from Lyndon B. Johnson and other dignitaries on display, along with boards showing pictures and facts about the house.
And on a mantle in the room with the giant mirror, look for a photograph of Mary Ellen Bendtsen.