Building a True Family Retreat: Inside a Belgian-Inspired Bellville Farmhouse
Jill Brown is a country girl at heart. “I grew up in Ohio on a family farm, and some of my fondest memories are plowing corn,” she says
Jill Brown is a country girl at heart. “I grew up in Ohio on a family farm, and some of my fondest memories are plowing corn,” she says. “I’d rather be in the country than anywhere else.”
So, at least twice a week, she heads to her farm in Bellville. Brown fell in love with the charming, historic town seven years ago while hunting for a rural house to buy and renovate.
The right one never materialized. Instead, she discovered six acres of bucolic woodlands and meadows for sale — the perfect land on which to build a family retreat.
“I wanted to build a modest family house where we could enjoy the outdoors and make lots of memories,” she says. Her grown sons and their families often join her there, tending a small kitchen garden that includes a blueberry patch planted so her young granddaughter can enjoy picking berries.
The house was designed by late Houston architect Reagan Miller of Reagan & André, who understood the simple and humble feel Brown was going for.
“He grew up on Iowa farmland, and we were on the same page from the get-go,” she says.
Old American farmhouses and barns built from wood inspired the architecture, but there’s also a distinct Belgian farmhouse influence, with arched windows and doors and exterior portions clad in painted brick. Brown lived in Belgium during the 1990s with her late husband, Foster Brown, where she first fell in love with the country’s rustic, handmade aesthetic.
She helped introduce Texas to Belgian style in 2001 with her namesake store Brown, which offers linen-covered furniture, tables made from antique oak beams, iron chandeliers, and large-scale accessories. The store, which had been temporarily closed due to COVID-19 and for remodeling, reopened late last fall as a new store concept, Brown House and Wares.
Brown’s country house is a relaxing place to kick back, but it’s also a productive place to work. A large ebonized Napoleon III table in the library serves as an ideal surface to spread out all her work papers and catalogs.
“It’s where I do everything, from sourcing products for the store to sorting through European orders and wires,” she says. “We even have our meals there. I love eating and entertaining surrounded by books. If people look at the titles on the shelves, they probably know more about me than I want to reveal.”
Tucked among books on travel, art, design, history, and philosophy are “small parts of our lives, like mom’s baby shoes and rocks that belonged to Foster’s grandfather,” she says. “Everything has meaning.”
The house may be less than a decade old, but many aged and beautifully patinated elements give it timeworn character, such as antique pine floors and antique Belgian iron windows. The kitchen countertops and laundry-room floor are made from slabs of old weathered bluestone from Belgium. Both bathrooms have handmade encaustic tiles reclaimed from an 1869 Belgian house.
“We intentionally tried to make the house look old,” Jill Brown says. “People always think it has been around a really long time. But it’s a house built from things collected over time — It’s very autobiographical.”
In Brown’s country house, everything comes with a story. “A lot of the furniture and art are family pieces,” she says. “Ohio is a hotbed for Americana, and my mother collected really good American folk art.
“I grew up with those things.”
She inherited part of her mother’s large collection of furniture and decorative items by Lew Hudnall, an Ohio folk artist from the mid-20th century who hand-painted charming country scenes and animals on furniture and toleware. He was a friend of Brown’s mother, who often brought him antique benches, chests, and chairs to decorate. At one time, she had amassed the largest collection of his work.
A pair of ornately carved Victorian sofas in the living room once belonged to her husband’s grandmother in Tennessee.
“They were a part of that family from the time I met Foster,” she says. “When his parents passed away, I took them and extended the legs, re-covered them, took some of the embellishment off the top.”
She placed them next to a pair of faded red crushed-velvet wing chairs she bought in Belgium and had seat cushions made from gently frayed fabric that belonged to his mother. Brown is passionate about fabric and pattern.
A handsome antique crewel fabric that hangs at a window in her bedroom was destined for the landfill when Brown discovered it 30 years ago in a trash pile in front of a Michigan estate belonging to founders of the Packard automobile company. She took the fabric home and turned it into draperies, which she’s used in many of her houses over the decades.
Interior designer David Brantley helped her source new fabrics and rugs.
“He would bring a big bag full of samples to dig through, and I would get so excited the night before we met that I couldn’t sleep,” Jill Brown says, laughing. Among Brantley’s finds is an embroidered Pollack fabric — a charming riff on a classic American alphabet sampler — which she used to cover the chairs around the library table.
The alphabet sampler holds a particular fascination for Brown, who is charmed by anything to do with didactics and schools.
“When I lived in Belgium, I’d do the markets very early looking for art,” she recalls. “I’d pull out folios of kids’ schoolwork and drawings — anything that is authentic and shows the work of a maker.”
She also discovered portraits by unknown or under-the-radar Belgian artists, many of which she’s hung throughout her country house. A bedroom for her sons — her favorite room in the house — is decorated with quirky portraits of men and boys collected from her time overseas as well as an oil painting of Foster’s great-grandfather, Roderick Random Butler.
Brown’s passion for uncommon, deep wall colors was reinforced further while she was living in Belgium, a country known for austere interiors awash in sumptuously brooding hues.
“In Brussels, I stumbled across Agnès Emery’s shop, and I still remember how my heart skipped a beat,” Brown says.
Painted in the rich “dark and toasty” colors Brown adores, Emery’s store sells hand-tinted paints and artisan tiles, fabrics and wallpapers. “Her colors are complex and beautiful , and it’s the chart I pull out most for projects,” Brown says.
In her country house, toasted ochre and deep-caramel walls embrace rooms and their cherished contents like a warm hug. Colors, fabrics, furnishings, and art all remind Brown of where she’s been and people she’s loved.
“We are building memories in this house,” she says. “I think about things like that when I hear my granddaughter’s feet in that attic room above. This is what life is about.”
Photography by Jack Thompson. Interiors Jill Brown and David Brantley. Architecture Reagan & Andre.