When Mark and Patty Langdale told designer John Phifer Marrs about the house they had just purchased, he couldn’t contain his surprise. “It was straight out of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” he says. Much like its movie counterpart, the Greek revival house with classic columns had belonged to just one family, passed down from generation to generation.
But this belle wasn’t destined for a tragic demise. The Langdales can’t say exactly why they became smitten, but somewhere in the search for a larger house, they decided that this decaying Southern estate could be a comfortable family home.
“This house wasn’t anything we really ever thought about,” says Patty. “It’s not like we dreamed of finding a Greek revival home. It was completely dilapidated, but we still fell in love with it.”
The Langdales and their two children had been in the house for an estate sale. Built in 1938, the former beauty’s age was showing, with generations of accumulated possessions hiding any architectural strengths. Looking more decrepit than elegant, they never considered living there.
The Langdales were outgrowing their house (where previous neighbors were George and Laura Bush) but wanted to stay in Preston Hollow. After weeks of house hunting to no avail, Mark suggested going back through the house where the estate sale had been.
“The house was empty when we saw it again, and you could see that it had pretty lines, that it could be restored to its former beauty,” says Patty. “The house was so run down, though, we weren’t sure we were up for the challenge. Nothing had been done to it since it was built. It didn’t have central heat or air, and the floors had buckled. But we couldn’t get this house out of our minds. Mark and I knew we had connected with it, and we decided to tackle the project.”
As fate and Preston Hollow real estate would have it, a developer had connected with it sooner. By the time the Langdales made up their minds, the house was already under contract. For sale by the grandson of the original owner, a clause in the contract stipulated that he didn’t want the house to be torn down. When the developer proved remodeling-shy and the house went back on the market, the Langdales made their move.
“I knew if we were lucky enough to have the house come around again,” says Patty, “it was meant to be.”
Although they had always admired classic Southern homes, the Langdales were self-professed neophytes to Greek revival architecture and a renovation of this magnitude. They set out on a journey, visiting plantation homes in Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans, taking pictures of the best ideas.
“We wanted to restore the home and add spaces that had the integrity of the rest of the house,” says Patty. “Our biggest fear was that the addition would look like it was just stuck on the back. So we went through the history of this style of house, what kind of spaces they would have built.”
As John points out, “There’s a fine line between getting a Disneyland Southern-style house and one that is done authentically.” Armed with pictures and ideas, the Langdales set out to find the right architect. They were discouraged when several architects presented designs for French country additions to their classic Southern home.
On the advice of a friend, they met with architect George Hopkins of New Orleans. “He had lived in and worked with this style of house his whole life,” says Patty. “It was extremely helpful having his expertise.”
Native Southerner and local interior designer Marrs had worked with the Langdales on their previous home and jumped at the chance to be involved in such a heart-felt project. “I love old houses,” says John, “and how many do you get to work on here in Dallas? Everyone builds a new home and tries to make it look old. But when you have the original structure and you can build on that idea, it’s a joy. You could tell a family had lived there for a long time; the house had a history.”
Acclaimed local landscape architect Naud Burnett completed the team, taking on the challenge of turning the overgrown lot into gardens and outdoor living spaces.
When possible, the team restored rather than replaced, from the unassuming front doors to the ironwork stair railing to the plaster walls of the living and dining rooms. George devised a plan for a new master bedroom and bath wing tucked into the side of the main living space. Retrofitting the house to meet current electrical and air-conditioning requirements was a challenge, but they worked hard to add these necessities without changing the character of the rooms.
Enlarging the small family room at the back of the house (and removing its 1950s dark paneling) made space for a new fireplace and a series of French doors overlooking the rear garden. The worn-out galley kitchen was gutted and enlarged. The original breakfast room with built-in hutch became Patty’s office.
Streamlining the maze of small upstairs rooms created bedroom and study spaces for son Paul and daughter Olivia. When considering guest accommodations, Mark and Patty recalled a favorite idea from their tour of Southern plantation homes, where garçonnières, or small, freestanding cottages, were often used. George designed an octagonal-shaped guesthouse, complete with bedroom, bath, and small kitchen, which was built next to the front courtyard.
When it came to decorating and furnishing the renovated spaces, creating gracious yet comfortable rooms was their priority. “We didn’t want it to be a museum or a period piece,” says John, “where you would have a velvet rope in front of each room. The goal was to keep the house young and appropriate for the family who was going to live there.”
As with true Southern belles, soft colors and understated accents kept the home elegant. “The house has color, but it doesn’t knock you over,” says John. “It’s like my grandmother’s idea of being well-dressed: you knew a person always looked nice, but you never remembered exactly what they had on. Your memory of them wasn’t the last big hat they were wearing.”
They choose a pale blue for the dining room, a cool complement to Patty’s silver collection. Patty’s office took on classic Southern charm with floral wallpaper and lace curtains. A soft yellow added warmth in the den, an obvious counterpoint to the previously dark, drab space. Olivia’s room became serene in a light shade of green, a color she helped select.
For the Langdales, restoring a faded Southern beauty gave them more than just a home; it gave them a sense of place and of a way of life. “For us, this was more interesting than building a new house,” says Patty. “Delving into its history was a mind-expanding project.”