Dallas Couple Makes Cautious Updates to Historically Significant Home

Original blueprints in hand, Mark and Kelly Bunting made sensitive updates to their 1920s-era Hal Thomson-designed house, transforming it for modern life.

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LEFT: A Wedgwood chandelier, original to the home, gives the solarium a taste of 1920s glam. The carved wood columns and ornamentation are the work of Peter Mansbendel, who collaborated with Hal Thomson on several grand projects in Highland Park. RIGHT: A limestone-floored gallery with signature Hal Thomson arched doorways occasionally becomes a skating lane. “I like a classic look with antiques and comfortable pieces that work,” Kelly Bunting says. “The kids aren’t careful, and I have to have things that can be beat up. Our kids rollerblade in here; they aren’t supposed to, but they do.”

Dallas loves Hal Thomson. Something about this Austin-born architect has captured our imagination and allowed his name to transcend the decades. He belongs to an era when Dallas, newly wealthy and expanding, could support significant residential architecture. The lavish lifestyles and the building boom, which started in the early 1900s and continued until the Great Depression, created demand for Thomson’s houses, which line Swiss Avenue and pop up in various styles around the Park Cities. They are as desirable today as they were when he was a must-have architect for the city’s oil and gas executives, bankers, and civic leaders of the teens and 1920s. When Mark and Kelly Bunting bought what was originally called the Ferris Mansion, they recognized not only the joys of owning one of these legendary Hal Thomson-designed manses but also appreciated the onus of maintaining an architecturally significant home.

Mark, the founder and chairman of SkyTV and CEO of Fotomage, Inc., Kelly, and their three children had lived two blocks down from their current address and had always admired the Mediterranean eclectic home. When it came up for sale, they wasted no time in snapping it up. Once in their possession, they began to wonder: How will we modernize it? “The vastness of the project was unknown to us when we signed on,” Mark says, laughing. “Fortunately passion is blind.” They had undertaken a large-scale renovation in their previous home, which, though spectacular, was not as historically noteworthy. “It also lacked the levels of detail and sophistication that we had in the new project,” he adds. “When you have a historically significant home with almost 100 years of local appreciation, you move cautiously.” 

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LEFT: The gallery was enlarged to create an uninterrupted view from the original stone fireplace to the back of the house, flanked by Peter Mansbendel-carved wood and light streaming in from the backyard. RIGHT: The three-sided wraparound library, which emulated Mansbendel’s woodworking details found in the original rooms of the house, was constructed and installed by Mark’s uncle, Steve Harvell, of E.S. Harvell Inc. in North Carolina.

One of the treasures of a Thomson house is the details. In lieu of any one particular style—Thomson, in fact, seemed to dabble in all of them: Tudor, Georgian, Neoclassical, Italianate, Spanish, and French—his signature is evident in the sophisticated details. In the case of the Buntings’ abode, features such as an Italianate loggia with stone balustrades, ornate carved wood doors, and magnificent stone fireplaces are his hallmarks. Many of the wood, cast stone, and leaded glass additions result from a collaboration between Thomson and a Swiss-born woodcarver named Peter Mansbendel. The Buntings took care to find period light switches, hand-cast period decorative tiles, and wood workers able to hand-carve and match Mansbendel’s craftsmanship. “The expansion of the original home from 9,000 square feet to 14,000 under the same 1920s detailing requires the sourcing of elements and materials, most of which are no longer available,” Mark says. Mark names his uncle, Steve Harvell, and cousin from the North Carolina-based specialty millwork company E.S. Harvell Inc. as the artisans most critical to the restoration. “That was a real job,” Harvell says, of the beams and additions to the foyer. “We were up in the air, trying to blend the wood and make everything look how it would have had it been there originally.” 

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LEFT: Kelly Bunting and son play with the family’s bichon frisé, Cotton. RIGHT: Mark Bunting and Cotton in the gallery. 

