Box Ranch: A Legend in Limbo

The skeletal structure looms on the Frisco prairie, bare yet packed with mystery. Does it represent the beginning of a brand new construction project, or the remains of one gone awry?

Few Frisco residents or visitors pass the northeast corner of Preston Road and FM 720 without wondering what this massive frame is going to be, or perhaps what it used to be.

For now, the past tense prevails in the answers to those questions. The mysterious building frame occupies the spot once covered by the Box Estate, a 14,000-square-foot mansion built in 1941 as a replica of Tara, the fictional Georgia plantation in “Gone with the Wind.”

The mansion, last owned by the late Cloyce Box, was destroyed in the fall of 1987 by a fire which originated with flammable liquids being used in a remodeling project. None of the occupants of the home was inside at the time of the blaze, but it nevertheless marked the end of an era for the Box Ranch.

Cloyce Box dreamed of rebuilding the mansion, this time even bigger than before. He poured about $1 million into the construction process before financial setbacks put it on hold. A series of foreclosures, Mr. Box’s death in 1993, a divorce settlement which returned the house to his first wife, Fern Box Carr, and miscellaneous litigation proceedings have suspended the future of the Box Ranch in a state of limbo.

But prior to its demise, the stately mansion saw its share of glory days, and family members say new construction may someday give that treasured spot a bright future as well as a colorful history.

The Glory Days

Cloyce and Fern Box bought the Frisco property in 1965, when their four sons – Tom, Don, Gary and Doug – ranged in age from 13 to 8. Although there had been three previous owners, “No one had lived in the house for very long until we bought it,” recalls Mrs. Box Carr. “We had been in a smaller home in Dallas and had been looking for years for a house big enough. We went out there and just fell in love with that house. We had also fallen in love with horses, so we thought this was the perfect place.”

Designed by architect John Astin Perkins, the two-story, colonial-style mansion exuded elegance, including carved wood trim, antique crystal chandeliers and two French fireplace mantels, one of which was rumored to have belonged to Napoleon. The home even had a full basement, rare in this part of the country.

The Boxes invested in extensive remodeling and redecorating of their new home, converting the third-floor attic and adding central heat and air conditioning, traditional furnishings, a Western art collection and a security system. “When we first moved in, it was such an open and safe feeling there that we didn’t have locks on the doors; we didn’t even have keys,” says Mrs. Box Carr.

A Texas native who boasted the physical attributes of both size and speed, Mr. Box had made a name for himself in the 1950s as an All-Pro football player – one of the Detroit Lions’ first wide receivers and a member of its 1952 and ‘53 world championship teams. He counted Doak Walker and Frank Gifford among his friends. Mr. Box had graduated from Baylor Law School but was soon called into active duty in the Korean War and never practiced law. Following his successful but relatively brief professional football career, he made his fortune as an industrious businessman, first in the construction business, specializing in cement manufacturing plants, and later in oil and gas.

A man of many interests, Mr. Box added “rancher” to his repertoire and began acquiring his Frisco ranch in tracts, eventually building it to 889 acres and making it home to crops, cattle and horses, including thoroughbreds and quarter horses.

The ranch produced two decades of fond memories for the Box family, from festive birthday parties and cozy Christmases to elegant wedding celebrations. But the glamorous highlights were the big parties, says Mrs. Box Carr.

“Mom and Dad prided themselves on having kind of a showplace,” adds Doug Box, the youngest of the four sons. “We entertained a lot; there was always something going on.”

Hollywood Comes to Frisco

The Box Estate, seemingly well-hidden in tiny Frisco, actually was destined for the big-time. That moment arrived in early 1978, when the mansion was chosen by television producer Leonard Katzman as the first “Southfork Ranch” for the Dallas series.

Mr. Box agreed to the use of his home’s exterior for filming the six-episode pilot series but sent Lorimar Productions packing after he became disillusioned with the show’s negative image of the Texas oil industry. That’s when the Dallas cast and crew moved to the Joe Duncan Estate in Wylie. Still, the glamour that came with being the original Southfork stuck, drawing curious gawkers for some time.

