BY O.K. CARTER

Looking very much like an upscale Italian villa – OK, maybe a church – Mansfield’s new Aristide Event and Conference Center stands out.

Particularly in Mansfield. And also because it’s part of the 90,000-square-foot Tuscan on Walnut Creek office complex, itself a tribute to Italian architecture. It is collectively, co-owner Larry Nix happily concedes, decidedly unTexanish. Deliberately so.

Developer and former Mansfield Councilman Nix and his partner, architect Gary Grossman, own both the office complex and the conference center. They wanted, Nix said, a business address so distinct visually that it wouldn’t need an address – which incidentally is 570 N. Walnut Creek, just off the Mansfield’s booming and evolving U.S. 287 business district.

“We wanted people to just say, ‘I office at the Tuscan,’ or ‘My wedding will be at Aristide’ and people would know what they’re talking about,” Nix said of the European-style enclave in the midst of suburban sprawl Mansfield. “I think it’s working.”

Nix stands outside the Aristide, all 15,000 square feet of it. It officially opened the last week of February, comfortably accommodating a combined after-hours mix of the Arlington and Mansfield chambers of commerce – roughly 800 people. Comfortably so. The center hosted its first wedding Sunday and there’s a growing schedule of almost 40 other events already on the future schedule.

“It looks like a go,” Nix said. “It’s been three years in the making and almost wasn’t.”

Almost wasn’t? The Aristide was not part of Nix and Grossman’s original office park concept when they began planning the Tuscan on 8.5 acres a few years ago. But one of their potential clients inquired about the possibility of including a conference center.

“As it turned out, he didn’t really have the financial resources to have his own conference center,” Nix said. “He decided to do without it. But by then both Gary and I had grown enamored of the idea, which we just couldn’t let go of even though we didn’t have an individual client. It just kept growing.”

So much so that the two eventually decided to build a “top tier” facility for weddings, parties, business meetings and civic functions for the Metroplex.

“Grossman got to do the fun part – actually go to Italy and take about two thousand photos of buildings he liked the looks of, finally settling on a modern version of an 18th century Italian church,” Nix said with a laugh. “He came back, we spread out the photos and started planning.”

Nix happily opens the doors of Aristide for a guided tour. It’s big, 13,000 square feet on the lower level, another 2,000 upstairs. The ballroom – complete with a soaring roofline and giant trusses – will seat 400 for a luncheon in an uncrowded way because the building is fire-code rated for 1,270 people. There’s a bar, a commercial kitchen and separate spaces for rehearsals or groom/bride spaces.

Strolling outside, Nix gestures at the evolving landscaping, a mix of multiple patios, gardens and water features and a covered loggia. The koi pond is almost ready for water. It all waits for spring temperatures and a bit of landscape greening.

But the outdoor centerpiece is an old, twisted oak with bizarre branches that curl up and then downward in a half circle. “As soon as we saw that tree we knew that it had to be preserved as part of the landscaping,” Nix said. “I don’t know what events have occurred in its life to shape it like that – maybe it’s one of those ‘As the twig is bent’ deals – but it’s a keeper.”

Nix said he thinks the outdoor space will also be popular for events with as many as 350 people. He’s encouraged with both the reception the Aristide had received so far and with a continuing barrage of curious residents dropping by.

“It (the Aristide) may have started its life as an afterthought but it’s now become the centerpiece for the Tuscan and something unique for Mansfield – really for the Metroplex,” Nix said. “I’m really pleased with it and I don’t think it’ll take long for people to realize what an interesting amenity it is.”

okcarter@bizpress.net