The Nichols family fishing at the pond on their property.

The world-renowned, 30-acre Cooper Aerobics Center is a beloved and familiar sight to those who live in Dallas, Texas. Located at 12100 Preston Road, at the very heart of bustling North Dallas, this beautiful, urban oasis features lush greenery, winding jogging tracks, sparkling ponds, towering pecan trees and colorful crepe myrtle trees that surround the property on two sides. 

But decades before Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper purchased the property in 1970, it was owned by the prominent young oil man C.A. Lester. In 1937, Lester built a white colonial mansion on top of a white rock hill for his wife, Florence, and their daughter, Patsy. The house overlooked cotton and cornfields just outside the city limits of Dallas. A deep artesian well and natural springs furnished the water supply while large butane tanks supplied fuel for the estate.

After Florence became terminally ill and passed, Lawrence Lee Nichols and Clarise Nichols acquired the property in 1941. They kept in mind Lester’s wish, to relinquish the home to someone who would appreciate it and build their life around it. We interviewed their eldest son, Larry Nichols, to learn more about the history of the property and what it was like growing up there in the 1940s and ‘50s.

How did the Nichols family come to acquire the property?

Larry: The story begins in about 1939 when my mom and dad married. They were living at the Stoneleigh Hotel when my mother became pregnant in 1940, which turned out to be me. So that’s when they started looking for a place. And the place they bought was 12100 Preston Road, the address we all know today as Cooper Aerobics Center.

They bought the property from an oil man who had built a stately, pillared house on the original 13-acre parcel of land. At the time, it was a farm on some desirable farmland.

My dad saw its potential and had a plan which began with the purchase of 154 crepe myrtle trees which he planted all the way around the periphery of Preston Road and Willow Lane. Eighty years later they’re still there. He spent $600 for all of them. I was about five years old at the time and had the duty of keeping the trees hoed and lawn mowed and looking nice. I worked with my dad a lot maintaining the property. By the time I was six, I was driving a tractor. It was a great place to grow up.

My dad also created two lakes and had dams, spillways and a bridge constructed out of concrete. The bridge featured textured concrete to give the appearance of petrified wood. Oh, and he stocked the ponds with channel catfish, bass and crappie which we often had for dinner. Our family frequently enjoyed fishing together.

The next part of my dad’s plan was to plant pecan trees even though the nurserymen discouraged him from doing so. The property has a shallow bedrock of limestone that impedes growth and prevents pecan trees from getting enough moisture. But my father loved pecan trees so he hired an expert and dynamited just enough to fracture the limestone so the water could penetrate and the roots had room to grow.

He planted 36 pecan trees of which 34 flourished. At the time they were planted they were already somewhere around 20 years old so the ones you see on the property now are about 100 years old. They bore a lot of pecans too. I used to gather them, scoop them into one-pound bags and sell them on the corner of the highway. I’d sell upwards of 100 bags.

The pecan trees were a great addition to the property. Dad also planted a peach, apple and pecan tree orchard in the back with peach, pear and apple trees and grew vegetables every year. He loved that land and loved working on it.

The Nichols estate, 1941.
The Nichols estate, 1941.

What structures were on the property when your parents bought it?

Larry: Well, the columned building facing Preston Road everybody’s familiar with was the original home on the estate. But was much smaller then. Initially it was just two bedrooms, a small kitchen and living area. The front entry was very much like it is today including the curved staircase. My dad kept updating the house to make it nicer, adding onto it three times as our family grew. He totally redid the outside, replacing rotting wooden columns in the front with substantial new concrete columns.

He also added a caretaker’s house in the back where a couple lived who helped us maintain the property and give my mom a hand with the house and cooking.

What was the surrounding area like back then?

Larry: We were in the country. When I was a kid, Preston Road was a two-lane highway that served as the main route going north to Oklahoma. There was no Central Expressway then. Preston Road was paved but Willow Lane, Forest Lane and all the other roads that crossed Preston were dirt roads. There was nothing around but fields of cotton and corn, a drug store and two filling stations with little rooms that sold some essential groceries and goods. The closest places to do serious shopping were Highland Park Village and Snider Plaza.

Bus service didn’t even come up that far. It stopped at Northwest Highway. My dad had a business downtown that I worked for part time. So, from the time I was seven or eight years old, to get home I would take the bus to Northwest Highway then hitchhike the rest of the way.

How did Dr. Cooper come to purchase the property?

Years after Lawrence passed of heart disease (1957), Clarice was invited to attend the Howard Butt’s Lay Leadership Conference at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, who was a young flight surgeon in the Air Force at the time, was the keynote speaker. The message Dr. Cooper brought to the crowd was one to be remembered but Clarice never thought she would cross his path again.

Larry: In 1969 or so my mom, who was then a widow, decided to sell. It was just her then (as my siblings and I had grown up and married) and she found the property too much to maintain, so she put it on the market. At the time, getting the best price would’ve meant selling to a multi-family developer of some type because by this time, the area was growing very fast. But the neighbors didn’t want high-density housing in the neighborhood and my mom wasn’t keen on seeing our beautiful property get leveled by bulldozers.

It’s about then that I believe the good Lord intervened. At the time my mother was needing to sell, approximately six weeks after my mother had attended the conference, Dr. Cooper was looking for property to buy. Now, Dr. Cooper was pretty new in practice at the time. I knew of him and the book he’d written about aerobics, of course, but it gave me a little concern that he was biting off more than he could chew. But it was Dr. Cooper my mother wanted to sell to, and she had absolute confidence in him. My mother loved him like a son.

Since selling the property to Dr. Cooper, mom prayed daily for her next 36 years that all who walked these “hallowed grounds” would be blessed in special ways.

Dr. Cooper made your mother a promise. What was it?

Larry: Dr. Cooper promised he’d preserve the land and wildlife and keep it intact—a promise he kept through all these years, 100%. He promised to keep the already built estate on the property and the emblem with my family’s initials on the chimney of the house. Since the very start, Dr. Cooper was like a member of our family.

The Nichols family initials on the chimney of the house.
The Nichols family initials on the chimney of the house.

“The emblem remains on the chimney of the house today and is a constant reminder of one man’s love for his home and for his family, and of another great man’s love, respect and sensitivity for tradition long past.” – Mrs. Clarice Nichols, 1990s

I’m over 80 years old now and I’m still enjoying the land. I love to walk around the track. I love to go down to the pond. I love seeing the pecan trees and crepe myrtles I used to help care for. It’s all so similar to the way things were when I was a child that it’s like going back in time.

I believe the good Lord held the property until Dr. Cooper could buy it and I’m just so thankful he did.

Dr. Cooper and Mrs. Nichols at the 30th anniversary gala, 2000.
Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper and Mrs. Clarice Nichols at the 30th anniversary Cooper Aerobics gala, 2000.