Even a lady in waiting to the Queen of England couldn’t resist the opportunity to see it when she was visiting Dallas. “Somebody from the (Dallas) Chamber of Commerce brought Lady Foxworth out, and she came in and sat down and had some light refreshments. I thought she would be dripping in jewels, but she had on blue jeans,” notes Mrs. Box Carr. 

Posing as the original home of the fictional Ewing family wasn’t the end of the limelight for the Box Estate, though. In 1984, the ranch was selected by The Southland Corp. as the site for a party honoring the Olympic medalists.

“The Olympic organization sponsored it and paid for everything, and we had fireworks in the shape of the United States flag, and the Olympic symbols floating in the swimming pool,” Mrs. Box Carr says. An estimated 10,000 guests roamed the Box Ranch, inside and out, including Olympic notables Mary Lou Retton and Greg Louganis.

End of an Era

It is said that all good things must end. So it was with the Box Ranch as it was known in the 1970s and ‘80s. After nearly 40 years of marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Box divorced in 1986 and each later remarried. Mr. Box remained on the ranch and was living in the mansion with his second wife when fire destroyed it in 1987.

“They were in the process of redoing some woodwork in the east wing of the house when a freak accident occurred with some painters,” says Doug. “We really don’t know to this day the full mystery behind that story, but it instantaneously ignited the whole room, almost like a bomb going off.”

A delayed emergency call placed 15 minutes after the intense blaze began, plus the lack of a readily available water source on the property hampered the efforts of the Frisco Fire Department, according to a 1988 report in Texas Fireman. The nearest fire hydrant was 2,700 feet away (a problem which has since been rectified), and the location of the swimming pool made it inaccessible for drafting as well. Finally, a large pond about 600 feet from the house provided enough water to begin suppressing the fire, with the assistance of the McKinney and Plano fire departments.

Only about a third of the structure was left undamaged, and approximately $1 million worth of the building and contents were saved. Structural damages totaled $1.5 million and the lost contents were valued at $1.7 million.

“A fire is one of the worst things you can go through,” says Doug. “I think it left a lot of really deep scars in our family. It’s kind of like a death – you never really get over it because it’s such a final thing. And there were childhood keepsakes that I had there that were all gone.”

The timing was unfortunate for Cloyce Box. He initiated the process of rebuilding more than once, but the construction boom that had helped make him rich had given way to a bust, and portions of his property fell into foreclosure.

Today and Tomorrow

Mr. Box died suddenly of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 70. Hundreds of friends gathered at Lovers Lane Methodist Church in Dallas for his funeral, made all the more memorable by a eulogy delivered by football buddy Frank Gifford, and music performed by Kathie Lee Gifford.

As part of the Boxes’ divorce settlement, Mr. Box’s remaining interest in the ranch property transferred to his former wife when he died. Mrs. Box Carr owns approximately 32 acres, including the main house structure, several other houses and two barns. Sons Gary and Doug have returned to the property and occupy two of those houses.

Mr. Box’s rebuilding of the original house appears suspended in time, remaining exactly the same today as it was the day he died. Mrs. Box Carr says the property and the structure would lend themselves to a number of potential uses. “I think it’s a beautiful setting for a home and I would love to see it rebuilt,” she says. “I think it’s one of the few facilities in this area that’s so well-adapted to horse breeding, an operating ranch or a boarding ranch for horses. It could even be turned into a clubhouse for equestrian purposes.”

But plans for the Box Ranch, like the structure itself are “up in the air,” say both Mrs. Box Carr and son Doug. The property was recently listed with a Dallas Realtor, with an asking price of $2.75 million. “There’s probably going to be some kind of planned development there someday, and this piece of property might fit into an overall master plan of some kind, maybe as a country club, a health club or an entertainment or convention center,” Doug says.

And rebuilding a Box estate has not been ruled out completely. “There’s a lot of sentimentality and history there,” Doug adds. “And I know this because I live there now; Frisco is becoming more and more livable each day. It’s not a little town out in the boonies anymore.”

Lori Fairchild is a Collin County-based editor and writer, and former editor of Frisco STYLE Magazine.

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