Despite the desire to stay true to the original design, the Buntings had their reasons for the restoration. “We wanted to create modern spaces and jazz up the house,” Mark says. In the front of the house, for example, they widened the patio, raised the roof, added additional cast stone around the entryway, adapted windows into French doors, and re-established the original side driveway that had since been covered. “We wanted to present the house in a grander fashion,” Mark says. They also cited a problem with flow from room to room. A common challenge with older homes is compartmentalization. To open up the downstairs, they devised a plan to tie the rooms together. By enlarging the existing loggia, they created an uninterrupted gallery from the front fireplace to the back of the house, flanked by backyard views and streams of light between silk drapes. The Buntings encouraged continuity by replicating the original arches and using limestone throughout the loggia that continues to the addition downstairs.

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The Buntings’ formal living room is a grand example of Hal Thomson at work: arched doorway, heavily carved French doors, dramatic coffered ceiling, and a view of the showstopping staircase beyond.

The most ambitious undertaking was a full excavation of the backyard, one that gave pause to neighbors during its construction. “We literally removed 21-plus feet of rock and soil—the entire backyard—dug a giant pit, and framed the backyard into an one oversized concrete box,” Mark says. “You can imagine the curiosity of the neighbors—most thought it was an Olympic high diving pool, multi-level underground garage, or Beverly Hillbillies styled ‘concrete pond.’” The result, a feat of engineering, is a 3,500-square-foot space that includes a great room, bar, guest area, home theater, and gym, all under soil, grass, and the pool. “Designing that effort and finding the architecturally correct way to connect it to the main house was one of our biggest obstacles,” Mark says.

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LEFT: The backyard was fully excavated and nearly 3,500 square feet of “tiered living area,” as Mark calls it, were added underground beneath the pool. RIGHT: A sunken patio with palm trees and Ancient Venetian tiles, which match with the house’s Mediterranean architectural heritage, descends below the ground.

Enter interior designer Myrl Talkington. The Buntings enlisted Talkington on their previous house, and after more than 12 years together, Kelly says, “we have a great collaboration.” Kelly, a self-described “fabric nut,” and Talkington with her sense of the dramatic, worked together on what Talkington calls “a dream job, but not without nightmares.” After seeing the house the first time, Talkington wondered if the couple realized how much work was required. “It was worthy of being kept, and I think everyone is glad that it is preserved,” she says. For inspiration, Talkington visited another gilded age address, Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. “The tiles, the windows, and the welcome you feel at the front door,” she says. “You feel the same feelings when you walk into their [the Buntings’] doors. It has so much new drama.”

Hal Thomson’s homes have what Dallas Times Herald writer David Hurlbut, in a 1983 article, described as “a distinct time-polished charm about them that makes it fun to imagine what Dallas must have been like when Woodrow Wilson was talking about the League of Nations.” While the Buntings’ home has that distinct charm and the pedigree of the Thomson and Mansbendel duo, there’s a certain energy and youth that the couple and their three children bring to the house. The limestone-floored gallery with signature Thomson arched doorways occasionally becomes a skating lane, and the vigor of nearby Armstrong Elementary soccer fields carries to the Buntings’ house. “In short, it is a fabulous house in our favorite neighborhood,” Mark says. “And we think perfect for our family.”

Glimpses of the Golden Age

Hal Thomson, 1882-1974, and Gatsby Era Architecture

Hal Thomson, the grandson of an early settler who came to Texas with Stephen F. Austin, attended both the University of Texas and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before moving to Dallas in 1907 to open his architecture firm, Thomson and Swaine. Thomson is known for working in a myriad of styles: Tudor, Georgian, Neoclassical, Italianate, Spanish, and French. As former Dallas Morning News architecture critic David Dillon once noted, “[He] traveled widely in Europe at the turn of the century and, judging from his houses, he never met a façade he didn’t like.” Thomson left his unique mark on Swiss Avenue, which includes the famed Aldredge House, and houses throughout Highland Park, particularly on Bordeaux Avenue, where Thomson’s own home is located. His wife, the daughter of prominent Dallas bank president, helped seal his status among Dallas’ elite, a set that included his many prominent clients.

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